The day after my college graduation in June 2006, I boarded a plane bound for Dublin with nothing but a backpack, a Eurail pass and a reservation at a youth hostel. As a graduation present, my brother, a paramedic, and my father, a tile setter, had each contributed $1000 to my savings for me to take this solo trip to Europe. I spent two months there taking in the culture and dreaming about my future. I even kept a journal during my trip, and on the train from Madrid to Barcelona I wrote this entry:
"Things I will do now that I have graduated and have more focus for my various endeavors:
'Find an awesome job!!! Make mad $ -- cause I'm American.'"
As the child of cultured blue-collar parents who never finished college, I proudly expected to represent my family in the middle class.
To me this was a given, since I had gone to one of the country's top liberal arts colleges, Wesleyan University. But arriving at an elite liberal arts college from rural Maine took some adjusting. By and large, these were not the kind of people I grew up around back home. They were what we called the "summer people" - folks from the upper-middle class or beyond who came to Maine for vacations or stays in their second homes.
I never quite got over the feeling of being out-classed, and as the years go by after graduation, I watch many peers from privileged backgrounds land those awesome jobs, and I can't help but wonder where these jobs come from. Does it have to do with the fact that I can't afford one of those unpaid summer internships in the city? Turns out upward mobility is elusive when the dominant trend is actually downward. People are dropping like flies from the middle class, so how can I convince them to let me in?
When I returned home from Europe I had nothing to get started, so I painted some houses, did some carpentry and finally made it to New York City where I worked in a Brooklyn glass sculpture studio. I was in the big city, a place with every kind of opportunity, but when the financial crisis hit in fall of 2008, the next commission for the Empire State Building dried up, and with it my job. My savings didn't last long.
Since then I have been moving from place to place, looking for work, and finally ended up here in Portland, Oregon. Like many of my peers here I live off of food stamps and the paychecks of temporary labor jobs and working for the Census Bureau.
My creative and educational goals have partially fallen by the wayside as I struggle with the anxiety and depression of unemployment. It is not only the economic crisis that stands in the way, but a complicated family history that involves my parents' transition during the 70s and 80s from a solid middle-class upbringing to the working class rearing that I had. When I found Elizabeth Warren's work, I realized that my family is not so unique in this transition. Yet it is hard to feel comfortable taking the risks to further my lot knowing that I have so little to fall back on.
I have been hearing more and more about my generation, the challenges we face, and our increasing dependence on our parents and reluctance to settle into careers and families. A recent New York Times article even details one psychologist's plan to create a new stage of life for us, "emerging adulthood." But I'm willing to bet that twenty-somethings have always struggled with "identity exploration, instability, self-focus, and feeling in-between." What's changed is the context of these trials. Personally, I would be glad to have a stable career and I would be much more likely to have a spouse if I had some kind of steady income or place to live.
And maybe we do have a sense of entitlement, but we are also the first generation to be raised with the contradictory expectations that we can all do something fulfilling and profitable on the one hand and that we must make up for the overconsumption of our predecessors on the other.