Social and Political Commentary

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On Being Unemployed in a Jobless Era

... why "Occupy Wall Street" matters

by Elizabeth Samit

My 92 year old mother worked during the 1940s as a career counselor with out-of-work actors and refugees in NYC, but quit full-time employment at thirty-four on the birth of her first child.  On the other hand, she continued to eagerly advise members of the next generation as to the educational and career aspirations to which they should aspire.  In my case, she frequently suggested social work during my adolescence.  In the early 1970s, this was an occupation—like elementary school teaching—strongly associated with women and I was a budding feminist.  The result of my resistance to considering a single career related to my aptitude was that I ended up elongating my undergraduate tenure for a decade before graduating, while mostly employed in boring secretarial positions.  Eventually, my hourly rate of pay and job title increased to match my high level supporting department heads—until I was caught in a mass “lay-off” with 199 co-workers in 2008 during the financial melt-down.  To be precise, September 27, 2008.

I have a nephew who went directly from high school to college, and then to graduate school.  And, I have two step-nephews currently attending college.  While my nephew has been working for three years in his profession, I worry about my two step-nephews’ post-collegiate options.   Their employment prospects are so constricted as compared to my own youth, that it is hard for me to comprehend.  When I dropped out of college in western Massachusetts to move to San Francisco, I was determined to find a job quickly, live with roommates, and explore artistic endeavors and community activism.  So, I packed a suitcase and bought a one-way airline ticket.  Health insurance wasn’t necessary as there were free health clinics.  There was no tuition to attend a community college in San Francisco, and protests occurred when it was raised to fifty dollars.  It is unfathomable to me to consider how the life options for young adults have diminished (and their restricted capacities to broaden their interests much less explore the world).

What have we, the “older generations”, done to them?  How did we enable the American economic disaster to happen?  My mother no longer gives career advice, because she realizes it is irrelevant in these uncertain economic times.  And, I feel a terrible sadness that my mother has no career advice to give anyone.  My own advice to younger family members has been to finish college and go to graduate school to assure a professional career path in future.  On the other hand, I never followed that advice myself so it rings hollow even to my own ears.  Never mind the ever-increasing cost of tuition.

Although—at forty—I obtained a Master’s degree, it never resolved my financial or employment difficulties.  My step-nephews will probably be saddled with so much college debt, that I doubt they will consider graduate school.  But, a Bachelors’ degree is a now a meaningless piece of paper, just the price of admission to get a job as a sales clerk.  And, how will they pay for health insurance, much less attempt to buy a house?  One of my nephews, whose main interest is in IT and Robotics, works part-time as a bartender and lives at home at twenty years old.  Instead of attending his local state college, I wish he’d applied to MIT like he dreamed of doing.  Then again, he’d be saddled with student loans forcing him to decrease his aspirations.  I feel depressed that he’s working so many hours as a bartender instead of broadening his interests and capacities.

Even though nobody in the family drinks, my mother expresses pride in his ability to mix an excellent Margarita.  Of course, he’s also proud of his bartending acumen—and that at least he has a job as a college student (though he should have graduated two years ago).  I’m glad she praises his work-related accomplishments, but I can’t since it worries me.  Who will design the computer programs needed a decade from now?  If something doesn’t change soon, there will be little opportunity for young adults to embark on professional careers in the United States.  I just hope that I won’t be competing with my nephews for any kind of job in a decade, because my generation will assuredly be unable to retire until eighty.  

This is why I find the "Occupy Wall Street" movement uplifting and encouraging, even though it has no particular focus and is unlikely to result in actual improvement in our economy or labor market.

--November 4, 2011

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