Generation Threat: Why the Youth of America Are Occupying the Nation
“In the late sixties, we were so fed up we wanted to destroy it all. That’s when we changed the name of America and stuck in the “k”. The mood is different today and the language that will respond to that mood will be different. Things are so deteriorated in this society, that it’s not up to you to destroy America, it’s up to you to go out and save America.”
Abbie Hoffman— National Student Convention ’88, Rutgers University
In 1988, fresh out of college, I had the good fortune to get a job entering data in the New York City office of a civil liberties organization headed by a prominent liberal fundraiser devoted to Democratic Party politics and the arts. She took an interest in my student movement experience and direct-action preoccupations. One afternoon, she invited me into her office to share the story of her experiences in the streets of Chicago in August of 1968. Eager for the vantage point, I listened intently, tracking her experience against the radical accounts I had both read and heard. She was in Chicago as part of Gene McCarthy’s team. McCarthy’s beleaguered bid for the Democratic Party nomination, she was convinced, offered the last slim bit of leverage for the inclusion of an anti-Vietnam War plank in the Party platform of that blood-soaked year. Barely forty-years old, she had cultivated friendships and heated debates all year with some of the most influential leaders in the radical youth movements of the day. It was, therefore, no surprise to any of them when the third week in August rolled around and the profound divisions between the radicals and the liberals on the question of Vietnam and the Democratic Party were entirely in-tact, and in full-view.
The Conrad Hilton was the headquarters for both the McCarthy camp and for the nominee-apparent, Hubert Humphrey. Meanwhile, the Yippie-inspired “Festival of Life” was getting underway in Grant Park. The trickle of young anti-war protestors that began over the weekend, swelled and by the start of the convention on Monday evening, their numbers lurched toward 10,000. But Chicago ’68 is less remembered today for the specific reasons young people were drawn there, and more for the brutal police violence unleashed on them. Trammeled by 23,000 local police and National Guard troops summoned by local Democratic Party-boss and Chicago mayor, Richard Daly, the legacy of Chicago was forever memorialized on film and audio. By Wednesday night, the worst police violence of that week (the “Battle of Michigan Avenue”) erupted as police bulldozed protestors using military jeeps with fence-high, barbed-wired buttresses fitted to the vehicles’ front-ends. Behind the trucks followed rows and rows of police, a couple thousand of them, swinging clubs mindlessly and firing tear-gas.
The chanting of the protestors, now with their backs up-against the Hilton, faltered — and then faded. The mighty unison of “Peace Now. Peace Now” began breaking-up, punctuated by screams and insults. There in the midst of spreading panic, a new chant sputtered up, gaining strength in the hot August air: “The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.” The protestors’ desperate collective hope, that somehow the electronics of mass media might provide protection where a twisted and broken rule of law could not, echoed through the streets. The scene was captured by the heavy cameras and cumbersome audio equipment of 20th century TV and transported over narrow bandwidth into living rooms across the country and around the world.
My story-teller, now drawn down from her hotel room by the noise, recalled staring out over the violence in shock. She began organizing teams of sympathetic staffers and non-delegates, directing them to strip linens from hotel beds, tear them into bandages and form teams to carry the wounded off the streets and into the hotel lobby for treatment. Dodging clubs and cops, she and a band of McCarthy-liberals went to work, collecting young casualties, wrapping their heads and limbs the best they knew how. Amid the tear gas and chaotic brutality, she remembered looking-up, spotting the face of one of her young friends—the magnificent political balladeer and artist Phil Ochs, who performed that night in Grant Park. Beckoning to him, she begged him to get into the hotel, off the street and to safety — but he refused. She paused and leaned in, closing her eyes for a second. Transported back, I sensed a shift of emotion. Was it anger? Or fear as she watched her beloved liberal order implode? Perhaps it was both, along with grief, knowing that its shadow-side was responsible for the brutalization of so many young people that night. Bringing her story to a close, she recounted her final plea to Ochs as he began to leave: “Please, Phil don’t give up on the democratic process.” Ochs’ crisp reply imprinted on her, permanently I think: “I won’t. But understand, I’ll go into the ballot box with you, when you come into the streets with me”. He then turned, disappearing into the crowd. She went back to treating casualties.
