The Doomed Generation
‘Galatea’ is a columnist writing about her experience looking for work after her recent downsizing. Previous entries in her series can be.
Friendsgiving—the meal shared with friends days before everyone leaves for Thanksgiving at home—is something exclusive to our generation, I think, as Kelly ushers me into her fourth floor walkup.
“Omigod it’s good to see you!” she chirps, whisking away my giant Tupperware container of roasted broccoli. On the couch, Carolyn and Joey and Lilly are making Thanksgiving Vision Boards with handprint turkeys made of construction paper and images from piles of People magazines, and wishes for the upcoming year.
(“My wish,” said Carolyn proudly as she pointed out the pictures clustered around her turkey, “is that next year I meet Jude Law and marry him, and that Steve Jobs comes down from Heaven and gives me an iPad. And a Golden Retriever.”)
Larry, the random Penn senior who I’ve befriended over the weekend, grabs a plate and starts piling on beans, pasta, broccoli, pork, and a crumbly sweet slice of gluten-free cornbread slathered with butter. In contrast to the awkward and stressful rituals of a family Thanksgiving, Friendsgiving is really a reason for poor college grads to pool their resources and eat massive amounts of food with friends.
Fast forward a few hours. Fast forward through the seconds and thirds, through my explanation of how to make a roasted broccoli to die for (for crispy, caramelized florets, don’t wash it before roasting), through our gossip about Fred’s boyfriend, through multiple glasses of cheap-ish wine. At some point in the night, the discussion turned somber, as most parties with twentysomethings, too much food, and alcohol often do.
Since we were young, we talked about our lack of real jobs. Since we were a bunch of highly educated Ivy League students, we discussed that in the context of systematic failures in the overall educational and economic structure.
“…and you can’t really provide an alternative for them,” Carolyn finishes. She’s an elementary school teacher in a West Philadelphia district, and nearly all of her third graders are black. “All the boys in my class either want to be athletes or rappers, and it’s only because it’s what they see older black men doing. When they realize they can’t do that—that it’s statistically impossible—they turn to hustling, which is the other thing that they see older black men doing. There’s no one telling them, ‘Being a mechanic is an option that’s going to make a lot of money for you, so study hard and you could make $60 grand a year.’ A black middle class just doesn’t exist here.”
“Couldn’t you say that about most people trying to enter the upper class, though?” Larry cut in. “One could argue that there are jobs that exist, trade STEM-based jobs, but frankly, people aren’t getting the degrees for them.” He put his glass down. “Look, there’s a massive myth that people who want to become wealthy need to go to a private college. As if private meant prestige. Sure, a large part of the job crisis would be solved if we emphasized trade schools and community colleges that taught vocations—“
“But no one wants to do that!” said Kelly. “My plumbers make more money than I do with less education. But do kids in third tier colleges with liberal arts degrees understand that?” A fast-talking foreign policy wonk, she had graduated from Amherst College and now worked day after bitter day in data entry.
“That’s my point. There’s no more prestige attached to being a trade worker. Everyone thinks that the liberal arts equals wealth, when in fact…” Larry shrugged. “There are more institutions of higher education in this country per capita than there are in any other country. Mostly because Democrats wanted to point to the youth and say ‘Hey, we’re giving people college educations!’ When in fact, it’s way more economically viable to have people working in trades, and to have people aware of that from a young age, like in Germany.”
(Did I mention that Larry was going to work as a hedge fund manager?)
“You can’t blame the job crunch on overeducation, though,” I pointed out. “We’re all graduates from top colleges, and in a normal market we would have well-paying jobs making about $50K a year right now. Regardless of competition. The people who would usually hire us here—this time, they just aren’t.”
“That’s true,” admitted Josh from the couch, cutting out a turkey hand. He turned around. “I interviewed for Deloitte to be based in Philly. Did you know that they’re cutting the people that they hire here? They’re hiring a lot of people from overseas, like India and Singapore.”
“They’re also hiring a lot of support staff and IT people,” Lilly interjected. “You don’t need a prestigious job with a degree at this point, you just need the money and benefits.”
“Yeah, but where do you think they’re hiring from?”
“The point is,” Kelly said grimly, “is that the majority of us around this table are either unemployed or underemployed.” Larry suddenly started poking at his broccoli. “And we’re all smart people who prepared for college and did well and tried not to waste our parents’ money. But if we’re having trouble finding jobs? If we’re the ones who can afford to hide in grad school and are taking jobs that pay waaaaay below what we were hoping for?” She threw her hands up. “What the hell do you think is happening to everyone in the lower tiers who thought that a sub-par education was their ticket into the upper class?”
“It’s a systematic issue,” I admitted, “but markets can recover.” Then out of hopeless curiosity, I asked, “Do you think it can be fixed?”
“Nope,” Kelly said emphatically. “I think it’s the Fall of Rome.”
“It’s the Fall of Rome,” she repeated.
We sat in silence for a few painful, stony seconds.
“Oooh, look at this,” Carolyn said after a while, tentatively holding up the People’s Sexiest Man Alive issue. “I found a picture of a shirtless Bradley Cooper with a puppy!”
The girls leapt at the picture and the boys kept eating.