Occupy Wall Street's Age Divide
I am a baby boomer. Like many people my age, I have a high-paying and generally pleasant job, which features excellent benefits and a flexible work schedule. I’m also one of those people who, not long ago, would have dismissed the Occupy Wall Street protesters as just another bunch of spoiled kids, indulging in political street theater, while lacking any serious and constructive agenda. (Those people seem to include almost all of the mainstream media, which until a few days ago limited their coverage of the protesters to mocking their clothes and music. Predictably, time has transformed many boomers into their own parents.)
I am, in other words, part of what could be called the Clueless Generation. The Clueless Generation is made up of middle-aged, professionally successful people, who grew up in a nation that featured a mostly thriving economy, low-cost higher education, and some minimal commitment to economic justice. As a consequence, we graduated from school with little or no debt, got good jobs that featured real possibilities for advancement, and have on the whole ended up doing very well for ourselves.
A lot of us have also become insufferably smug and complacent. Over the past year I was lucky enough to be jolted out of my own smugness and complacency by a series of painful encounters with recent law-school graduates. I began to investigate the question of how many law graduates were getting jobs as lawyers, and discovered that a shocking percentage—more than half—were not.
Since I went to law school in the 1980s, the cost of legal education has quadrupled in real terms, thereby ensuring most current law students will graduate with six figures of debt from law school alone. Meanwhile legal employers are downsizing and outsourcing, to the point where the ratio between new lawyers and new jobs for lawyers is approximately two to one. And most of the new jobs don’t pay enough to allow even those who are lucky enough to get them to pay their educational debts.
My attempts to bring this economic and human crisis to the attention of the law-school world have been met mostly with denial and incomprehension. It seems the Clueless Generation is largely incapable of grasping that this is no ordinary downturn in the business cycle, but rather that America is no longer the same country in which we were so fortunate to come of age.
For the still largely unacknowledged crisis in legal education merely mirrors the vastly larger crisis in our society as a whole. Millions of young adults are graduating from college and professional schools with massive amounts of educational debt—debt that, thanks to sweetheart legislative deals that lined the pockets of bankers, cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. In just the past decade, total outstanding educational debt in America has risen more than five-fold, from $180 billion to nearly $1 trillion. Meanwhile, the international crisis of global capitalism has led employers large and small to do everything possible to cut labor costs. This has produced the current 15 percent official unemployment rate among Americans in their 20s. (The real unemployment rate is far higher, since the government counts people as unemployed only if they did zero hours of paid work in the past week and have been actively seeking employment at some point in the last four weeks.)
What the Clueless Generation finds difficult to comprehend is that literally millions of highly educated and hardworking young Americans—people who followed all the rules and did everything we told them to do—are either severely underemployed or have no jobs of any kind. Meanwhile, they struggle with the massive educational debts they incurred after the baby boomers decided that access to the bargain-priced higher education from which we benefited wasn’t so important after all.
Now, as the protests spread across the country, the core of the Occupy Wall Street movement—young, overeducated, and underemployed—is beginning to find common cause with many other people disillusioned with a social system that continues to grant its privileged elite ever-greater rewards. The compelling images from what the movement calls “the 99 percent” paint a portrait of our new Gilded Age that we ignore at our peril.
America’s first Gilded Age in the late 19th century led eventually to mass protests and nationwide strikes, which played a key role in the development of both progressive politics and the modern labor movement. The widespread labor insurgency of the mid-1930s pushed FDR to adopt the most important and long-lasting features of the New Deal. And the civil-rights and antiwar mass mobilizations of the 1960s helped overcome some of the great injustices of that era.
It seems that at this moment we in the Clueless Generation could use a reminder that the 1960s were about something more than sex, drugs, and rock and roll.