Forty-three years after Chicago, with a Democrat in the White House, with two-wars and five additional “troop commitments” in-tow, with a volatile election-cycle underway and, notably, with the 0-25 year old age cohort nearly rivaling the baby-boom’s share of the population, it may indeed be seductive to hang a lot of sixties analogies on the Tree of Occupy. But to do so, is both dangerous and a mistake. The context which underpins the largely youth-driven “Occupy” phenomena evidences dramatic and defining differences which can be discovered in the measurable and widespread deterioration in American society, captured in the life-prospects of the young. Certainly, the 1960’s had its share of looming threats: the country was wracked by racism, “hidden” poverty, a catastrophic and expanding war in Southeast Asia and marked educational inequality. But, it was also an era characterized by low-unemployment, low-inflation, low-college tuition, low-housing costs, low-energy costs, low-incarceration rates among the young, new federal commitments to civil rights enforcement, new federal welfare provisions for mothers, infants and children, new federal commitments to equity funding for K-12 and higher education; new commitments to occupational and environmental regulations and, perhaps most poignantly, a substantially more progressive federal tax-policy. While the threats have worsened, the positive elements are starkly absent from the landscape today – destroyed, lost or simply conceded.
How then do we begin to unpack the current context? What factors have propelled this Occupy movement into being? How might on-lookers better understand the movement’s defining issues and core participants? How can sympathizers best support and connect to Occupy? And how might older Americans resist the blinders of age and life-stage so as to avoid finding themselves on the sidelines, immobilized by fear or grief, or maybe feeling just a little ashamed for having waited so long to wade in?
THE FOUR HORSEMEN:
Joblessness, Jails, Debt and Blight
In a number of ways, this generation shares very little in common with the sixties. There are the big cultural differences: this is a generation of young Americans who owe their main cultural orientations to the 80’s hip-hop/rap revolution, to the 90’s digital communication/entertainment technology revolution, and to the ongoing demographic revolution in which young “whites” no longer hold majority status among their peers. In 2008, the Pew Foundation solidified the descriptor “ The Millenials” in a fairly shiny report about the then 13-29 year old cohort documented as incomparably diverse, more politically progressive than their predecessors, more digitally transfixed, far less religious, more tolerant and, oddly, more trusting of institutions than Gen X’ers. While all of these characteristics were found to be statistically significant among those surveyed, it may be more helpful to abandon the term now for its lack of insight into the crises which seem to stalk this generation at every turn. After all, as a descriptor the term “Millenials” offers little help in understanding the dilemmas facing youth today. It provides even less help in unpacking the robust relationship between young Americans and the Occupy phenomena.
I prefer the phrase Generation Threat. Among the many crises at their backs, I see four primary threats facing young Americans which, when examined, highlight a thirty-year history of generational abandonment. The fact that this is a generation defined by threat does not in-and-of-itself confer political significance upon them. While defined by large-scale risks, Generation Threat, I argue below, is in the process of transforming “precarity” into political power through a politics of disruption in a context of electoral instability. Their willingness to jump into the waters of protest seems inspired by the stark realization that national government reveals no true allies and no effective advocates. The very threats which appear to have diminished their life-prospects , now inspire them to re-imagine their political position and discover their latent power.
Stalked by the Four Horseman of mass joblessness, mass incarceration, debt-for-life and environmental blight, an entire generation of young adults now face unprecedented challenges, all of which will continue to affect the 70 million 0-18 years olds unless dramatic reforms are undertaken. While we can leave talk of divine retribution to the Michelle Bachmans of the world, we might all agree that when combined, these four threats are indeed biblical in proportion. To be clear, the Occupy phenomena in the U.S. is not a “youth movement” in any strict or exclusive sense of the term. But it is a movement whose participants are broadly younger people, a preponderance of whom seem to be born after 1980, with many born after 1990. The wellspring encampments of Occupy Wall Street certainly evidence a core of highly committed 20 and 30 year olds drawn from a cross-section of unemployed and underemployed college-graduates, current college-goers-some of whom are “stopped out” due to finances, young unemployed and underemployed non-college goers, Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans, along with a sprinkling of more experienced organizers, many over 30, drawn from the alter-global, peace and justice, union, LGBT, anti-foreclosure, environmental and immigrant rights movements of the last 5-10 years. Of course, there are plenty of others present who fit none of these descriptions or age-categories. Nonetheless, from New York to Boston, from Austin to Hartford and from Trenton to LA, the core demographic motoring the Occupy phenomena is a generation buffeted by the crass and wreckless logic of profits over people that has dominated American politics for the last 30 years.
