Who Were the 99 Percent?

FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2011 file photo, Occupy Wall Street protesters join a labor union rally in Foley Square before marchin
FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2011 file photo, Occupy Wall Street protesters join a labor union rally in Foley Square before marching on Zuccotti Park in New York's Financial District. Occupy groups from across the country are headed to Philadelphia for a national gathering from Saturday, June 30, 2012 through July 4, seeking to unify their far-flung movement against economic inequality. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File)

The Occupy Wall Street movement may have faded from the headlines in the aftermath of the eviction of Zuccotti Park more than a year ago, but the issues that originally sparked it and the activism it inspired remain very much alive. Labor market prospects for college-educated Millennials have barely improved since the fall of 2011 when Occupy first burst into public view, and the level of student debt continues to soar.

Meanwhile, although media coverage of their efforts has been limited, Occupy participants have carried their political vision and activism into a variety of new venues. Occupy Sandy organized thousands of volunteers to address the urgent needs createdOctober's Superstorm, and the Rolling Jubilee organized by the Occupy offshoot "Strike Debt" has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy up and forgive debt. Other former Occupiers are engaged in the anti-fracking movement, fighting foreclosures, organizing low-wage workers, and more.

Despite the splintering of the movement over the past year, the many obituaries for it that have appeared in the media are premature. Our analysis of a representative survey of Occupy activists and supporters that we fielded in New York City last spring, and our in-depth interviews with 25 core activists, suggest that the political transformation that Occupy engendered among those who gravitated to Zuccotti Park and its counterparts around the country will continue to reverberate for many years to come. Not only did the movement succeed in focusing the national political conversation on economic inequality and the growing concentration of wealth and power, but it also gave birth to a new generation of activists with a political vision and collective identity that will continue to orient many of them for the rest of their lives. Although as it grew, Occupy attracted supporters of all ages, "it was the 26 to 29 or 30 crowd that was the largest in terms of presence," a 27-year-old activist told us, "who had just blazed through college and a Master's program and then were like, 'What the hell is this?'"

Our data show that many Occupy activists and supporters were deeply affected by the Great Recession, like the larger population of college-educated Millennials. A highly educated demographic, few Occupiers were unemployed outright, but many were underemployed: among our respondents, nearly a third were working less than 35 hours a week, over a third had been laid off or lost a job in the past five years, and nearly half were carrying student debt.

Similarly, nearly half of the respondents to a recent Pew survey of 18-34 year olds reported that they had taken jobs they didn't want "to pay the bills," and only 30 percent considered their current job a "career." Many other studies confirm these findings. The current generation of college graduates is not only confronting the worst labor market since the Great Depression, but many of its members are burdened by historically unprecedented levels of debt. And instead of finding the kinds of professional opportunities they aspired to after graduating, many end up working as unpaid or poorly paid interns or at best in economically precarious jobs for which they are often overqualified.

These personal economic hardships were part of what attracted many young people to the Occupy movement. But many of them were also drawn to it out of disillusion with recent political developments. In 2008, Millennials were the generation most enthusiastic about Obama's presidential candidacy. Indeed, the vast majority of our respondents (88 percent) voted for Obama that year, and many actively campaigned for him as well. But after he won election many of them were deeply disappointed. As a handmade sign held aloft by an Occupy activist plaintively asked, "Where Is The Change We Voted For?" To be sure, more seasoned political activists who were also central to Occupy had become disillusioned with mainstream politics long before.

New or nearly new to activism, the college-educated young people who were radicalized by Occupy redirected the Millenials' Do It Yourself ethos toward political ends. In this way they forged a distinctive collective identity, echoing a process similar towhat took place among activists in the 1960s. Many of those who came of age in that era maintained the same political worldview long after the movement faded; the Occupy generation is poised to follow a similar trajectory.

The conditions that gave rise to the vibrant 2011 protests against Wall Street have not changed. Unemployment rates have declined somewhat over the course of the slow economic recovery, but most of the available jobs are poorly paid and offerlittle or no employment security, especially for young graduates newly entering the labor market. And there is little basis for optimism on the political horizon either. The eviction of Zuccotti Park may have made the blocked economic and political aspirations of the Millennial generation less visible, and fragmented the movement they began to build there. But those who participated understand that their problems are not the result of bad individual choices, but instead a broken economic and political system. They may have lost the futures they imagined, but they have discovered what could be a lifelong calling.

Ruth Milkman is a professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and the Murphy Institute. Stephanie Luce is associate professor of labor studies at the Murphy Institute. And Penny Lewis is assistant professor of labor studies at the Murphy Institute.