Boomers don’t want to give up their sweet deal, but the rest of us have reason to embrace Ryan’s “radical” plans, writes Kirsten Powers.
We’ve finally been vindicated: Members of Generation X have a representative who is anything but a slacker.
Paul Ryan shakes hands with supporters after a rally at Lakewood High School on Aug. 14, 2012 in Lakewood, Colorado. (Marc Piscotty / Getty Images)
GOP Congressman Paul Ryan—the tireless, wonky, 42-year-old workout freak—has made history by becoming the first member of our generation to join a presidential ticket. It should come as a surprise to no one that his calling card is reforming entitlements.
We hear incessantly about how members of today’s screwed generation face the prospect of less prosperous lives than those lived by their parents. But the maiden generation to stare down that gloomy prognosis was Generation X, the tiny slice of America born between about 1965 and 1980. (Ryan was born in 1970.) We were the first generation to be told we would never get Social Security or Medicare even though we would be forced to pay into these programs.
When many X-ers graduated from college, stocking shelves at the Gap was considered a career choice, as jobs were few and far between amidst a major economic downturn. I won’t bore you with the horror show of the low-paying and miserable jobs I had for the first three years after college.
Unfortunately, the future looks as bleak for today’s young people. No amount of coddling by their well-provided-for Boomer parents can save Generation Y and the Millennials from the dire economic conditions they face, including criminal levels of educational debt. Pensions have gone the way of the horse and buggy. You want to retire with health-care benefits, as both my professor parents did? Good luck. As the 1994 movie turned Gen-X mantra has it: Reality Bites.
Generation X chronicler Jeff Gordinier, has written that Gen-Xers suffer from “athazagoraphobia”—“an abnormal and persistent fear of being forgotten or ignored.” Except it’s not really a phobia; it’s been reality for a long time. Maybe that is about to change.
Enter Ryan. While Democrats attack his Medicare plan as “radical” and portray him as pushing granny off the cliff, young people don’t seem to be buying this caricature. Or maybe “radical” is what they want.
As college costs continue to climb, the return on many degrees has diminished, writes John Leo.
Students are paying a bigger share of their college bills, parents are paying less, and families are beginning to turn away from well-known and expensive colleges in favor of cheaper ones, including community colleges or anything near home. So says the 2012 version of Sallie Mae’s annual report, “How America Pays for College,” a collection of dry statistics that nevertheless reflect the rapidly rising anxiety about higher education and whether the cost is worth it.
The anxiety seems justified amid the growing number of students who, after running up $100,000 in student loans, take $25,000-a-year jobs after graduation—placing them in a position akin to the postcrash debtors whose homes are now worth less than what they owe on them.
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Glenn Reynolds, the professor and pundit who runs the influential site Instapundit, has popularized the term “higher education bubble,” Some dark scenarios see several hundred colleges disappearing as students turn to online education or skip higher education altogether. Pundits like George Will have embraced the bubble theory (“Many parents and the children they send to college are paying rapidly rising prices for something of declining quality”) and billionaire Peter Thiel, who spotted the housing bubble early, is now paying selected students not to go to college.
Sallie Mae’s report offers a brighter view. It says students and parents strongly agree that higher education is a worthwhile investment in the future and 70 percent think college is needed more than ever. That’s comforting, but several arrows point in the other direction. Almost 54 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed or unemployed, even in scientific and technical fields, according to a study conducted for the Associated Press by Northeastern University researchers. The study said college grads under the age of 25 were more likely to work at Starbucks or a local restaurant than as engineers, scientists, or mathematicians.
Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that as many as one out of three college graduates today are in jobs that previously or historically have been filled by people with lesser educations or none. The U.S. now has 115,000 janitors with college degrees, along with 83,000 bartenders, 80,000 heavy-duty truck drivers, and 323,000 waiters and waitresses.
Employers, because they realize that many college graduates aren’t really educated, now routinely quiz job seekers on what they majored in and what courses they took, a practice virtually unknown a generation ago. Good luck if you majored in gender studies, communications, art history, pop culture, or (really) the history of dancing in Montana in the 1850s.
Current and former collegians now owe more than $1 trillion in student loans—and only 26 percent of the debtors are currently paying anything back, down from 38 percent five years ago. (These loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, a reform imposed to stymie borrowers who would graduate and promptly file for bankruptcy.)
On both sides of the pond, Boomers have held onto generous jobs and benefits—but their children have given up on finding success and raising families.
In Madrid you see them on the streets, jobless, aimless, often bearing college degrees but working as cabbies, baristas, street performers, or—more often—not at all. In Spain as in Greece, nearly half of the adults under 25 don’t work.
Call them the screwed generation, the victims of expansive welfare states and the massive structural debt charged by their parents. In virtually every developed country, and increasingly in developing ones, they include not only the usual victims, the undereducated and recent immigrants, but also the college-educated.
