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The Debt of Our Youth and the Interest Rates of Our Future

Dead Reckoning for American Narcissism

by JASON HIRTHLER

Dead Reckoning—aside from being a good piece of Humphrey Bogart film noir—is the means by which ship captains and sailors have long calculated their position using a previous known position as a benchmark. It is only a matter of time before Millennials, our 24-35 year old generation, begin to reckon their place on the American landscape by contrasting it with that of their forebears. They’ll gaze at the latter with admiration, and at the former with mute stupefaction. How, they’ll ask, could things have gotten so bad so fast?

Whether they unearth an answer to that question—Googling neoliberalism is a good start—a Millennial meltdown may soon be upon us. Otherwise known as Generation Y, Millennials were born in the eighties or early nineties and are 80 million strong, making them the largest birth-based demographic in American history, according to Time. They are said to believe themselves infallible, special, and destined to fulfill whatever dreams they foresee as they zone out to Spotify on their iPhones. Delusions of grandeur on a generational scale, some say. Others say it’s the technology. Still others drily note that all young people are self-absorbed. Yet how strangely this generation seems to embody everything both seductive and disturbing about the American identity—a technical genius, a misplaced sense of exceptionalism, an artless optimism, and a corresponding incapacity to see harsh realities staring it in the face.

A recent study seems to have again confirmed what many have suspected. Namely, that after living through a repressive, patriarchal infancy courtesy of “The Greatest Generation”, Baby Boomers reversed course and raised a generation of self-admiring narcissists completely out of touch with the reality. Assistant Professor of Management at the University of New Hampshire, Paul Harvey, has lately found that Millennials have “unrealistic expectations and a strong resistance toward accepting negative feedback.” Naturally. What genius wants to be lectured by his lessers? Harvey adds that, “a great source of frustration for people with a strong sense of entitlement is unmet expectations.” Well, then, how uniquely suited Millennials are to present economic conditions. Harvey credits much of Millennials’ egotism to “overzealous self-esteem building exercises in their youth, that they are somehow special but often lack any real justification for this belief.” During Wimbledon this summer, automaker Kia unwittingly synthesized everything people despise about Millennials’ overblown self-regard. Could this big-budget drivel have peddled a single Optima, Sportage, or Credenza? Doubtful, but it will live on as a fossilized record of Western myopia as its imperial reign crumbled into ash.

A Lack of Political Curiosity

Aside from the narcissist label, Millennials are also said to exhibit a lack of political interest. UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute surveys have indicated a lower degree of political curiosity among Millennials than among Boomers or Generation X. One 2007 study reported that youth would rather act as personal assistants to mega-stars than Congressmen. (Was the former simply the moral choice?) Perhaps this particular phenomenon has confined itself to the American landscape, since Millennials were the key force multiplier of the Arab Spring, leveraging—as digital natives—nascent communication technologies in support of a swelling chorus of dissent that ultimately toppled the Mubarak regime. And yet, the boon is also the curse. They were able to unseat a long-lived dictator—no small feat—but in the jangling, discordant aftermath, they were badly outflanked by the Muslim Brotherhood in the race to assemble an electable alternative to Mubarak. As Uri Avnery noted, “These are the faults of a generation brought up on the ‘social media’, the immediacy of the Internet, the effortlessness of instant mass communication.” By contrast, the Brotherhood had, “all they (digital natives) themselves lacked: organisation, discipline, ideology, leadership, experience, cohesion.”

Something of the same blend of facility and fecklessness surely exists in America, where one lonely night in September the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street was celebrated on the vacant thoroughfares of downtown Manhattan. At least the NYPD made a formidable showing, happily cordoning off several blocks of the infamous street with barriers and even cavalry, while only scant Occupiers appeared—“all nine of them,” one police officer scoffed, more annoyed by having to erect barriers for nothing than by the movement’s lack of staying power.

The Truth About Job Growth

Into this milieu of slacktivism—in which our primary form of politicization is “liking” corporate social responsibility initiatives on Facebook—come the monthly jobs reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Like bleak missives ferried across the River Styx by an uncharitable Charon, the reports, on inspection, all sing the same tune:

1. Job creation is hardly keeping pace with inflation. This is never packed into the jobs headlines spread across the mediasphere. Instead, we find encouragement in numbers launched into a contextual void: 175,000, 158,000, 163,000. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Perhaps that is why almost everyone on the street seems think we’re out of the recession. And yet, less population growth, these numbers dwindle into the tens of thousands, based on speculative mathematical models.

2. The quality of the jobs being created is pathetic. Over the last six months, 97% of new jobs were part-time—a figure that lays plain the true character of our supposed recovery. We’ve outsourced or eliminated good, full-time, benefits-laden jobs with a future only to replace some of them with part-time, low-paid, benefits-free jobs with no future. This is why Democrats talk about “jobs” but never quality jobs or good jobs or desirable jobs.