The poignant and descriptive “We are the 99%” campaign alludes to a complex of policies that have characterized 30 years of disinvestment from America’s young. The gross increases in income inequality sit at the center of the critique. Expressed as population to share-of-earnings ratios, these “percentages” have become the symbolic and analytic language of the movement. For example, in 1979, the top 1% of income earners possessed 10% of all earnings (including capital gains) ; in 2010, the top 1% of income earners possessed an astounding 24% of all earnings. The dramatic increases in income inequality over 30 years is startling enough, but Occupiers are quick to point out that the 2010 income inequality outpaced the class cleavages that defined American society in the days when Rockefeller and Carnegie ruled the roost . In 1915, remarkably, the top 1% possessed 18% of all earnings Like a virtual inequality time machine, thirty-years of Republican inspired public-policy has transported the United States back 100 years to the inglorious days of the Robber Barons so vividly captured in the literary journalism of Upton Sinclair in his celebrated novel the The Jungle.
How then, has this acute inequality in the current era played out in the lives of young people? And what specifically, helped popped the cork for this burdened generation? The poignant hand-written stories on the “We are the 99%” campaign placards reveal plenty. In the personal stories, we discover what the great mystic-poet William Blake referred to as the “minute particulars”:
“I am an American Veteran. I am a senior in college. My American Dream is to become a history teacher. I am not asking for the world. I worked hard to get where I am. I may not be able to find a job when I graduate. We are the 99%”
“I’m eighteen, unemployed, and I can’t afford to go to college at the moment. I’ve been searching for a job since I graduated from high school in June, and no luck there. I live at my grandparents’ house along with my parents and four year old sister. My grandma has a job still, and my grandpa is on disability. In March 2010 my dad got laid off from his job in Hawaii. We had been there only five months. We spent most of his severance pay on getting our stuff back to California. We couldn’t afford to send back any furniture. The only furniture I own is a $20 bookshelf I bought a few months ago. We’ve been on welfare since August 2010, and live off of around $450 a month. My dad just barely found a job, but it’s only temporary. My mom can’t work because if she does we’d have to put my little sister in daycare, which we can’t afford.I thought America was the “Land of Opportunity.” Opportunity seems to have vanished. We are not living the American Dream. We are living the American Nightmare. We are the 99%”
Indeed, thirty years of disinvestment has brought a generation of young Americans to a tipping point where their despair is being transformed through action.
How Government Abandoned the Young
Younger Americans ages 18- 30, and the 70 million children under 18, have been abandoned by government. On the books, the U.S. has pursued a thirty-year program of disinvestment from the social programs that help create strong, healthy and secure young people. In place of social investment in the young, politicians have underwritten investments in war-making and authored tax-policy absolving the most profitable banks and corporations from contributing much, if anything at all, to the national Treasury. When 2008 hit and the series of tax-funded bailouts began for those very players who caused the meltdown, well a lot those 99%’ers scratched their heads. The layers of pressure on this generation began to add up: on top of 30 year of disinvestment, on top of the tax-payer funded bank bailouts, on top of tax breaks for the super rich, there has also been war-making and war-spending.
Eight years of protracted military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in the deployment of more than 2 million US troops, whose average age is 25. Troop casualty is just the most obvious consequence for the young; budget cuts and inadequate funding underpin widespread failures in treating returning soldiers’ injuries, which now include uncommonly high rates of brain injury and PTSD. Moreover, failures around their economic reintegration abound.
But there’s more. U.S. youth policy it seems has gone to jail. A thirty-year trend in which the incarceration rates of disproportionately poor, young, non-white Americans has sky-rocketed under compulsory sentencing for non-violent, drug-related offenses beginning in the late-1980’s. The US now boasts the highest incarceration rates in the world and remains the far and away leader in juvenile incarceration. The U.S. also holds the world record for the number of juvenile offenders living-out life sentences—a practice largely unheard of around the world. The incarceration rates of young Black and Latino men are one alarming sign-post marking the intersection of racism and youth disinvestment. Law professor Michelle Alexander labels the criminalization of race and poverty in our era “The New Jim Crow” in her widely acclaimed book, subtitled Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. The Children’s Defense Fund reports: “[n]ationally, 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime.” (see CDF’s “Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign). With incarceration three-times more costly than the average public school education and three-times more costly than the average tuition at a public college or university, juvenile and young adult incarceration rates underscore the punishing political choices of the last 30 years. Incarceration and convictions have crippled a significant segment of this generation, damning their chances of employment once out, and prohibiting many of them from ever exercising their voting rights.
