Youth in Recession

A new anthology by Generation Y writers is part survival handbook, part manifesto. Scott McLemee interviews the editor.

July 27, 2011

Freshmen who arrived on campus as the phrase “too big to fail" was taking hold will, over the coming year, be working out the details of their post-graduation plans. At this point, finding employment increasingly counts as an aspiration more than a goal -- while continuing with graduate study must feel like buying a lottery ticket. Condensing a million anxious conversations into a single humorous/appalling graphic, Jenna Brager’s “Post-College Flow Chart of Misery and Pain” finds its balance on the thin line between satire and cold-eyed realism. It deserves its spot on the opening page of Share or Die: Youth in Recession, an anthology of essays, memoirs, and cartoons recently e-published by the online magazine Shareable.

Released under a Creative Commons license, Share or Die is available to download for free. While Brager’s cartoon embodies a sense of foreclosed options, the spirit of the book as a whole is anything but resigned. “There’s a common anxiety in the pieces in this collection,” Malcolm Harris, its 22-year-old editor, writes in his introduction. “…The promises of the '90s and the early' 00s, that society could only be improved, that shopping was patriotic, that the earth knew no boundaries for the determined, have turned out to be worth about as much as a bunch of subprime mortgage-backed securities. There’s a sense of generational betrayal, a knowledge that those who came before weren’t planning for a future with consequences. In the face of the unknown, these writers have come to understand they’re responsible for making something new, even if they don’t know what it looks like yet.”

Shareable (where Harris works as a contributing editor) promotes an ethos of open-source cooperation and communitarian mutual aid. The volume includes advice on how to form work co-ops, pool goods and services with friends and neighbors, and otherwise strengthen social ties. The very notion of a commonwealth -- in which there are shared resources that escape the logic of possessive individualism – may need reinventing at this late date. But an ongoing economic crisis with no end in sight is the right time to begin trying to think and live in new ways. Intrigued by Share or Die, I posed a number of questions to Harris, who is also managing editor of the online cultural journal/open-door salon The New Inquiry. A transcript of our e-mail exchange follows.


Q: How did you come to do the book? Was there something in your own education, work history, or other interests that overlapped with this project?

A: I grew up in Palo Alto, California, which is sometimes mistakenly referred to as "Stanford University, California." After graduating in three years with good behavior from the University of Maryland with a degree in English and politics, I lucked into the job at Shareable (thanks Craigslist). That was about a year ago now. In a lot of ways it's a continuation of what I was doing in college, which included a lot of activism around student debt and a weekly column for the school paper on university politics. The struggles that erupted at the University of California campuses my last year of school over tuition hikes juxtaposed with the financial crisis and resulting recession had a deep effect on my thinking and what I wanted to do with my newly unemployed self. When Baby Boomers and Gen Xers write about my generation, they can almost never help themselves from projecting what I see as their own generational insecurities. We end up portrayed as lazy, disengaged, greedy whiners unable to endure a little hardship. That's not the case, and the stories in Share or Die prove it.

Q: How should people think of Share or Die -- as manifesto or survival handbook? There are elements of both. But did you have one or the other more in mind while editing it?

A: I definitely had both in mind while editing it, as well as about a half-dozen other forms -- the personal essay, ethnography, how-to's, and others. Young people face a rather total set of disorienting circumstances, and I think the variety of forms in which writers submitted to the collection indicates there's no solid consensus on how best to approach the situation. I think we could use some good manifestos right about now -- I'm a fan of the form -- but there's a real danger of abstracting too far away from concrete circumstances. The goal for the collection was to be of use in as many ways as possible, whether that's suggesting ways to think about the collective struggle for a livable environment and workers' dignity, or providing specific ways to start a housing co-op or quit your job.

Q: Some contributors express frustration at not being able to find interesting work. Three years into a collapsed job market, that complaint already sounds a bit dated. Apart from the much-discussed option of moving back in with one's parents, what's your sense of how people are getting by?

A: It is a dated frustration, and one that goes back further than the last three years. American capitalism has always offered workers a trade: your obedience in exchange for your freedom. As the writer John Berger put it: "selling your life piece by piece so as not to die." Job dissatisfaction isn't a new development, but this generation was promised otherwise. The historical narrative of steady progress and social mobility meant that each next generation's life could be more fulfilling -- your grandfather was a laborer so your father could be a professional so you could be an artist, etc. But it hasn't turned out that way at all -- the 21st-century college graduates who were supposed to be the teleological end of this chain are the most indebted and least employed in history. This has meant a vast majority moving back in with parents -- there's a touching essay about that in the collection -- and the much-discussed "extended adolescence." Besides that, it involves trolling Craigslist for short-term contract jobs, living in small spaces with lots of roommates, and learning to make instead of buy the things they need. We have a couple beautiful flow-chart cartoons by my dear friend Jenna Brager charting possible (and painfully realistic) post-graduation paths, and they're far more complex than any career ladder.

Q: Well before the recession kicked in, social critics were talking about the deep changes in ethos that have accompanied shifts in worklife in recent years. The notion of "having a career" makes sense if and only if someone has a reasonable prospect for stable, long-term employment in some field (professional or otherwise) covering the better part of adulthood. Now "careerism" seems to have given way to "flexibilism," for want of a better term -- the expectation that we will have constantly to be acquiring new sets of skills, moving frequently between occupations as well as between cities. Isn't it possible that the recession is just intensifying this? What's the difference between "share or die" and "be flexible or be discarded"?

