When I hear young people today talking about how a 4.0 GPA and high test scores aren’t enough to get them where they want to be, I think: Wow, it’s getting tough out there.
In my youth, by the time June rolled around, I quickly summoned up a lazy, anything-goes frame of mind. Ride my bike a half hour to the suburbs to check out a cool new arcade game? Sure, where are my quarters? Years later, I didn’t take things particularly seriously even when I had a summer job. One college summer, I spent a week clearing thick brush with an older guy whose command of a chainsaw was as scary as my creeping suspicion that he might have been a werewolf (true story). But I wasn’t all angsty about my career and the future.
It’s a different story today. You’d think summer would still be a prime opportunity for youth to find their inner sloth, but they don’t seem to feel they have the leeway. And they would seem to be right.
One look at my high-school-age kids’ class schedules makes my jaw drop. They’re loading up on the kind of high-level courses I used to dip a toe into once or twice a year. OK, granted, they’re probably smarter than me, but they’re taking on white-knuckle workloads (often pulling it off admirably). Yet when the year is over, there’s none of the layabout Eden of my time. Today’s high school and college kids are jostling shoulders for unpaid internships, study-abroad trips, or jobs aimed at socking away money that will be dwarfed by their tuition and living expenses once the academic year kicks up. They’re a generation looking over its shoulder, and understandably not thrilled by what lies ahead. They sense they have to exhibit the well-roundedness of a Renaissance (Wo)man, with the ambition of a future Nobel laureate, if they’re going to grab an increasingly elusive ring on the lunatic careering carousel of the future.
The numbers support this. Generation Z knows the value of college—and that those without degrees are being relegated to low-wage, low-security jobs. But they also know that they may not be able to find really good work compared to generations past. Today’s underemployment rate for young college graduates is almost 13 percentage points higher than in 2000 (the Twin Cities employment rates for 18-34 year-olds are among the best in the nation, but don’t reflect those working unchallenging, low-wage gigs who have the capability to be earning more). Young people know they might be able to find a job, but it won’t necessarily pay the bills. It might not have much of a prospect for promotion or future success, nor offer them the chance to use what they learned while earning their degree (and we’re not just talking about the humanities). As for paying off student debt, many of them shrug and opt to kick the can down the road—what else can they do?
I worked part-time through college, full-time in the summers, and came out owing just about $10,000. Maybe this is why I felt so relaxed about the years to come—even if I chose to take on menial work, I could probably have made my minimum loan payments, which were in the $150 range. (And yes, this was in the era when we wrote with chisels on clay tablets while filling out checks to pay our bills.) Young people today are staring down another level of debt (the average in MN for those who carry debt: $30K—among the five worst in the country). Throw in shaky job prospects, and you have the creeping realization that they’re the first generation in memory who might not be able to maintain the material standard of living of their parents.
These young people are sophisticated in many ways that I never was. Yes, some of them have been overprotected, and many of them know more about a tablet screen than the school of hard knocks, but they’ve also faced a landscape arguably more challenging than any in decades. And yet they keep plugging away. Talk to them—they’re optimistic, they’re determined, they’re sure of themselves and learning that they’re going to figure out how to make it work.
But I wish them leisure, in the way wartime parents would wish their kids peace. Even if it’s only an afternoon here or there, something frivolous and stupid, a naked swim in the moonlight or a road trip they can’t afford. Once you’re all grown up, that’s really the stuff of youth that you remember when you have time to look back.
Illustration by James Kloiber