3. Unemployment holds steady because so many people are giving up. Each quarter hundreds of thousands of workers become so dispirited by their bootless search for work that they simply quit looking. They surrender themselves to a dreamless subsistence, and to lives anchored in a steady, seemingly irreversible decline.

Poorer by Degrees

But there’s another feature of the jobs picture worth considering—the fact that few of these jobs require a college education. Yet even as the economy keels through the streets, on a finance-fueled bender, the business of academia surges ahead. That is, educating people on the promise of jobs that will never materialize. Hope springs infernal, and there’s always a fresh opportunity to immiserate oneself at the hands of a tweed-draped literary scion. Colleges are myriad, programs legion. College advertising is likewise ubiquitous. A recent subway ad showed a threadbare suitcase pasted over with travel stickers. The labels displayed the names of distant and mysterious lands, known only to degree-holding members of society. Destinations included, “Psychology,” “Finance,” “and “Technology.” The headline drove home the pun: “Go Places!” (Go places with our over-priced, under-staffed, and dubiously certified fly-by-night virtual college.)

This mythology is pitiable at best, a canard of the aspiring classes—namely that a degree—really any degree—is a path to sustainable if not to say gainful employment. Maybe that was the case at the dawn of the GI Bill, but not anymore. Now millions have them and more to the point, the jobs they once entrained are gone: exported, offshored, outsourced—use the euphemism of your choice. Just look at the subway crowd beneath the hyperventilating signage: a kaleidoscope of blue-collar shift-workers. They sweep, mop, vacuum, spray, and wipe down the marble facades of our neoliberal Modernia. They swipe cards, make change, bag junk, and print receipts. They are the face of the service industry—the heart of the phantom recovery President Obama lauds on the hour. And not only has manufacturing fled, but production design and other knowledge-based jobs associated with it have followed.

Thus Generation Z, the generation trailing just behind the Yers, is headed for a similar fate. As the Los Angeles Times reports, new college graduates are taking jobs that require no higher education. They are bartending and cabbing their way into adulthood. As are many of their career-changing elders. It reminds me of taxis I’ve taken in developing economies. Invariably, you fall into a conversation with your driver, who unfurls for you his tale of woe—an economist sacked by neoliberal market mechanics, an engineer with three kids ferrying privileged gringos across the transit zones of Sao Paulo to some hardscrabble hipster bar. Now this reality, the overeducated and underpaid family man schlepping for sustenance, has come home to the States. Vladimir Putin said it was dangerous to think of oneself as exceptional. He was right in more ways than he knew.

As Paul Craig Roberts has expertly detailed in his book The Failure of Laissez-Faire Capitalism, some 16 million graduates will have sprung forth from America’s degree factories between 2007 and 2017. He writes off eight million of them to the likelihood that half are natives of other countries who might, just might, return home to join their own blighted economies. That leaves eight million bachelor-bearing optimists trolling our urban pavements. Quickly consulting the fatidic BLS reports, Roberts found that the wheezing American economy will produce a shade more than a million jobs during that period that require a degree. Which leaves eight recent grads to wrestle for every one new job worthy of their academic efforts and even remotely likely to help them pay down the debt burden already sagging their untested shoulders. (And those eight don’t include the other 25.8 million working-age adults who are either unemployed, underemployed, or staring vacantly from the economic sidelines. To reach this number, simply compile several BLS euphemisms: the “unemployed”, the “marginally attached”, the “discouraged”, and “involuntary” part-timers.)

Signs of the Times

Thanks to the unfaltering optimism of youth and the industry that manipulates it, college debt has finally passed credit card debt. A trillion and counting. Often those who bear the education invoice in one hand, hold a credit card bill in the other. Sadly, Millennials have been poorly equipped to confront emerging realities. They are optimists living out a societal tragedy; they feel entitled at a moment when their privileges are being rudely discarded; they are digital wizards at a time of vanishing prosperity. Yet all these social phenomena are converging: the heady optimism of entitled naïfs, the mountain of feckless mortar boards, piled high like a landfill of discarded dreams, a swelling slick of unpaid invoices, and a sputtering economy picked clean by the vultures of capitalism. (Not to mention the deteriorating prospects of the long-graduated, or never-graduated.) One has to hope that, as facts and fantasies converge, Millennials and their younger ilk will turn with something like Egyptian force to the media they know best. That they will help shout down, once and for all, the listing scaffolding of neoliberal economics. Rip down its sterile ethos of trickle-down prosperity, its Randian celebration of human selfishness, and its propensity to horde while others merely subsist. The reckoning could be revival. We’ll soon see.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.