Sunday, October 9, 2011

A member of generation snowflake on the "occupy" protests

Interesting column from Washington Post writer Alexandra Petri, describing her generation's experiences and how they connect to the "occupy" protests. Here's some flava:

“I did everything i was supposed to do: went to college, got good grades, participated in sports and clubs, graduated on time. 3 years later I have nothing to show for it,” complains one person on the movement’s Tumblr – WeAreThe99Percent — referring to the 1 percent who get everything.”.

“Everyone said when I was growing up that if I worked hard + was a good person that I could be anything I wanted to be…. Well I’ve worked hard + I think I’ve been a good person and I didn’t want to be… the 99 percent,” writes another.

This is not our fault.

Growing up, we were told: you are unique. You are special. You are brilliant. You must follow your dreams. Go to school, get a degree, pursue what you love.

Four years later, look at us. Mired in debt. Jobless – with no prospects. This is not what it said on the motivational poster.

Is it our generation’s fault that sixty-three percent of employers say recent college graduates don’t have the skills we need to succeed in the workforce? Is it our fault that study after study suggests that it’s not the fact that you attended college but the fact that you were accepted in the first place that is most predictive of your future success? Is it our fault that college is a bankrupting credential that imparts little additional value?

We did what we were told to do.

Now we need someone to tell us what to do next. . . .

If you’re looking for a coherent message, you’re like many of the people standing in Liberty Plaza on Thursday as night falls. They aren’t there to take a stand. They are there to see if people are planning to take a stand later. They wouldn’t want to miss that.

“I came down to see if they’re serious. I don’t get that vibe yet,” Brandon Coward, a twenty-something who recently moved to New York tells me. “It hasn’t found its base. I don’t know if it ever will.”

It’s a large tent. To call it Babel might be charitable. . . .

I talk to a recent college graduate, Walter, dressed in 1940s garb. He isn’t into non-violent protests, he says. But this one seems to be making headway. That’s the point, says Walter. “Getting the word out.”

What word?

“That this is happening.”

“This whole park is just a big discussion basically,” Andon Zebao, the dreadlocked director of operations for the nonprofit New Forest Earth, tells me. “It’s about getting together a bunch of people who realize that there’s a problem and trying to figure out what the solution is.”

Easier said than done. The protesters I talk to agree on three things. They are not sure what the point is yet, but would like to find out. The system is broken. And the media, they feel, are ignoring them. It’s pretty big for a molehill. But is it a mountain yet?

Like many of the professorial generations(s), I suspect, I'm both encouraged by and skeptical of these protests. It sounds like many of the protesters are finally learning to think, plan, schedule, organize, etc. on their own. But I can't help wishing that they'd learned a few more of these skills before college, in scouting, or by making dinner for the family after letting themselves in with the latch keys that were such a supposed badge of shame in the '70s, or just by organizing more of their own studying/homework/extracurricular/laundry/food/transportation lives. Then they might have been a little more open to learning that critical thinking we were all talking about in the thread below in college (rather than fixating on getting the right answer in the quickest possible way), and they'd be in a position to actually take on the sorts of real-life problem-solving they now find themselves facing: not only finding a solution, but finding a way to describe the problem.

To some extent, they're now doing in the public parks of the United States what they should have been doing in college, which isn't an entirely bad thing; it beats not doing it at all. Still, I can't help agreeing that the older generation (their parents, and also we, their professors) let them down, in not refusing at some point to tell them what to do, and making them think on their own earlier and more deeply. On a more hopeful note, I'm sure that they're also using some of the skills we taught them. Petri is a good example of that (albeit from the luckier, employed, side): she moves effectively between larger points and specific evidence, plays effectively with the mountain/molehill proverb, and works in a nicely-phrased, appropriate Biblical allusion.

I'd be curious to hear what others think of the protests, and/or how much you've heard your students talking about them. My (mostly rather practical-minded) students seem a bit skeptical, and I was certainly glad that none of them apparently heeded the call that one said he'd received on twitter: to skip classes as a way of rejecting "the corporate machine" (or something like that). While I sometimes worry that my university is in danger of becoming an arm of corporate America, I don't think we're there yet, and I do worry that more privileged unemployed college graduates, many of whom will probably slide silently and fairly comfortably back into corporate jobs in a year or three when the economy improves, might lure my university's generally less-privileged students away from doing what they need to to acquire a much-maligned credential that they're still going to need to compete with their more-privileged peers. The college diploma may not stand for everything it once did -- and, I'm enough of an optimist to hope, may stand for again -- but it's not yet a piece of worthless "corporate" paper either.


