Wednesday, February 29, 2012

An unwelcome welcome to life

A couple of years ago, near the end of an overwhelming night at work, I found myself chatting with a co-worker from a different department. He had held his job for about 40 years, but had the enthusiasm of a newcomer. (He was also shorter than me, which I appreciated.) He asked if was I OK, because I looked haggard. I said I was fine, just tired from a hectic shift. We talked some shop, including an ongoing series of layoffs and furloughs. He then said something that stung like a slap:

“It used to be when you got tired of a job, you could just get another one. It’s not like that anymore.”

He said it ruefully, with a genuine sympathy I wouldn’t have expected from an older man who had held the same job for decades. I guess that’s why I paid attention. Usually, it’s in an accusatory tone of voice from someone asking us why we expected a college degree and/or hard work to get us anywhere in life.

Generation gaps are as old as childbirth itself. We all have our stories about how our parents didn’t get us, or how we didn’t get our parents. Some people understand that this is always how it is, and it isn’t really a sign that kids these days are getting worse or that a particular generation was superior. But in recent years, the gap has hit on more painful territory than culture or music. There’s a huge, sensitive disconnect between the economic realities of the baby boomers and the younger generations, and I wonder if either can understand the other’s viewpoint.

Much has been said about how my generation* is the first in American history to expect a lower standard of living than its predecessor. I believe it. My generation understands that the line we’ve been fed our whole lives about the link between hard work and success is sketchy at times.

(* - Being born in 1980, I’m in a gray generational era. Some lump me with Generation X; others with the Millennial/Y generation. I think I lean toward X, though I definitely share some characteristics of Y. Not that it really matters here.)

It wasn’t always that way. Adults always encouraged us to get an education. They also encouraged us to work and take up productive hobbies, because they instill a work ethic that serves you well in life. We’ve been told for generations that taking the right path will make you successful. Conversely, taking the wrong path will lead you to ruin.

They left out the part about ruin sometimes happening to good people. Or that some very wretched people never know hardship. Or that sometimes financial stability is a function of having a lot of money to begin with. Or that one day, the economy would crumble and they’d pretend they never imparted those lessons in the first place.

I get that economies rise and fall, and that some people have an easier entry-level ride than others. I get that people should work for and earn their place. I get that luck and connections play a major role for many. But I feel like my generation faces a unique obstacle that’s tragic in its preventability. And if it isn’t corrected, it’ll endanger several generations to come.

Before this week, I didn’t have a term or phrase to describe it. Now I do.

“Welcome to life.”

That mean, dismissive remark is how Arizona State Rep. Michelle Ugenti greeted protests to an education bill — one that would require nearly all public college students to pay at least $2,000 of their tuition, regardless of economic status. The bill is jaw-dropping on its face, as is the apparent reason behind it — Rep. John Kavanagh (R-Naturally) heard that nearly half of all students didn’t pay tuition in Arizona. Even if that figure is exaggerated, as the Board of Regents claims, it’s misleading. And it’s the latest manifestation of the insane argument that it’s more fair to saddle the poor with extra bills than it is to ask the rich to pay a fair share.

Welcome to life, indeed.

We’re living in incredibly selfish times. By that, I don’t mean my generation is being selfish by insisting their education and work lead to something. I mean that we as a nation aren’t doing everything we can to make education and hard work pay off. And we’re doing it on purpose.

Since at least the Reagan era, we’ve increasingly loathed the government and lionized the private sector. We’ve bought the line that the government is little more than an ATM for tax cuts, and that anyone employed by it is robbing taxpayers blind (except for the military, of course, which can spend all the money it wants with abandon). At the same time, the private sector has become a benevolent beacon of common sense and sanity — responsible to the people (or, more accurately, their dollars). Despite the two entities having completely different and largely irreconcilable purposes, we’re supposed to believe that free enterprise alone has all the answers. And has no self-interest to speak of.

And that’s where we’re wrong. Over the past few decades, lawmakers have dismantled government checks on the economy, including many established to prevent a second Great Depression. Corporations have flourished as a result, but that hasn’t translated into jobs. Mainly, it’s resulted in fatter bottom lines for CEOs who house them in tax shelters. At the same time, we’ve demonized government jobs as free rides, and we mock their very existence. Because apparently, even in these job-starved times, those don’t count. We’re voting against our own interests every step of the way, blaming those who question the wisdom of it and chiding the upcoming generation for feeling its effects.

What has allowed this to happen? Greed. Not corporate greed, our greed. We think that by giving the rich everything they want, we’re setting the stage for our turn. It’s our fault. We took a give-and-take relationship that floated all boats for decades and turned it into an extreme version of Major League Baseball — the Yankees against every other team combined. Don’t like getting beat all the time? Sign with the Yankees. If they deign to let you.

Welcome to life.

What has resulted is a job market, and a political climate, that favors unaccountable private employers. Sorry, "job creators." The smartest and most innovative people. They make the economy go round. There’s nary a burden we don’t want to lift off their shoulders, even if it clearly damages the balance that keeps both the private sector and our nation prosperous. And until we get to that financial point in our lives, we have no authority to want a better life now. Or, as it’s often euphemized, we must “pay our dues.” That hurts, whether it’s coming from a baby boomer who came up in more promising times and supported the policies that dried up that climate, or from a younger boss with less education.

Of course, we hear all kinds of criticism from our elders whenever we air these grievances. That we’re entitled. That we’re afraid of a little hard work. That we’re lazy. That we simply aren’t trying hard enough.

“What, are you too good for flipping burgers?” No, I’m not. But I did that while earning an education, so that I could move on to better things. And even if I was content to do it now, it doesn’t pay a living wage.

“What makes you think you deserve anything?” You’re right. We shouldn’t have worked hard our whole lives to better ourselves. How arrogant of us. But hey, you got yours!

I worry that future generations will feel this disconnect even worse, as they see their hardworking parents struggle, and decide that it isn’t worth it. They’ll be living in a society where higher education is not only too expensive, but holds no value. Where public schools are wastelands of gang activity and decrepit ceilings because we’ve accepted that. Where good jobs go to the well-connected with squeaky-clean (or scrubbed) online profiles. Where adults don’t pull a 180 on the value of hard work when you graduate, because the cynicism will begin much sooner. Is this supposed to cultivate the so-called elusive work ethic? It sounds to me like a recipe for disaster.

Tough times come and go. But it’s absolutely inexcusable that we as a nation aren’t using every avenue we can to make ourselves smarter and provide experience-appropriate jobs to those who want and earn them. We’re failing ourselves and we’re failing the future. Couldn’t we at least have held out for a higher asking price?

Thanks for the welcome, life.

No comments: