A quick few thoughts: I teach education students in their first year, and about three years ago, I had a student, somewhat randomly, ask me what I thought about Occupy Wall Street. I thought for a moment and then improvised a version of a short talk that I have made sure to tell my students ever since:
I graduated from college in 1991. My class entered the workforce in a recession, and I periodically read little admonitions from Gen. X to “kids today” that amount to “Hey kid, everyone had it hard getting started in life. We had to deal with a recession AND the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Get over yourself.”
Increasingly, such pronouncements make me see through a red mist of outrage.
Look, getting started in life is never easy, and yes, every generation can point to struggles that they had to endure, but compared to today’s 20 year-olds? My generation had it easy — and today, college classmates of mine are major figures in media and politics. It isn’t at all fair to look at the Millennials and call them whiners while my generation is in the process of becoming the leaders of society.
What is going on with these kids, today? Well, the cost of college has gone through the roof even as the amount of support available to pay for it without taking out loans has dropped. In order to pay for college, more and more students graduate burdened with ruinous debt, but the job prospects for college graduates have diminished and not solely because of the recession. Meanwhile, what modest gains in median household income were made since 1990 were gone by 2011. As a result, more Millennials live at home and are delaying what previous generations would have considered signs of independent adulthood.
So this is a reality for Millennials in college — they are starting further behind than any generation since their great grandparents were born, and they will have to work hard, very, very hard to make any progress at all. This is not fair, but it is also the hand they have to play, and to their credit, most of them who I meet accept that the passage to adulthood will be a longer and harder slog, but they also know they have to do it.
But what is not fair is the criticism being hurled at them for daring to make note of these realities. They did what they were told to do from a young age. They worked at their schooling. They played sports. They joined activities. They volunteered in their communities. They took endless tests. They took jobs to pay for school. They sought out and competed for scholarships and unpaid internships. And they did it all because the adults in their lives, the parents, the teachers, the principals, the guidance counselors advised them like it was 1985 — only on steroids. Distinguish yourself. Compete to get into college. Graduate. And the world will bestow the rewards of hard work upon you.
It’s dawning on them that a lot of the grown ups in their lives don’t get it. They don’t get that scheduling kids from dawn to dusk with organized activities doesn’t teach them how to manage their free time. They don’t get that mastering the art of doing three hours of homework on Monday that is due on Tuesday doesn’t teach them how to plan and complete a long term project. They don’t get that increased numbers of people BAs and changes in international trade make available work less lucrative. They don’t get that the college as the ultimate means to get ahead is undergoing a sea change. Grown ups need to start raising kids to succeed in the 2014, not 1984, 1974, 1964, 1954 or whatever decade our memories of youth got frozen in.
And to those Millennials? You have another task other than recognizing and tackling the difficulties of being a young adult today: You have to become leaders and faster than my generation did. I don’t think Generation X had any real “crisis” to galvanize our experience. Millennials have had 9/11, 13 years of war and the Great Recession to define having grown up. But the powers that be won’t pay attention to them unless they demand it by voting and by becoming active in work, community and politics. It is fashionable to assume that voting and politics don’t matter, but just because people have a lot of money does not mean they always win. If money always wins, then Linda McMahon would be a U.S. Senator. If money always wins, then the Bill Gates funded Common Core and accompanying testing would not be running into trouble with the public. People can push back.
So I want those Millennials to get teaching jobs. Become school principals and superintendents. Join community organizations. Run for public office. And I want them to do it younger than other generations. They have to — they won’t have money to influence politics for decades, but they have numbers. There are 56 million people ages 12-24 in the country. Another 42 million between the ages of 25-34. If they don’t use those numbers to gain attention to their needs, they will get ignored, and this is a generation that cannot afford that.
So – lead. I don’t care in what capacity or towards which politics. Lead.