The recession and young adults

As “Not Quite Adults” wraps up, I’ve been working on a new book with Maria Kefalas and her husband Pat Carr–what we’re calling Generation-R (for recession). (Actually we’re blatantly ripping off Steve Greenhouse on the “Gen-R” name.)  They and a team of sociologists are interviewing young people from the Philadelphia area (see more about the project here) about their lives. We’re curious how a recession as deep as this one is altering their plans, their hopes, their beliefs. More critically, we’re wondering, is this a turning point for the country, captured in a generation?

Although we’re just getting into the project, we’re already seeing some amazing shifts–and some more predictable stories as well. I always love reading transcripts. It’s like reading a novel– you begin to quickly form an image of this person you never met, and with enough transcripts under your belt, you also begin to piece together an impression of a generation.

The picture of a generation that emerges from projects like this is, to me, a canary in the coal mine of history. If you look carefully, you will see where the country is heading and also where we’ve been. Rex and I were talking about this topic Saturday as we took a break from our holiday shopping. Over a bowl of clam chowder and a glass of wine, with the first snow falling outside, we talked about how different he is from his oldest brother, who turned 70 this year. His brother was born when Truman was in office, and grew up amid thick conventionalism. Rex, in turn, was born in 1950 and came of age amid the swirl and confusion of the 1960s. The two brothers are night and day in their outlook on life, and it’s not hard to see why. Of course there’s always that quirky mess of genes and biology that alters our worldview as well, but the moment when biography meets history is duly transforming.

I was struck by this generational “marking” again when listening to an interview with Bruce Springsteen on NPR about his seminal album, “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”  The album, he said, captured the turning point we as a nation–and as a generation–were facing  in 1977-78. We were then (as now) at the tail end of a severe recession. We were just emerging from the turmoil and questioning the Vietnam War had wrought. Crime was at an all-time high in cities. The country was in a deep malaise. It was, he said, an end of innocence. Look no farther than music and film of the day, from the rise of punk-rock to Taxi Driver and Chinatown. That era was when my own generation came of age, ushering in the decades of detached irony and cynicism.

In many respects, we’re now at a similar turning point. In the interviews I’m reading, I’m hearing the echos of another childlike loss. This time, however, we’re awaking from an age of make-believe: Make-believe that I can afford that Coach bag or Rolex. Make-believe I can afford the $500,000 home. Make-believe that I can make coast on a credit card. Make-believe that college is worth it. Make-believe that class and status do not hem us in and shape our destinies.

We are all waking up to a sudden new reality, and young adults are the ones forced to, as they say, make lemonade. At our county fairs when I was growing up, the highlight was always the dunking booth. A big-wig in town would take his seat on the metal bench above a tub of water, and the “little guys” would get to throw a softball at the target, which when hit would trip the seat, sending the big-wig into the bucket of water. The look of utter astonishment at hitting the water–even though the surprise was hardly, well, surprising–never ceased to delight. It is the same stunned astonishment that I hear in the stories of young people.

The roles have been reversed, but the surprise is still the same. Young adults–particularly those from middle-class families–have been dunked by fat cats on Wall Street, and they’re popping up, soaked to the bone, momentarily laughing at themselves perhaps, while not quite sure what just happened, …yet.

Two things are dawning on them so far. First, the future is no longer as carefree as it once was. As one young woman said, “the future is a little more dimmer now…. I’m thinking more of how am I going to do it, not that I am going to do it….When I was younger and before the recession, it was like it is going to happen. Now it’s, Is it going to happen?”

A second realization for those in the middle and lower-middle-class is that meritocracy is a ruse. One lower-middle-class young woman, who had once believed that if you work hard, you’ll succeed, is having second thoughts as she sees coveted internships handed out to those with lower grades but the right connections–often parental connections. Instead of heading to an internship to hone her resume, she is working in a car dealership as a receptionist. That burns, she says.

This “cultural capital” –the networks and insights and insider understanding that elite families have– is cropping up a lot in the interviews as a key advantage that “some kids” have.  But this time with a subtle shift.  The  notion of cultural capital has always been with us, and widely acknowledged. Even in my fairly humble family background, the mantra was always, “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” But it was said with optimism. What might be changing is the shrinking size of the group that sees that mantra with optimism versus cynicism.

In families of modest yet still comfortable means, “it’s who you know” is offered with the belief that they, too, can meet the right people, that they’re just one step away from being invited into those circles. It’s the belief in the American way, the level playing field, the equal opportunity. Or as my sister-in-law said when I asked her whether it wasn’t bothersome that 1% of the country holds 25% of the nation’s capital (yes, I was skating into dangerous territory for a Thanksgiving dinner)–“no, that’s America. You can become one of that 1%.”

Yet the middle-class kids are now beginning to turn that narrative around. They’re joining the group lower down the rung in a brutally honest assessment of how things work in the world. It’s dawning on them that perhaps it’s no longer possible to join the club. Perhaps that’s also why they staunchly believe in the Ivy League, even if it means going into deep debt. They have absorbed, often unknowingly, the realization that that extra boost of an Ivy League education on your resume lands you, at least on paper, in the club.

It’s far too early to tell if this is a turning point or just the musings of a handful of young adults. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in future interviews. But it does seem that all the elements are there for another turning point, with darkness once again lurking at the edge of town.

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2 responses to “The recession and young adults

  1. Hi Anders–thanks for writing in. You’re not alone in your story. We heard a version of this many, many times. There’s so many young people who are trying to get started, but are spinning their wheels, and it’s not because (as the media suggests) you’re lazy or coddled. It’s because of the very things you mention: jobs are tight, they’re not secure, they don’t pay well, the cost of living is high, things like a broken down car (or slashed tires) set you back even further. That bill then goes on the credit card, and maybe you even miss work once too often because of car trouble, and then as a consequence get fired. So you’re digging a hole pretty quickly. I wish there was a silver bullet for you. All I can say is to retrain–invest in yourself. Maybe consider moving back home with your folks for awhile if you can. Think about what it is you like doing, and then see what kind of training leads to a job that involves those aspects that you love. Talk to counselors at the local community college. They can maybe show you some paths to better jobs. (and don’t fall for the line that some private for-profit schools will try to sell you. Stick to the community colleges). It’s tough out there–just know you’re not alone.

  2. I am living in Southern CA, where even $10 per hour jobs are difficult to get. My small apartment costs $1250 per month, and there is nothing cheaper available. It does not even come with a garage or parking space! Many times there has been no place to park, which means a long hike for me. Parking at night in the neigborhood outside will result in your car being towed. I parked further away, but one of the neigbors found out I was from the apartments (probably seeing me walking far in that direction several times, and seeing that my car was in bad condition) and someone slashed my tires! Middle class people do not realize the many types of problems that lower income people in apartments must endure! It costs an extra $200 per month if I do not sign a 12 month lease.

    Sometimes I do not know how I can gather enough money to pay rent. I have tried looking for room to rent, but have been unable to find anything that was affordable, not overcrowded or filthy. There seemed to be much competition between potential renters for anything that became available.

    I did research, and someone would have to move at least 400 miles away to find anything affordable where any job opportunities exist. Even the bad neighborhoods with burglaries, gang shootings, and failed schools (where most residents cannot speak english well) are not affordable to live in.

    I do not know how I will ever be able to buy a house. There are no construction jobs. I even searched for window-washing, gardening and strawberry field jobs- NOTHING was available!

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