  1. I think this is particularly telling: "Now we need someone to tell us what to do next..."

    That's a big problem. This is someone who has a four year degree and has been out for three years. Yet she needs someone to tell her what to do.

    Part of growing up is knowing what to do. It takes awhile, sure, but that's troubling.

    But on the other hand, I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels isolated and helpless when it comes to the unfair nature of capitalism and the way our system of democracy works in the first place (my bad for excluding our non-American readership).

    So Occupy Wall Street and it's nation-wide subsidiaries make me hopeful at least. Starting with the Madison protests earlier this year, and extending into the winter, we'll see if there is anything to this new movement, and if it can get organized into a coherent message.

  2. What exactly does she expect to have to "show" for her efforts a mere three years out of college? Those first few years out of college are hard for everyone. You're paying your dues, getting experience, and figuring out where you really want to go with your career. Her comments support what most of my friends in business fields have to say about young workers in their twenties: they think they are super-special, they crave constant praise, and they want to be treated as equals with people of vastly more experience than they.

    I'm not critiquing the Occupy message; in fact, I support their efforts and am deeply disturbed by the injustices perpetuated by our system of capitalism. It's just that without more specific detail about her personal circumstance, she seems to be saying what any grad might be saying three years out of college, regardless of the state of the economy.

  3. @Surly Temple

    Student loan debt....that is what's crushing these people more than anything else. Having 20, 20, 40, 50, 100 thousand in debt is no picnic. Many of these people are scared shitless, and I don't blame them.

  4. I get the debt and the fear, though they are not the first people on earth to have student loan debt in a bad economy. I think I'm just turned off by the narcissism expressed by some of the interviewees. "We were told we were brilliant! Where's our reward for working hard!?"
    Sheesh. I sympathize with them, but a LOT of people are suffering right now, and the economic downturn was not an injustice inflicted only on them. Hell, it was inflicted on all of us by narcissistic assholes who were told they were brilliant, so it didn't occur to them that they didn't F*#king understand the economic forces they were trying to manipulate.

  5. I do think there's a narcissistic strain: they'd all, essentially, been told they were the 1%, the "special" ones, and they're finally in the process of realizing that if everybody's special, then nobody's special. So now they're embracing being the 99%. At its worst, that's a victim mentality, but I do get the sense that, at their best, the "occupy" gatherings might be the beginning of a conversation about how to get past the narcissism and build real, more just, community. Apparently they haven't been completely brainwashed, or some combination of the natural process of maturing and rebelling against the values with which you were raised and the shock of the crashing economy has led them to question some of the self-esteem/you're special message with which they grew up. Of course, they'd probably be horrified with what they'd get if all of the world's resources were, in fact, allotted evenly among all the residents of the globe. But so would I. I hope I'd adjust, but it would definitely be an adjustment.

  6. "I fell asleep 1/2 way through this post."


  7. I'm starting my own movement, Occupy University.

    Is it our fault the professors try to talk while we are texting? Is it our fault the university can't recognize our brilliance? Is it our fault our moms are not here to wash our clothes so we don't smell like nachos and too much AXE body spray?

  8. None of my students seemed even aware of "occupy" protests... I had to tell the what they were this week... I felt very old doing so.

  9. Everyone said when I was growing up that if I worked hard + was a good person that I could be anything I wanted to be ... Growing up, we were told: you are unique. You are special. You are brilliant. You must follow your dreams. Go to school, get a degree, pursue what you love. No one ever told me that when I was applying to colleges. They all said to be sure to get a degree in something at which you can make a living, even if it's not your "dream" career, but at least find something you can tolerate and then follow your dreams in your spare time. I stupidly ignored them but fortunately it wasn't too late to learn a marketable skill and have a second career. There was nothing stopping me from going to a respectable state school, getting an MBA, and working in finance 60+ hours a week until I had paid my dues and was earning piles of money. I chose not to do that, but nothing prevented me from doing so.

    I do agree that the dire economy and poor job market and the crippling and outrageous student loans are not the fault of that generation, but it does take a lot of hustling to find gainful employment, and doubly so in a poor economy, so there's no two ways around it. It's not that I don't sympathize; just not sure if there's any way out but through.


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