Sunday, May 13, 2012

Quarter-life Crisis

Stephen Marche first wrote an article called "The War Against Youth" in Esquire magazine about a month and a half ago, and it has ignited a tremendous amount of discussion since then. The basic premise of the article is that present-day America is now characterized by a "gerontocracy" of the older generation in power, who is crafting social policies that harm the young, especially people of my own generation. Marche cites a lot of different statistics, but he especially talks about how the gap in the wealth and net worth of younger and older Americans has skyrocketed in recent years. He also mentions that, while higher education is more necessary than ever, its ever-increasing cost has made it more out of reach than ever. This has resulted in more and more people around my age (I feel like the article addresses anyone between the ages of about 18 and 30) being unable to support themselves financially and unable to find work, all while "many claim that the young deserve their fate," according to Marche.

One of the statistics I found most interesting in this piece is about the exponential rise in the trend of expecting young people to render free labor through the ubiquitious unpaid "internship." Marche talks about how doing unpaid internships, which was virtually unheard of in the 1980s, has now become so common that young people often have no choice but to participate in them if they want to acquire any experience at all. Perhaps the most shocking information about this? Companies save about $2 billion dollars a year on this form of unpaid employment. This weighs in to part of the article's argument that our culture has become accustomed to expecting young people to work without pay--something which would never be expected of the older generations.

Marche's article doesn't mention the term, but what he is really talking about is what has been dubbed the "quarter-life crisis"--that period in the twenties to early thirties when young people are trying to become financially independent, gain the education they need, and establish their career prospects in a severely faltering economy. As a result, they are often unable to find work, forced to move home with their families, and compelled to put their adult lives on hold while they try to find their footing in a world that has become increasingly hostile to their interests. These struggles can, in turn, lead to depression, confusion, and indecisiveness in young people.

Marche's theory is that the "war on youth" is very systematic and methodological, and that older generations are actively seeking to disenfranchise the young and strip them of their power. This is where I disagree--I think that the issues confronting my generation are not intended by any one group, but are instead the results of economic policies that simply can't be sustained, along with a world that's changing so fast that education hasn't been able to keep up with it. For example, as he discusses, higher education has never been more important to stable employment than it is now, but it's also never been more expensive. Yes, some people can do very well without college degrees and beyond, especially if they are entrepreneurs, but this has become the exception, not the rule. College has now become almost as necessary as high school used to be in past generations--it's basically just an expected next step, and for most people, it's crucial. But yet the cost of education has spiked more than ever in recent years, even more than the rate of inflation. I don't think this is the result of policies of a "gerontocracy" aimed to harm my generation though--I think it's the inevitable result of a lagging economy.

We also live in a society where, in 10 years, there will be so many different kinds of jobs that don't even exist now. But I think that our system of education and employment hasn't yet caught up with all the structural changes taking place as technology revolutionizes the world we live in. For one thing, the sheer amount of job choices that exist nowadays can be so overwhelming that people have no idea of what to do. For example, research suggests that people are more likely to actually make a choice when they have 6 options versus 30 options--this is small-scale version of the indecision that can plague a generation faced with a staggering number of career choices. Also, 50 years ago, higher education was geared very specifically toward specific careers--law, medicine, etc. When people graduated, they knew exactly how to use their degrees to match a career. Now, colleges across the country offer more and more programs that are meant to be applied to any number of careers. Not that they aren't valuable; I studied liberal arts myself and think these educational paths are legitimate and important. However, the lack of specificity leaves a lot of graduates floundering and wondering, "Just what, exactly, are my marketable skills?" As education has tried to broaden its reach, young people have become more easily overwhelmed by choices and unsure of where to turn, especially in a crippled economy. Is this the fault of the older generations? Probably not. And, more importantly, it will take the various generations working together to solve some of these societal issues.

No comments:

Post a Comment

What do you think?