the millennial/gen-z strategy

“Tell a subset of your population that they are entitled to economic security if they play by certain rules, provide them with four years of training in critical thinking and access to a world-class library — then deny them the opportunities they were promised, while affixing an anchor of debt around their necks — and you’ve got a recipe for a revolutionary vanguard.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this article by Eric Levitz, published earlier this week, with the straightforward title “This One Chart Explains Why the Kids Back Bernie.” The chart (or rather, the stats that create the chart) are indeed explanatory:

(1) The unemployment rate among recent college graduates in the U.S. is now higher than our country’s overall unemployment rate for the first time in over two decades, (2) More than 40 percent of recent college graduates are working jobs that do not traditionally require a bachelor’s degree (while one in eight are stuck in posts that pay $25,000 or less), and (3) the median income among the bottom half of college graduates is roughly 10 percent lower than it was three decades ago.

This is the millennial (and Old Gen-Zer) reality: an “anchor of student debt,” as Levitz puts it, taken out in the hopes of achieving fabled economic security. But who convinced us that college was going to solve, well, everything? In the book I’m finally finished writing on millennial burnout (actual cover coming soon, I promise) I try to work through that question: how did we come to believe in “(the best) college at any cost”? (See also: grad school at any cost).

A lot of the answer can be traced to “the education gospel,” a term coined by an economist (W. Norton Grubb) and a sociologist (Marvin Laverson) to describe the nexus of ideologies (about the future of America and democracy; about how to beat the USSR, then Japan, then China; about how the economy could replace the manufacturing jobs displaced by globalization) that undergird “college at any cost.”

Grubb and Laverson chose the word “gospel” to evoke just how ideological integrated — how naturalized — the idea had become. Of course more education is better than less education; of course you should go to college by any means necessary — even when the costs of that college outweigh the benefits, despite increasing evidence that college is not “worth” its cost for those who drop-out, or for those who come from lower-class backgrounds. They point to a study from the National Commission on the High School Senior year, released in 2001: “In the agricultural age, post-secondary college was a pipe dream for most Americans,” it declared. “In the Industrial Age, it was the birthright of only a few. By the space age it became common for many. Today, it is just common sense for all.”

The roots of this “common sense” go back to the mid-20th century, when the government decided to create the grant and loan programs that made it much, much easier for people to go to college. In 1947, 4.2% of women and 6.2% of men had a college degree; in 2018, those numbers had risen to 35.3% and 34.6% — but that’s of the entire population. A more useful statistic is the percentage of high school graduates who immediately enroll in college: which, in 2016, was 69.7%.

And here’s where the stats become really telling. For the group of students who started college — any type of college — in 2011, only 56.9% had finished their degree by 2017. Around 70% of graduates have student debt of some sort; in 2016, the average debt load was $37,172. That’s a huge amount of debt, especially given the fact that it’s $20,000 more than it was in 2003.

But that’s the people who have degrees. If you reverse the completion stat above, you realize that 43.1% of students who started college in 2011 had not finished their degree in six years. These are students who believed that college could be a pathway towards success, of stability, or their dream job — but couldn’t make it work. There are so many reasons why people are forced (or choose) to drop out of school, and some do find success and stability because they quit school. But they often have nearly as much debt as those with a degree but none of the credentials to put on their resumes — which helps explain why they’re three times as likely to default on their loans.

The institution that pisses me off the most in this scenario are for-profit colleges, where only 23% of students graduate, and 48% of those who do leave with more than $40,000 in debt. A whopping 52% of student loan defaults come from graduates of for-profit colleges. If you don’t know about the general scamminess and ethical grossness of the for-profit college, I can’t recommend Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed enough (you can buy it here, and read an excerpt here).

But if college is theoretically an “equality machine,” then for-profit colleges are inequality machine: they target first generation students, they disproportionately enroll (and fuck over) students of color, they charge massive amounts of money for degrees and education that could be obtained for far less at local community colleges, they jack up their price to the maximum allotted under loan guidelines, and they get away with it because 1) Betsy DeVos and 2) millennials have been so inculcated with the education gospel that, again, we believe that no matter how much it costs, how difficult it will be to complete a degree, how tight the market might be in the field we’re pursuing, the degree itself will be worth it.

To be clear: people with college degrees make more, statistically speaking, than people without college degrees. But the “equality” component of the machine is broken. There’s a massive gap between the promises that floated around that degree — and that includes graduate degrees — and the lived post-degree experience. We’re not talking about liberal arts graduates ski-bumming until they decide they’re ready for that six-figure job. We’re talking about those 40% of graduates working jobs that don’t even require a college degree, and the one in eight working jobs that pay $25,000 or less.

I’ve talked to and heard from hundreds of millennials in this position. If they have loans, they’re either on income-based repayment (and they’re convinced that they’ll be paying them off forever), in default (with reverberations and shame across the rest of their lives), or in deferment (amassing huge amounts of interest). They feel stupid and ashamed that they took out as much money as they did, or pissed that so many forces in their lives — parents, guidance counselors, professors, culture, peers — assured them that it would all work out, if they could just get that degree. It’s hard to convey just how difficult and devastating it is to pay down a broken dream every single month for the rest of your life.

I’ve written extensively about student loans, and the broken state of the student loan forgiveness program, here. That piece was the first thing I wrote after the original millennial burnout article, because it was the most tangible expression of the gap between what millennials were told their future would look like, if only they worked hard enough, and the lived, post-Recession reality. To understand millennial burnout, you can’t just understand the amount of student loans we’re carrying; you have to understand what they feel like. And if and when you understand that, it’s incredibly straightforward to see why so many support Sanders and Warren.

Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, middle-class boomers and young Gen-Xers were faced with the reality that their parents’ broadly stable middle-class existence would not necessarily pass down to them. The so-called Golden Age of American Capitalism had lasted just long enough that those who grew up under it could believe that it might last forever. They responded to the decline in stable middle class jobs in a number of ways: many of them, too, went to college, but because public institution funding had yet to be gutted by tax cuts, it cost much, much, much less. (Cue: your boomer uncle who loves to tell you he worked his way through college and graduated without loans).

But as Barbara Ehrenreich persuasively argues in Fear of Falling, they responded by turning decisively inward: how can I do whatever is possible to help me and mine? You could work tirelessly at cutthroat, soulless jobs (investment banking!) no matter the cost (to yourself, to your family, to the environment, to society), adopting what Ehrenreich calls “the yuppie strategy.” Or you could vote for politicians who promised to lower your taxes, make your life better, regardless of the effects on those who didn’t act and spend and look like you. (See: the widespread embrace of Reaganism). As Levitz points out, in 1984, 61% of voters under 25 voted for Reagan. Conservativism — think Michael J. Fox as Alex Keaton from Family Ties — was, I dunno, cool? Not actually cool, but very much mainstream.

The strategy makes “sense,” in so far as it was motivated by self-preservation and fear. And a whole lot of millennials were raised by parents who lived through, if not fully embraced, the guiding ideologies of that period. But it’s fascinating to watch as millennials and Gen-Z — — faced not just with the fear of falling, but the widespread reality — embrace a profoundly different one.

Things I Wrote These Last Few Weeks:

Things I Read and Loved These Last Few Weeks:

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