Monday, July 23, 2007

Are young Americans more interested in selling out than changing the world? Brook's new book argues that 20-somethings are forced to

"Before I begin, I should confess to being one of those people prone to bemoaning the state of the world and wondering what's wrong with my generation. At more than one antiwar event, geriatric radicals have far outnumbered young ones, which left me feeling demoralized and forlorn. Dedicated young activists exist, but they're a minority; my cohort's general quiescence on Iraq and nonchalance about climate change -- not to mention a zillion other issues -- don't reassure me about the future. (And don't tell me the kids are all off organizing online. The median age of the average progressive blog reader -- the backbone of the netroots -- is my mother's age.)

We're accustomed to thinking of young people and students as the barometer of social change, so explaining this youthful inertia has become something of a national pastime, one that's made it all the way to the opinion pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the International Herald Tribune. Theories abound. Many point out that the war in Iraq is being fought by an all-volunteer army (which has even inspired some frustrated progressives to call for a reinstitution of the draft to invigorate campus activism). Others claim my peers' cynicism stems from a lack of contemporary examples of successful collective action. But more often than not, the problem is conceived as cultural. Members of the emerging generation -- post-Watergate, post-Monica Lewinsky, weaned on irony and satire -- expect the government to deceive them and are hardly surprised, let alone outraged, when their expectations are met. Insulated from the suffering of the offline world by the virtual universe of Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube, some speculate that kids today are just too narcissistic, materialistic or distracted to care.

Daniel Brook, author of "The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America," would bristle at these descriptions of his age group. Instead, he provides ample evidence to back up another popular theory. Young people aren't particularly self-absorbed or apathetic -- they're overworked and indebted. Today's 20- and 30-somethings are so busy struggling to make ends meet, they simply don't have time to take to the streets.

For anyone who read Tamara Draut's "Strapped" or Anya Kamenetz's "Generation Debt," two excellent descriptions of the perilous economic realities assailing young people today, Brook's primary point will be familiar: Compared with our parents at the same age, we're working longer hours for less money, reduced job security, slashed benefits and fewer social services. Over the last four decades, as the income gap has exploded, opportunities for social mobility have declined -- dramatically. But Brook, more than the other authors, is concerned with the social implications of this transformation. Given these unpalatable truths, what's a youthful idealist to do?

"The Trap" opens with an anecdote hinting at one possible solution: Sell out. Milling about a wedding party, Brook sheepishly confesses his book's thesis to a young man who works for Goldman Sachs. To Brook's surprise, it turns out the guy's a leftist who went to Wall Street only after years of trying, and failing, to make it as a muckraking journalist. "That's how hegemony works," the reluctant broker tells Brook. "The system can contain all of the dissenters." The other option, to use Brook's terminology, is to be a saint. Let your student loans fall into default, rent a cheap, dingy room, go without healthcare, plan on staying childless; that's the price you pay for following your passion or adhering to your ethics.

To his credit, Brook isn't out to pass judgment on his subjects or chastise them for the compromises they've made. Instead, his salient point is that the dichotomy foisted on us -- becoming a sellout or a saint -- is one that "has no place in a prosperous modern democracy."

Beginning with the Gramsci-quoting Goldman Sachs employee, Brook tells countless stories of young people wrestling with similar trade-offs. He speaks to Claire, a 27-year-old New Yorker lucky enough to escape the purgatory of wage slavedom. She's secured a 9-to-5 job at a nonprofit combating sex trafficking, but like so many altruistic industries -- from public-interest law to social work -- it doesn't pay enough to cover necessities like rent and food. So Claire spends 14 hours each weekend working as a waitress on the Upper West Side. There's also Karl, co-director of San Francisco's Living Wage Coalition, who lives in a humble boarding house and has to take paying gigs on the side to make ends meet; and Brendan, a former lawyer at the progressive Center for the Study of Responsive Law, who switched career tracks for the bigger paycheck needed to buy a house within commuting distance of D.C.

Public service and penury, Brook demonstrates, too often go hand in hand. As a result, "the activist community has become an assemblage of idealistic young people taking a few years off before professional school or a corporate job, a handful of liberal trustfunders, and a slew of eccentric nonconformists."

Brook's analysis is strongest -- and most shocking -- when he compares the current situation to the experiences of the previous generation. The 1960s and 1970s were a high-water mark of social mobility in the United States, with education serving as the great equalizer. In those days a Pell Grant covered nearly three-quarters of a student's college tuition; today, the portion has fallen to one-third. It's difficult to fathom that many high-quality public schools like CUNY and Berkeley were once free, and private ones reasonably priced. Brook points out that Ronald Reagan instituted tuition at Berkeley -- reversing a 100-year-old tradition -- only after the Free Speech Movement of the early 1960s, a ploy to punish radicals. "In the end," Brook writes, "tuition and other conservative economic policies did more to undermine student activism than any CIA-style investigation ever could.""

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