Pablo Vega Gonzalez, an unemployed videogame tester living at home with his parents, reads a book in his bedroom in Madrid. (Angel Navarrete, Bloomberg / Getty Images )
Nowhere is this clearer than in the European Union’s Club Med of Spain, Greece, Portugal, and Italy, the focal point of the emerging new economic crisis. There’s a growing sense of hopelessness in these places, where debt is turning politics into an ugly choice between austerity, which reduces present opportunities, or renewed emphasis on public spending, which all but guarantees major problems in the bond market, and spending promises that can’t be kept.
“We don’t know what to do now,” Jaime, a Madrid waiter in his late 20s told me last week. “My wife lost her auditor’s job, and I can’t support the whole family. Maybe we have to move somewhere like Dubai or maybe Miami.”
Many young Greeks, Italians, Portuguese, and Spaniards already have made their moves, with a half million leaving Spain alone last year. But it’s not just Club Med youths who are contemplating greener pastures. Ireland, which in recent decades actually attracted new migrants, is exporting a thousand people a week. In recession-wracked Britain, nearly half of the population say they would like to move elsewhere.
Driving this exodus is a growing perception that this collapse is not cyclical but secular. Increasingly, young Europeans are deciding not to start families—the key to future growth—in reaction to the recession. The stories about divorced Spanish or Italian young fathers sleeping on the streets or in their cars are not exactly a strong advertising for parenthood.
Even in once-rigidly Catholic Spain, marriage and fertility rates have been falling for decades, and family structure weakening. Spaniards are having fewer children now than they did during the brutal civil war of the late 1930s. Alejandro Macarrón Larumbe, a Madrid-based management consultant, in his 2011 book, El Suicidio Demográfico de España, points out that the actual number of Spanish newborns has declined to an 18th-century level.
Despite popular portrayals, growing evidence suggests today’s 20-somethings are historically tolerant and innovative. As thousands more graduate, Hannah Seligson offers five reasons to be hopeful.
However much Girls might be a realistic portrayal of the lives of 20-something women living in Brooklyn, the buzzed-about HBO show makes me want to change the birthdate on my driver’s license to a year not in the 1980s. The four lead actresses, all of whom play characters born late in that decade, are walking, talking data points that represent the worst of the polling and analysis on this generation. Namely, that we are narcissistic, entitled, financial drains on our parents, unable to emancipate, and excessively solipsistic.
It’s a version of millennials—defined roughly as those born between 1980 and 2000 and who number more than 77 million—that has come to dominate the cultural, social, and workplace narrative about young people today. Now, as a new flock graduates and hawks their résumés to employers, they must contend with not only a lousy job market, but the stigma brought on by research that perpetually labels them Generation I, as a recent survey from job search site Adecco USA did. The telephone poll includes findings like: “Generation I wants what they want, and they may not be willing to settle for less.” Eight percent had a parent accompany them on a job interview. Don’t hate them yet? One in five would stay at a job they didn’t like for only three months before leaving. (The women’s blog Jezebel summed the report up with the headline “Millenials Are a Bunch of Entitled Trustafarians With Enabling Parents, Says Cranky Coot of a Survey”.)
More than 300 graduating students from area colleges and universities throw their mortarboards in the air on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Friday. (Alex Brandon / AP Photo)
So are millennials truly a lost generation that will be relegated to the annals of history as Generation Me? Perhaps. But there’s another storyline, one that gets buried under the slew of angst-y memoirs and navel-gazing television shows about the hardships of post-college life in upper-middle-class America.
As thousands graduate this month, take comfort: despite the propaganda, research also reveals that we’ve emerged as the most diverse, tolerant, pioneering, educated, and innovative generation in history. Here’s some good news.
(1) The kids are all right (and open-minded). Millennials might care a great deal about their own happiness, but they also care about other people’s well-being—considerably more than previous generations did. We are far less homophobic, sexist, and racist than our parents and grandparents. We are the generation that played a critical role in electing the first African-American president, and most of us believe gay marriage is a right that shouldn’t be denied to same-sex couples. Having grown up surrounded by so much racial diversity, those under 30 are emerging to be the most colorblind in U.S. history—nine in 10 18- to 29-year-olds say they approve of interracial dating and marriage, compared with 73 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds.
And nearly every type of problem that has plagued previous generations of young men is not as pronounced today: psychologist Jeffrey Arnett has found that alcohol use, crime, and unprotected sex among young men today has declined sharply in the past 30 years. And some of the leading intellectuals in the country are taking note. At a panel in Washington, D.C., last year, New York Times columnist David Brooks commented that “while he is down on just about everything else, the under-30 generation gives him hope.”
(2) Twenty-something women are good for the economy. This is the first generation in which women are just as likely as men to want that the top job at the office, which was not the case among female employees under the age of 29 as recently as 15 years ago. In fact, more young women than men today cite career high on their list of life priorities, according to a recent Pew study. It’s no shock then that single, childless women under 30 in many urban areas make more money, on average, than their male counterparts. As The Economist put it, “Women have contributed more to global GDP growth than have either new technology or the new giants, China or India.” And women in their 20s and early 30s are poised to continue making an economic splash, even if they have to get some help from their parents to get on their feet.
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