(Preface: This post is a bit long, and I hope you’ll stay with me to the end. Before we get too far into it, I want to single out a few things that inspired today’s post. There has been a lot of talk this week, on this blog and elsewhere on the internet, about the economic value of higher education as well as my generation’s unmet expectations regarding said educational value. Some states are trying to implement new plans to help ease the financial burden of students with lower income (like in Oregon), spurning much debate about whose degree is valuable and who should pay accordingly. Some bloggers, like our Wednesday just yesterday, ponder the apparently “unrealistic” expectations our generation has for our degrees and our lives. And in a merging of the two subjects – economic value of higher education and the (un)realistic expectations that go along with it – we’ve seen both an explanation of the plight of Generation Y, and an impassioned & brutally honest response to that very argument. You don’t have to read all of these before continuing on below, but I feel they’d give good context, especially the last two. This is me adding my voice to the tumult.)
We pursue higher education degrees because we want to better ourselves. Every generation wants to do better than the one that came before, and each generation is promised (or at least encouraged) by their elders that they can gain prosperity and happiness through hard work and dedication. Every generation says they want to leave a better world for their kids. All we want – and all our parents want, I hope – is for our generation to “do better”: financially, educationally, economically. But the reality is that this economy, and this financial and educational system we have in place, has not provided and does not provide a better world for my generation.
The fact is we aren’t doing better than our parents. Jobs are scarce. Job security is even rarer, and even if you have it, you may not be financially secure, because the education that was supposed to make your life better and easier comes at a price tag that is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to afford. The blame for this does not lie on our shoulders, yet we bear the burden. We didn’t choose to raise tuition. We didn’t choose to hike up the interest rate on our student loans, to lower employee hours to part-time to avoid providing healthcare. We didn’t choose to increase medical costs, to charge $600 for an aspirin in the ER, to cut education spending, to cut employee wages while CEO bonuses climb to an all-time high. We didn’t choose this. We were told things would be better, and they are not.
The attitudes that were instilled in us by our parents, when they insisted we could have all we wanted, were instilled in a generation who now lives in an economy that cannot and does not support that kind of attitude. When we speak up about this, we are not being “entitled,” or thinking we are “special” – we are trying to find a way to create the “better” world that our parents assured us we would get if we did everything “right.” We are trying to change things, so that they CAN be better. We might have more things – more college degrees, more gadgets, more food in our bellies – but we don’t have more or better quality in any of that, because the “old” system is still in place, the one where the concept of spending a little money to make a lot of money once worked, but no longer does. Now, you’ve got to spend a lot of money to make just a little, and to pay back even more.
Previous generations instilled in us the faith that our lives would be rich in every way – in education, in finances, in freedom, in protection (from sickness, from violence, from poverty). Yet when we find ourselves without those things, and go in search of them, we are told that we need to “adjust our expectations” and stop feeling so entitled, and maybe work harder, and appreciate what we have.
You know what we have?
We have iPhones and iPads and Wi-Fi and X-Boxes and access to an almost unlimited amount of information via the internet. We have Twitter and Facebook and 24-hour news networks. We have hybrid cars and GPS and an app for everything and endless possibilities for entertainment, from video games to music to television to movies to adorable pictures of cats. We have great universities and great medical advancements and great scientific discoveries and an unprecedented way of connecting to individuals and ideas from around the globe. We have an abundance of things and ideas and ways to gain access to all of them.
But we also have debt. We have student loans. We have astronomical medical bills. We have high rent and gas that costs $4 a gallon, increasing interest rates and ever-growing student loans, educations which we pay for but which don’t pay off, educations that are not economically viable – not because we made “poor choices” in determining our major but because the system that is in place does not support the ideals that we were taught as children, that ideal that said, “Follow your dreams to get a better future.” Those iPhones we’re told we need come with $600 price tags. The TV and internet we’re told we need to stay connected and informed come with monthly fees in the triple digits, for channels we don’t watch and news networks we can’t rely on. The car we need to get to work comes with a fuel tank that we may as well fill up with money instead of gas. The work we need to survive comes with dwindling hours, dwindling benefits, dwindling opportunities for advancement. The education we’re told to get is part of a system where the best people in their fields – people with PhDs, who have advanced as far as it is possible to advance –must struggle to make a living because tenure track positions have all but disappeared. We have a world where we are promised everything but given none of it, even after we have put in all the hard work and blood and sweat and tears and money that it takes to make it happen. This is my generation’s reality.
To me, there are two ways of looking at this situation.
One is that, with the best of intentions, our parents simply gave us unrealistic expectations that cannot, in fact, be met, and thus we must adjust our goals and ideas of fulfillment and happiness (an incredibly undesirable option).
The second way of looking at things is that our parents gave us expectations that simply cannot be met within the confines of our current system, and thus we must create a system wherein they can be met – an incredibly empowering option.
We have an opportunity to change our current reality into one where the ideals of financial/professional success and personal fulfillment need not be mutually exclusive or (nearly) impossible to attain. We have the opportunity to actually fulfill the promise we got from our parents: that the world is our oyster, that we can have anything and everything we want if we only work for it, if we only make the effort and take the first step – which is, inevitably, always the hardest one to take.
We have a reality right now which insists that we dream big and then denies us the opportunity to bring that dream to life. If that’s the case, we either need a new reality or a new dream. And I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m not ready to give up the dream just yet.