August 29, 2011

The 85 Percent

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We are, if you would believe the pundits, a generation of unsurpassed affluence, ironic though it may be given the current economic outlook. Never has a generation been given so much or born with such potential. But it’s time to amend these pundits’ assessments: ours is not the generation that has been given so much, born with such opportunity, and weaned on our destiny to surpass our parents in wealth and achievement — it’s the generation that has grown up hearing that storyline time and again, only to realize that it is false.

Mom, what happened?

Instead, a new storyline is playing itself out everywhere a recent college graduate applies for a job, only to hear that the $200,000 investment in his or her education is no longer the sure ticket it once was. Or that the unemployment rate is rising and hitting the youth particularly hard (the unemployment rate for those 16-24 is now 17.3 percent, the second highest rate in the post-war period). Or that, frighteningly, he or she is going to become part of that dreaded statistic: the 85 percent of college graduates who plan to move back in with their parents due to economic pressures.

In this new storyline, our wildest hopes and dreams have been thrown to the wayside. They’ve been replaced by simple desires. Get a job. Cease to be an unemployment statistic. Move out of our parents’ houses.

Grandiose visions of the future indeed.

With the economic duress mounting, it’s worth considering whether the challenges facing our generation are particularly novel. On the one hand, realizing that our futures probably won’t be all that we’ve envisioned is hardly new in the course of human history. And in that regard, ours isn’t a new crisis: People have been faced with disappointment since time immemorial. Why should we treat the sobering of our generation’s expectations any differently?

But on the other hand, there is something different about our generation that makes this crisis unique. Many felt that those of us born shortly after the end of the Cold War would be privy to a new era of prosperity in which the ascendency of Western liberalism — and the economic progress that invariably accompanied it — would usher in unprecedented growth. And where was the growth to come from? Well, the youth of course. And for a while it seemed to be true: Technology, largely driven by ambitious young people with new visions of the world, changed our lives irrevocably. A whole new form of literacy emerged around the Internet, and the youth were its vanguard. Everyone made sure to tell us how great we would be. How great we were. How bright our futures looked. The expectations were so high, and we have fallen so low.

And yet, despite the statistics and the 85 percent, there’s something about right now that makes this period feel oddly safe. Perhaps it’s the sense that for many of us, college — and particularly Cornell — has provided a terrifyingly beautiful isolation from the collapse of the world around us. The investment banks still come to campus, most students still get jobs and the clock tower just keeps a’ringing. But down below Cayuga’s heights, there’s surely something amiss. In the backs of our minds, we surely realize that when we leave this place, we may not be going on to something better than that from which we came. Don’t we?

And therein lies the disconcerting part — I don’t think we do. I think most of us just assume that the future outlook will change and go about our daily lives. We don’t actively think about how our undergraduate educations can best position us for success in this new economy and new world, whether that success be financial, humanitarian or civic in nature. And we don’t ask whether Cornell is thinking about it. As students in the new job market, we will have to be able to differentiate ourselves from lower-paid but perhaps equally competent counterparts in foreign countries. We will have to understand how our local markets fit into an increasingly global world, and we will be forced to think entrepreneurially and creatively. Do our current course loads prepare us for such demands? These are the questions that both the University and its students must ask.

The problem with growing up during a period of affluence and expectation is that it breeds complacency and entitlement. Unfortunately, the challenges facing our generation call for anything but. They call for bucking old trends, blazing new frontiers and creating new paradigms in which to succeed. They call for thinking big, despite the pressures to think small and simply get by. Success, more than ever, is going to require a fire in the belly that many say our generation just doesn’t have. I think they’re wrong, but it’s going to take more than Keystone in our stomachs to prove it.

Nathaniel Rosen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at nrosen@cornellsun.com. Bringing it Home appears alternate Tuesdays this semester. ­­

Original Author: Nathaniel Rosen