Generation Debt at the Barricades

Seven years ago I wrote a cover story for the Village Voice headlined "A Sleeping Class: Young Americans Fight for Every Cause But Their Own."
Starting with that story, which later became a book, my beat was the economic headwinds young people are facing: mounting student loans, credit card debt, unemployment, unpaid internships or short-term, part-time, no-benefits jobs that have them joining a new "precariat."

I asked why the young, so ready to march against Iraq or for Sudan, weren't fighting back, as a class, for economic justice.

It took half a generation and a global economic meltdown, but now they finally are. Occupy Wall Street is Generation Debt at the barricades, on blogs, Twitter and Tumblr, expressing their deep sense of betrayal. At the heart of that betrayal, the one issue that comes up over and over again is student debt.

College tuition has grown more than any other good or service in the Consumer Price Index since 1978, the average student loan debt is now over $24000, and the collective student loan debt surpassed the nation's aggregate credit card debt last year and is currently headed for a trillion dollars.

Why does this feel like such a betrayal? Because college is the centerpiece of the American dream. We tell our children that if you have both merit and gumption you'll be handed the chance to prove yourself on a level playing field, with both financial and personal rewards. And so it's our nation's college students -- the ones with an average age of 26, the ones who are burning through their youth with a cycle of part-time jobs and part-time classes -- who are now raising their voices to tell us that the dream has gone hollow.

That's what this movement is really about. That's what makes it so hard to ignore. Millennials, like all young people throughout history, have been pilloried for their sense of entitlement and lack of perspective, but that's exactly what gives them the moral high ground here. They feel entitled to a better future than what they're facing. They believe, as they've been taught to believe, in an America of rising prospects and expanding opportunities. They're not living in that America anymore.

So the challenge for Generation Debt at the barricades is to reach high in imagining what kind of country they DO want to live in. Because the old American dream -- a house in the suburbs, two cars, two kids -- is neither widely sustainable nor frankly desirable.

Every generation since Plymouth Rock in America has made good -- they have made more money than mom and dad. That stopped with those of us born after the late 1970s. We are actually making less money and we have less stuff than mom and dad. And that's going to last.

What we do in response to that comeuppance is really going to determine what history thinks of us. For the sake of the planet, we need to develop a very different set of values and put emphasis on different kinds of rewards. It's not just about reforming our existing institutions to create a slightly stronger welfare state, a tiny bit more progressive taxation or a smidge-less-rapacious consumer economy. It's about better ways of organizing creation and production: just a few names for it are the solidarity economy, the Sharing Economy, Plenitude, resilient communities, DIY, Makers, the Mesh.

I'm so happy that my generation is finally fighting back. But now I realize fighting is not enough. It's time to build, because the future belongs to us now.