A: But that's the false choice right there -- being flexible means being discarded all the time! The title doesn't just refer to material deprivation -- there are forms of social death, and the choice "be flexible or be discarded" is one of them. Share or Die is about a different choice, the choice to -- if you will -- discard the discarders. At the same time, flexibilism primes this pump. An Italian friend of mine, Gigi Roggero, has his first book in English coming out next month in which he makes a strong argument that with the decline of employer loyalty, employee loyalty has tanked as well. Job-searching takes up an incredible amount of Gen Y's time and energy -- for the employed, unemployed, and in-between alike. The challenge now is to take this time and energy and use it as a generation to build the infrastructure outside and beyond the market. Common resources -- both materially (spaces and goods) and immaterially (peer-to-peer networks and emotional support structures) -- have much more to offer us than a narrowing corporate career ladder and expensive therapists. That is, we have more to offer each other.

Q: The term "precariat" has emerged in Europe to name the sector of the labor force engaged in this sort of "flexible" work. The notion has not exactly caught fire here, even though we have precarity aplenty. I take it from your writing elsewhere that you have an ongoing concern with currents of social and political thought that helped spawn this term. How much of that interest informs the book, directly or indirectly?

A: Well, it certainly influenced my introduction and foreword, and the way I approached the collection as a whole. But it's not like I as an editor told writers they had to be experts on theories of the precariat to contribute to the collection. I think young people today have an intuitive understanding of a lot of the structures and practices of precarity, even if they don't necessarily have the vocabulary to describe it. Building that collective vocabulary is important to a sense of solidarity or shared experience.

I like to think of the relationship between something like Share or Die and so-called post-fordist theory (a strand of heterodox Marxism focused on terms like "multitude," "the common," and precarity) as neither causal nor coincidental. The understanding of precarity in the collection doesn't come (mostly) from reading about it; it comes from the writers' experience being the precariat. Theory coming out of the academy has played an important role in Europe in articulating both problems and solutions, but considering the degree to which the American university system adheres to market logic, I'm skeptical of the role it has to play. The best analyses don't come from cloistered dissertation research; in Italy, where a lot of this thought is coming from, the foundations were developed through workers' struggle in the late '70s. Speaking personally, I'd rather see an understanding develop outside the Ivory Tower -- practice-oriented groups do a much better job coming up with useful formulations and distributing them than any group of tenured professors.

Q: Okay, but what about the non-tenured sort? After all, there is a huge academic precariat -- not all of it youthful, by any means. Somebody entering graduate school now has a far greater chance of becoming an adjunct than ever reaching the starting gate for a tenure track.

A: Definitely. I believe the number is three out of four classes taught by TAs and adjuncts according to Marc Bousquet's great book on the topic, How The University Works. There are certainly plenty of aged adjuncts, but this was a very recent historical shift, mostly occurring within my lifetime, and it overwhelmingly targets young people. The academy is about as gerontocratic as it gets outside the U.S. Senate.

I'm glad to get the chance to set the record straight on this. After I wrote about student loans, I was accused of shilling for the professoriat, which I'm sure gave some former professors of mine a good laugh. You're completely right, by the numbers, grad school (especially, but not just in the humanities) is a con in which young people are suckered into doing labor and taking on debt to further a system that will ultimately have very little to offer most of them. From conversations with peers -- and Jenna has a very personal cartoon about this in the collection -- young people enroll in grad school for the same reason they join Teach for America: it's a predictable and explainable (if not comfortable) path where you might even feel a bit wanted or special once in a while. No one is more complicit in this arrangement than the faculty, who outsource their most laborious work to TAs, but aren't much interested in making sure they're acknowledged or treated as workers. Instead, junior professors are too busy trying to get tenure, and the tenured professors are too busy working on journal articles on the history of labor organizing that no one outside their small academic sub-clique (or, more likely, within it either) will read anyway. Of course they'd love to help, but.... The sheer mass of bad faith required to keep the gears turning astounds me.

Q: Suppose a baby boomer or Generation X-er reads the book and says, "Yeah, this reminds me of when we all tuned in, turned on, and dropped out to form that rural commune (vegetarian hiphop dumpster-diving collective, etc.) Too bad it didn't work out! But then I became a stockbroker (got a job with the Gates Foundation, etc.) and found that I preferred having my own pie, rather than sharing it. Just wait, the economy will pick up.... You'll see!" What reply comes to mind?

A: So you're the bastard who ate all the pie! The truth is, this is the worst prolonged employment crisis since the Great Depression, something no American Gen X-er or Boomer has experienced. And if, by the grace of global warming, we get one more generation of plenty (unlikely in not just my estimation), then we will find ourselves in the same position as our parents: leaving our children with even more debt and even fewer jobs. No society can endlessly finance prosperity with debt, no matter how many times you sell it back and forth. The student power slogan "We are the crisis" -- which has cropped up from Berkeley to Rome to Athens -- isn't a threat, it's a reality. A generational debt is due; we can pay it with our very lives, stretched across decades of precarious work, or find another way to be. The choice remains share or die.


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