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America’s Stalled–And So Are the Young

Andrew Leittem Thomas, a young friend of mine, has written about the lowered expectations of a generation of some of our best and brightest. It’s a sometimes humorous but largely biting commentary on the times. The economy is stalled, and so are the young people who are tomorrow’s leaders.

Andrew understands the young and older generations often have conflicting views of what’s best. But he wonders if we’ve become so disillusioned with the state of current affairs that we’re ready to throw in the towel on the issues that matter most to the next generation.

I’m far from age 25, and I’m not hustling for a future. But I have sons, three of whom are UC graduates, who share Andrew’s frustrations. And I know their voices need to be heard.

In their minds, it’s not a matter of who’s right or who’s wrong. Rather, they ask, do we even care?

Take the time to read his Andrew’s commentary, and then share yours.

My cousin Barry and I, approaching the 14th hour of what would be a long day of hot, monotonous, mostly thankless summertime work in a Hopland winery, jokingly agreed that we would start a band in Ukiah. Lest our creative talents remain untapped and fade away during the long summer of work, we agreed that the band would be called either St. Elmo’s Fire or JFKFC. It would be led by the two of us, and backed by other friends living in Ukiah at the time. The band would be huge. Neither of us play any musical instruments or sing or dance or have any whisper of experience when it comes to things musical, but for this band, it is wholly unimportant. To be a member of St. Elmo’s Fire (JFKFC didn’t quite cut it) you need only to meet two simple criteria; you have to be a college graduate, in possession of a bachelors degree from one of the best schools in the nation, and you have to currently  live with your parents.

Now the older and richer of you readers may scoff at the presumption that two youths with no musical talent could start a successful band, and rightfully so in some respects, but make no mistake about it- the Mendocino chapter of St. Elmo’s fire would stun and amaze you were you to witness one of their shows. If not for the sheer dramatic cunning and musical virtuosity of the two aforementioned frontmen, not to mention their boyish good looks. You, dear reader, would be blown away by the spectacle of the walls being brought down and the roof blown off by Mendocino county’s first 52-piece rock band. Parentally supervised college grads taking revenge the rock’n’roll way.

The number of people I know in this town who fit the above criteria is staggering. And for the most part we’re not talking about the kinds of kids you picture when you think mid to late twenties living with their parents. We’re not talking about star trek watching, cheeto eating, celibate by default momma’s boys who wear sweats to Sunday dinner and steal the towels from your girlfriend’s parents house. We’re talking about talented, intelligent, creative people who at this point can’t find a good job and thus can’t afford to live anywhere else.

Personally, I am not ashamed nor is my pride injured, although I should be writing under a pseudonym and casting to the shadows any incriminating details by which I can be identified. For that matter neither is my cousin.

Here I am a quarter century in age, a graduate from a good school who has put in countless hours pressing suits and ties, printing resumes, and seeking interviews in damn near every respectable business office in San Francisco. Yet I find myself in Ukiah, again, working manual labor for $9.50 an hour and sharing a roof with my two first and longest lasting roommates - my parents.  Let me say that as far as my current employment situation is concerned, my life experience thus far, and my general disposition, put me in a position to tolerate and even enjoy low-paying, back-breaking , mostly thankless work.

I grew up on a farm, working long hot summers at a pear packing shed, putting in many, many hours alongside brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, friends, and total strangers. We were in the trenches together, working in a frenetic environment at a mind numbing pace, and, between the opening buzzer at 6 a.m. and the closer many hours later, getting a lot done and providing fresh fruit for thousands and thousands of faceless people whom I never will meet. Among other things this has taught me is to carry a deep respect for and reasonable enjoyment of manual labor. So while $9.50 an hour is not much, it is for work that I enjoy. It is working with people that I enjoy, and I refuse to be fooled into believing that it is in some way less important and worthwhile than those jobs that pay more. Labor like this makes the world go round, or rather allows us to live and watch it spin, plain and simple.

All the marketing firms, interior design houses and hedge funds could go belly up tomorrow (or in the case of hedge funds six months ago) and most of the world would find a way to soldier on and survive. But take away the farms, the construction workers, the truck drivers? Fergettaboutit. Not a chance. The world would be smote and lie in ruins like the mighty tower of Babel, and everyone would be homeless and hungry very quickly. And, without my particular trade, I think we can all agree that, while the world could live without wine, if 2010 is anything like 2009 it just wouldn’t be much worth it.

I’m not talking exclusively about kids that have wound up back at their parents house; that’s only the most obvious manifestation of a generation of kids around my age who, after graduating college, have had a hard time gaining entrance to the adult world of careers and promising jobs in which hard work is rewarded with pay and promotion. The most difficult and in a sense troubling aspect of this situation comes along when you try to answer the question ‘Why is this?’

The economy is certainly responsible to some degree. Many businesses simply don’t have the money to hire new employees, or pay the current crew what they are worth. That’s certainly the most common answer I and my colleagues receive shortly after being rejected from a job for which we are clearly qualified, either that the economy would not allow them to prudently hire more employees, or that because of our young age and lack of experience we’re just not what they’re looking for. And that to me is cause for concern also.

If the worst of this recession lasts another five years, and after those five years businesses are ready to start offering well paying entry level jobs to qualified persons, and during those five years I’ve been working a mix of part-time, manual labor, any-job-I-could-get-that-would-pay-the-bills type jobs, then what? All the sudden those of us who five years ago were qualified, beating down the door in our eagerness and willingness to be work, dying inside simply for the opportunity to do what we spent four years and lots of money training ourselves to do…all of the sudden we are under qualified, lacking in experience, and the job goes to the kid who just graduated college who has the benefit of being born five years earlier.

But the economy can’t be the only one to blame. The economy is not, after all, a real person, and the economy isn’t the one who writes the contracts, signs the checks, and does the actual hiring and firing. That job is left to the people, and the gap of understanding between my parents generation and mine seems to be growing wider and wider.

This much is clear: the image we have of ourselves and the image that the older generation has are two vastly different pictures. One would say that we lack drive and focus. I would counter by arguing that we simply haven’t been given the chance to prove ourselves.

We have had no Great Depression, no great war, no period of intense political unrest during which leaders were needed to organize and fight for what they believed. The unrest, the wars, the depressions of my lifetime all seem to be taken in stride as a matter of course, swept under the rug by the media, by everybody really, and considered to be inevitable. It’s as if past failures and actions have disillusioned people entirely.

We expect so little from our politicians that we let their transgressions slide, focusing on them for one news cycle them moving on to the next. We have come to expect that costly wars will last forever, and we take it in stride.

And, in turn, I think we have come to expect so little from our youth that, rather than have to face another disappointment, we are choosing to ignore their problems and hope they go away.


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