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Reflections on the Occupation in NYC: “Occupy Wall Street” and the American Generations

October 4, 2011

In the last several days many of my friends and I have been corresponding with one another on the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. In case you haven’t heard, semi-spontaneously, groups of several hundred young Americans started several weeks ago to camp out in Lower Manhattan to protest what they viewed as injustices in the economy. The movement remained leaderless and without a concrete platform, but websites often linked to a microblog, We Are the 99 Percent, which documents the plight of many young Americans.

Their complaints are well-known and justified: it increasingly seems that higher education in the USA is overpriced and throws people into debt without giving them real, marketable qualifications; there are few legitimate opportunities in the economy today besides prostitution, joining the military, or signing on for more higher education of dubious value; you’re screwed if you don’t have health insurance; it’s too easy to fall into a life of heavy indebtedness.

Madonna of the Brooklyn Bridge: NYPD Officers Have Been Arresting Demonstrators from the "Occupy Wall Street" Protests

True, I look around and I see plenty of friends for whom things seem to be working out: people are still getting jobs at McKinsey or Google or Goldman Sachs. Others, who have not had the educational advantages and privilege that someone like myself have had, have managed to start themselves and their families off on a difficult, but not impossible journey, through old American values like thrift and hard work. But it would appear that for many indeed – maybe not 99 percent but a lot – the reality of permanent unemployment and debt is starting to crystallize in front of them.

The main issue that I have sparred with friends in correspondence on is the story that the media has made the main issue of the protests: what are their demands? The answer is that no one knows. Friends criticize, and I must say justly, that too much of protest culture on the Left in America today is about being rather than demanding. I have remarked to buddies in recent days that if I were in charge of everything at the protests, everyone would have to wear button-up dress shirts and khaki pants, the shirts tucked in. Instead, Middle America too often sees people who have delayed entry to adulthood to wear clothing from the punk subculture, ludicrous piercings, and earlobe stretchers.

As Mark Twain said, “clothes make the man. Naked people have little to no influence in society.” I would never discount young Americans from the alternative subcultures immediately, but it remains unclear to me what, precisely, they have to contribute to a constructive solution of the (very real) problems that confront the Millenial Generation today. In other words, if it’s pretty clear what your basic demand is – as it was in Tahrir Square (police reform, get rid of the state of emergency, Mubarak has to step down) – then it’s fine to turn public areas into loitering spaces and press the authorities to do something. If it’s not clear, as it is in this case, having pierced kids with dogs hang out for days on end isn’t going to advance the situation.

For example, stories like that of Justin Adkins, a “radical trans-queer activist,” who claims to have been mistreated by the NYPD after his arrest, deserve further investigation. But turning a rally that (in this author’s opinion) has to be focused on financial and education reform that will benefit the American middle class into a showcase for alternative lifestyles (which should not be taken as a euphemism here – championing LGBT rights seems to me to be a separate issue from what is going on in Manhattan). The more groups that Middle America (which is as destroyed by debt as the young people arranging this event) views as out of the mainstream attempt to dominate the narrative of the protests, the less likely it is to result in real change.

Note to protestors: looking like this or wearing excessive piercings is a good way to get dismissed by the "drive-by media" or Middle America

A second issue that any reform movement coming from young people or the Left in the USA is going to have to deal with is the extent it wants to portray itself as demanding entitlements for people who don’t deserve them. Concretely, I can recall showing a course mate the other day the blog for “We Are the 99 Percent.” He was moved by the stories, but he also mocked the people with placards which simultaneously bemoaned their useless college degrees and how they had be scammed and featured numerous misspelled words. As I have written elsewhere, there are numerous problems with higher education and the financing thereof in America today. But one of them has been the inability of Americans, especially Baby Boomers, to have a productive conversation about whether college is right for everyone. Saying nothing about intellectual capability, some people’s minds or talents may simply not be best served by a four-year college education, especially in one that trains people in “international relations,” “environmental studies,” “gender studies,” and other non-technical, often-fluff fields, while also not seeking to give them a thorough butt-kicking at the same time – giving them an education, in other words.

Here’s the point: the individual stories of these people with the misspelled placards are shameful, a sign that the system of higher education and finance for it in America is broken. But I wonder if for a reform movement to succeed, it can’t bog itself down too much in the stories of people who were let down by colleges that tricked people into bogus, low-quality four-year programs. The argument has to be presented in a way that it can’t be dismissed by “Ah, but these people all got degrees in English and Women’s Studies! What were they thinking?!” (Apologies to a dear friend who may be reading this who will have graduate degrees in both in a year’s time.) The focus needs to be on the people who did work hard, or did play by the rules – say, who learned Arabic and then majored in International Relations, or who studied climatology and then did a major in Policy Studies or Public Policy, people working on important issues – but still got screwed and are living in their parents’ basement, which itself may soon be foreclosed.

As for the people with the misspelled placards, the focus, I would argue, has to be less on their personal plight (as disastrous as it is) and more on the regulations or lack thereof that allowed these lives to be wrecked: fraud on the part of universities when it comes to post-graduate salary and employment data, the theft of public monies when for-profit colleges take GI Bill money from veterans who served their country, or the fact that in the United States of America, student loan debt – unlike almost all other kinds of debt – cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. In other words, focus more on institutions (laws and regulation) and the bad incentives they create, rather than focusing on the pity stories of people screwed by the perverse incentives these institutions generated. Thinking in this way is likely to engender less navel-gazing and more impetus for actual reform.

