Thursday, October 29, 2009

Blaming the Individual

for institutional excess:
never have so many members of the nation’s younger generations been so dependent on their parents and grandparents. Should parents set limits, or is this transfer of wealth a social and economic necessity in the long jobless recession? How has this growing dependence changed the country?
Although the various answers to this question are interesting, it's the wrong question. The QUESTION is, 'how has the country's economy created this growing dependence?'

To anyone who entered the job market during a recession, the answer ought to be obvious--while the costs of education, healthcare and housing have skyrocketed since our parents graduated from college, the number of living-wage jobs has plummeted. There is no longer any sane ratio between the price of a college degree and the salary that degree earns you; ditto between the price of a house and the average wage. And I don't even need to talk about health insurance.

The other thing that rarely gets mentioned is that the economy itself is changing so fast that it is impossible to plan a 'career trajectory' that will still make sense five years from now, let alone through 'retirement' (which, for most of our generation, is a fiscal impossibility anyway.) No sooner do you learn one technology, skill or profession than 1) the technology becomes obsolete, 2) your job is outsourced to India, or 3) the industry collapses. Thus, any successful 'career' in this millennium requires an enormous amount of adaptability.

Fostering adaptability is, in itself, not a bad thing (we could all take a lesson from rural China in that respect), but in our certification-happy society, all of us end up further in debt while financing our own retraining. Insecurity generates predation, in the form of absurdly expensive, worthless community college degrees, MFA programs, and arcane graduate degrees. By the time we've attained our certification in holistic health counseling, or DreamWeaver, or Windows OS, the world has moved on to Linux and hypnotherapy.

The fact is, that education, healthcare and real estate are no longer subject to rational market pressures. All three industries have become so enormous, pervasive and mythologized that they are draining us dry, with few 'opt-out' possibilities.

So, New York Times editorial board, give 'dependent' 20- and 30- and 40-somethings a break. We've been sold a bunch of bills of goods, and we have little choice but to sell more bills ourselves, or to curl into a fetal position and give up.


Leisa said...

Hear, hear. 30-something, bachelor's degree and half a master's (that I dropped out of after realizing it wouldn't get me anywhere) and I currently work at a job that pays less than my lowest-paying job, 15 years ago. Too much competition for too few good opportunities, despite intelligence, a good resume, blah, blah.

My roommate who is 10 years younger than me just glumly told me the other day that she felt naive and cheated about what her college education would get her. I tried to reassure her that it was collective, not just her.

Anonymous said...

When times are tough, I like to remind myself of a few mistakes that I didn't make. Didn't spend thousands of dollars on a useless Masters degree. Sure, I'm self/under/un-employed with an undergraduate degree from a very respected university, but I bet I would feel worse with a graduate degree.

That story about the woman who sued her 2-year college because she didn't get a job after graduating was pretty funny. I sympathize in general, but her particulars don't make her the best test case. First of all, she's only been job-hunting for 3 months. Second, she has a 2.75 GPA and one of her complaints is that the school's career counselors spend all their energy on the grads with higher GPAs and that somehow that is unfair. I'm all for spreading the responsibility fairly, but one has to take SOME personal responsibility.

It is humbling to be among the first large group in quite a while to go downwards in economic status from our parents' generation. But it is less humbling that it's not just me.


Pretty Lady said...

I agree that the woman who sued her college is clearly not going anywhere, regardless of how much help she gets from career counseling, but--Monroe College charged her SEVENTY THOUSAND DOLLARS for a two-year community college degree that left her just as illiterate as when they sucked her in to their scam. SEVENTY THOUSAND DOLLARS.

So she's an idiot, but how many of us are similar idiots? We still fall back on the notion that Education Is Always Good, that it's the way to get ahead, that it's an investment in our futures. And institutions like Monroe College and SFAI and CIIS and thousands more are taking advantage of this deeply programmed notion to suck us dry and spit us out, contacting us only to ask for more money.

Oh, and Leisa, I can relate--my most recent job paid less than half of what I made 10 years ago. Then they fired me for being uppity.

Anonymous said...

Yes, $70 grand for an AA degree is outrageous. There ought to be a law against that. It's true that we all fall somewhere along the idiot scale and sometimes the only thing that makes me feel better is to notice the people farther over toward SUPER IDIOT. But of course they are the ones who are most in need of protection from the scam-artist diploma mills.


Unknown said...

From a concerned's very baffling to try to decide on a course of action when everything seems to be deteriorating underfoot. Pressure from parents and/or well-established adults to complete the assumed trajectory of college-career can be very frustrating and daunting when they don't take into account the topsy-turvy job market or truly consider the benefits of plunging into debt before you've earned a penny. I'm in college now for my bachelor's degree, and I'm terrified. I wonder everyday if I'm doing the right thing by going to school-- and that just doesn't seem right to me. Indeed-- they are asking the wrong question. Why not ask why there are many bright, talented, hardworking young people out there that are corralled into a windowless room of debt and uncertainty, with no opportunities to put their talent to good use?

Pretty Lady said...

Cassie--I think your concern is exceedingly sane.

I am of the opinion, shared by William Irwin Thompson, that people should NOT go to college directly out of high school. Instead they should travel, learn a trade, volunteer, or work any crappy job they can get. When you've got some idea of who you are, what the world is like, and what you want out of life (or what you DON'T want--a large part of this is process of elimination), THEN you go to college, assuming you want to do something that requires a degree.

(You can get the content of a liberal arts degree by reading and studying languages. You can get the content of an art degree by going to museums and renting a studio. You can get the content of a computer science degree by messing with computers around the clock for a couple of years. You can get the content of a business degree by going to your local chamber of commerce, downloading some free info packets and starting a business yourself.)

(To be an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer pretty much requires college, however.)

People who do this are focused, motivated, and not likely to put up with any BS on the part of their educational institutions. You MUST be an informed consumer when picking a college. Talk with alumni, talk with professors, talk with people currently working in your field of study. Figure out if the ratio of debt to likely future salary is manageable.

Also, if you take on a high-debt degree such as law or medicine, be DAMN SURE you really want to be a doctor or a lawyer. By the time you get out of school, your debt load will be so high that you will basically be an indentured servant. I have a relative who is a doctor, and whose student loan debt dwarfs her mortgage. She CANNOT change her mind.

Whatever you do, DON'T go deeply into debt for an English degree, an anthropology degree, an art history degree, a history degree, a philosophy degree (unless you REALLY want to be a philosophy professor, and nothing else), a Women's Studies degree, a social work degree, a comparative religions get the picture? This stuff may be fascinating, but you can do all of it without paying anybody, and nobody is ever going to pay YOU for it.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with PL. DIY is the way to go. I'm all for self-education and if you live anywhere near a college, there are always events you can go to as part of the community. And if you want more structure, now it's even easier to get the same syllabi, readings and lectures that the students in universities are learning. I was just reading about this new effort to put a lot of content online for free.


And if you want a discussion or critique group, put a notice on craigslist.

Of course an undergrad degree is like what a high school diploma used to be; you probably need one to get a job as a file clerk. But that MA is like extremely expensive toilet paper.


Unknown said...

Thank you very much for your response(s). I'm starting to rethink this whole college thing :)