Gordon Chaffin / Uncategorized

The Youth Vote in 2012: Student Debt, Internships and the Sound of Crickets

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I’m very thankful for the position I’m in right now: a part-time grad student studying public policy at one of the best schools in that discipline, and interning for a tech start-up — a position that will (knock on wood) turn into a salaried job this summer. But I’ve struggled two years to get to this point since graduating from Michigan in May 2010. I’ve ran out of money twice, surviving only because my parents took me back in, and because I had the credit available to leverage myself up with private student loans. I’ve experienced personally, and seen in friends, the harsh realities of our economy. I’m among the liberal arts grads, many of whom sit in their senior year classes and wonder whether Kant’s Categorical Imperative or Chaucer’s works will help them find a living wage job.

That’s the economy we Millennial students have to deal with and when you turn on the news, it seems all the politicians have forgotten about it. Did I mention that my current internship is my 7th internship since 2008, most of which involved taking private loans out that I won’t pay off anytime soon? Did you know that the student loan interest rate on government student loans (Stafford, etc.) is set to double this summer? What about the fact that outstanding student debt is now more than outstanding credit card debt? I haven’t been hearing many politicians talk about this, and I’m guessing you haven’t either.

Last year at the Campus Progress National Conference, former Presidential advisor Van Jones said that “you [Millennials] shouldn’t have to be interns until you’re 25.” Well, how many of us can find stable, living-wage jobs without taking unpaid or low-stipend internships? How many of us are in grad school because that was the only discernible opportunity for career advancement that we had out of undergrad? How many companies, for- or non-profit, have turned their entry-level jobs into unpaid internships to keep their payroll expenses down? What kinds of concrete opportunities do we young people actually have when Teach for America and the Peace Corps get record number of applications every year but can only hire less than 10 percent of applicants? What kind of life do we earn with a college degree when well over half of college grads have to move back in with their parents?

So, we’re debt-ridden and we’re struggling to find jobs that can sustain a stable life apart from our parents’ assistance. On the margins, we’re being innovative by starting small businesses and building creative projects that take advantage of social media. On the whole, though, we’re just struggling to get by and almost none of our leaders are really talking about it. Do they notice? Ask most policy experts, most newspaper columnists — they’d say that we’re the most intelligent, innovative, capable generation that America has ever produced. Yet, government on the federal and state level has focused ever more in recent years on ensuring the stability of older people at the expense (and eventual financial burden) of opportunities for us students.

Wake up people, this is generational warfare. It’s not that our leaders don’t speak to our issues, or don’t listen to our concerns — it’s worse. Government and forces in our economy are robbing us of our potential so that our parents and grandparents don’t have to sacrifice at all. It’s more than that, too. Think about your job, or your friends’ jobs — how many of us feel truly mentored at work? How many companies are there left that truly develop the human capital that we represent as highly-educated 20-somethings who have problem-solving attitudes by default? How many of us are too thankful to even have a job, or to be receiving any money at our internship, to begin to worry about whether we’re affecting positive change in the world with our work?

This sounds like a frustrated rant. Maybe it is; maybe I’m just tired of the neglect we Millennials are receiving.Perhaps the last straw for me is near. At least I’m reacting with anger and passion for reform; emotions that can lead to change over time. Many young people, I fear, are just reacting with apathy and nihilism — “why even try,” they say. That’s a horrible attitude, but it’s an understandable reaction. So, when you go to polling places this November and hear crickets when you ask about the youth turnout, know that it’s an in-kind response to how we’ve been treated by our leaders. We hear crickets when we listen for Washington speaking on issues that matter to us today.


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