Of course, I’m just joining a distinguished cast of pundits offering advice to the protestors when it comes to policy formulation. Nicholas Kristof has suggested that the protestors try to coalesce around a few specific ideas: a financial transactions tax (which, he claims, would discourage speculation and encourage a return to investing based on … investment and value, as opposed to high-speed computerized short-term transactions that add dubious value to companies), a cut in corporate loopholes, etc. Robert Applebaum, an American attorney and activist, has long proposed that student loan debt be entirely forgiven. Given that the total amount of student loan debt is over $1 trillion by now (more than credit card debt), this might, the proponents say, give young productive people more freedom. Contributors to the Freakonomics blog have written on why this would be “the worst idea ever” (…), which I think is rather hyperbolic: but allowing discharge in bankruptcy would probably result in a more responsible de-leveraging than a debt jubilee.

"The Thinker" for American Millenials? Hope Not.

More tangentially and more broadly, I wonder how much the mainstream media’s treatment of the protests (“What’s their message? Why aren’t they more organized? Who are the leaders?”) reflects a schizophrenia on the part of the American Baby Boomer intelligentsia / media élites when it comes to talking about younger Americans. In my experience, Baby Boomers, especially those who have had children, basically have two ways of talking about Americans born in the 1980s. One, which anyone who has spent time around the élite institutions in the United States is bound to be familiar with, is a rhetoric that focuses on the over-structured life, Organization Kids, and the disenchantment of life that Millenials seem to be carrying out on themselves, even as they amass high-powered CVs. James Atlas’ recent piece “Super People,” which appeared in the Sunday New York Times, is a perfect example of this genre. According to this genre, people under the age of 30 are apparently super-intimidating (“I never would have gotten into this college if I was applying today!” is a common refrain among people over the age of 50) but also lack a certain soul or thoughtfulness that Boomers implicitly ascribe to their supposedly less structured lives. According to this narrative, young Americans are supposed to chill out and be less goal-directed.

At the same time, Boomer literature also speaks of Millenials (also known as Generation Y) as over-entitled, lazy, too much in need of direction, intolerant of climbing up the career ladder of big institutions, and disrespectful of authority (i.e. of older people). Google Auto-Complete gives me “Entitled Generation Y” when I simply type in “Entitled Generation,” for example. At least one help guru, Penelope Trunk, appears to be employed full-time as a blogger, writer, and consultant on how to deal with Millenials and how to approach them in the workplace. Many Millenial friends I know are hugely frustrated with this condescension, and often wonder whether what seems like a Baby Boomer fanaticism about how Millenials are lazy/entitled/stupid/arrogant/rude could stem from a sense of shame about their own over-consumption and wreckage of state finances: witness books like David Willett’s The Pinch or Thomas Friedman’s new That Used To Be Us for works that capitalize on this Boomer guilt to forward a specific political program. In other words, even at the same time that they love to obsess about how Millenials are too career-focused and not chill or thoughtful enough, Boomer literature also loves to complain about … how they don’t work hard enough and are actually not productive in the workplace. Right.

Confused? Baby Boomers self-lacerating themselves for being irresponsible children and terrible parents goes part in parcel with criticizing Millenials for being the most entitled generation in American and British history

The point of these observations on Baby Boomers as concerns the Wall Street is just that so much of the reporting on “What are their demands?” or “Who is their leader?” echoes, at least to me, this second tradition of Baby Boomer reflections on the Millenials. At the same time that they claim to be impressed by hyper-accomplished Meritocrats, Boomers often, so it seems to me, harbor a resentment against Generation Y for someone not being organized enough (this for “Organization Kids”) or up to Boomer standards when it comes to running an institution. The fact that it’s all contradictory doesn’t stop Boomers in the media from reporting on the protests with this as their lead headline. It doesn’t matter if in one book, authors laud “The Facebook Effect”  - the ability of social media platforms to allow for decentralized protest movements whose demands evolve if not democratically, then organically over time; this month, the media will be out obsessing over how a protest (also coordinated by savvy use of technology) doesn’t have enough concrete demands. There’s a cognitive dissonance in the way media as run by the postwar generation covers young Americans, in other words. I, for one, wish the protestors well – especially if they can come up with a concrete reform program that would benefit the middle class – and may have to make a stop at “Tahrir on the Hudson” the next time I swing through New York.

One Comment
  1. John permalink

    Hi Tim, would just wonder whether you might not incorporate some mention of Paris in 1968 here. Unfortunately, it does seem (or has been made to seem) that some of the younger protesters are there simply for excitement or some sense of ‘personal’ rebellion, which is well and fine but misses an opportunity. Some of their placards are conceptually silly (and not with the requisite wink of irony). There’s a also a signal failure of articulating themselves here that belongs on the shoulders of the left (or New Left): some of the rhetoric, misspelled or otherwise, is simply embarrassing for liberals watching in sympathy.

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