For those young Americans not in prison or the military, declining-wages and wide-spread unemployment for all Americans has translated into record-breaking joblessness for the young. The DOL reported that only 48% of 16- 24 year olds were employed in July of 2010 (the peak month for youth employment) as compared to 77% in 1979. For those lucky enough to get to college (roughly 1 in 3 young Americans), thirty years of declining federal and state support for higher education coupled with bank-driven education policy has resulted in massive, unprecedented student debt. The average student now graduates with a debt load of over $24,00 now climbing at an alarming rate. In October of this year, The New York Times reported that for the first time in U.S. history, student debt outpaced credit card debt with total student-loan debt likely to “top a trillion this year”.
While students and their families sink deeper and deeper into debt in an effort to keep pace with the 400% rise in tuition costs at public higher education institutions since 1980, the federal response has centered on lifting the borrowing caps under the federal student loan program and authorizing a dizzying array of private student loans products—including predatory, private consolidation instruments. The devastating combination of joblessness and student debt have produced a spike in student loan default rates beginning last year, especially among those attending private colleges and university. Project Student Debt reported in September that “New data released by the U.S. Department of Education show a sharp- rise in the rate at which students are borrowing and defaulting. The official ‘two-year cohort default rates’ show that 8.8 percent of student loan borrowers who entered repayment in 2009 had defaulted by the end of 2010, up from 7 percent for those entering repayment in 2008”.
And if that is not enough risk for one generation to bear, the planet on which we all reside, is the constant subject of harrowing reports and scientific studies documenting widespread environmental deterioration, some of which is already irreversible. The steady hum of news reports covering deadly weather patterns, food scarcity and resource depletion create an eerie soundtrack to an increasingly noir drama.
Welcome to Generation Threat.
Precarity Pops the Cork
So what, in particular, is it in this mix that may have “ popped” the cork on the Occupy phenomena now sweeping the nation? And if possible to identify, what insights and paths to action might this moment offer the nation ? The Occupy phenomena presents a transformative moment in which cross-generational forces may, perhaps for the first time since the great Civil Rights movement, join together to confront the consequences of the last 30 years of generational abandonment. While still in its early stages of formation, the Occupy movement’s young core , we should remind ourselves, grew-up listening to national leaders who largely had abandoned the idea (and rhetoric) that government is an instrument by and for the many, whose primary function is to secure the general welfare. Instead, these mislabeled “Millenials” have grown up in age of unapologetic rhetoric and policies rooted in the Reagan-ethos: government is an instrument of the market, the market is the well spring of freedom, and when the rich do well, the country does well. The compound effects on the young of 30 years of “free-market” policies and ideology are revealed through the four threats outlined above and in the stories found on the “We are the 99%” placards.
The toll on our young has been debilitating and is demonstrated across a broad spectrum of measures, though some not straightforwardly economic. The increasingly used term “precarity” seems to best capture the generational impact. A term promoted by social justice activists and analysts, precarity describes a condition of existence lacking security or predicatability and said to affect a subject’s material and psychological welfare. As such, precarity helps us describe that dynamic relationship between mind and matter (or consciousness and material reality) sought by theorists of social movements in their quest to explain the rise (or absence) of protest. Certainly, the destabilizing effects of the disinvestment policies of the last thirty years appear more acute in the midst of a recession when safety-net provisions are most in demand. As a result, the current generation of young people now play out their “carefree” years amid significant social dislocation and disruptions in the main patterning institution of daily life (school, work and family). As such, it is inevitable that their psychic stress will increase. Well documented increases over the last ten years in adolescent violence, addiction and suicide rates were troubling enough. Likewise, increases in the same 10 year period in the number of college students presenting moderate to severe mental illness was a troubling trend already worrying mental health professionals on campuses across the country (American Psychological Association, August 2101. ) 
While precarity might certainly exacerbate existing anxiety and depression among the young, it is also possible that precarity might alternatively induces what social psychologists like to call cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance can emerge when messages and reality don’t match:
- This is the land of opportunity vs. I’ve been looking for a job since I graduated high school in June, and no luck there;
- Work hard and you will succeed vs. I can’t find a job and my student loan is past due;
- Be all that you can be vs. my VA benefits don’t cover the kind of treatment most effective in treating PTSD
The disjuncture between message and lived experience can be fertile grounds for creative action and new approaches to problem-solving and resolution. Forty years ago, in the groundbreaking work Poor People’s Movements, Piven and Cloward told us that when ordinary people begin to see otherwise acceptable conditions as unjust, wrong, and open to change, they may become willing to engage in the kind of rule-breaking—the kind of disruption– that characterizes effective protest movement. All the great moments of transformation in the U.S., Piven has reminded us, have occurred this way: the American Revolution, Abolition, the workers’ movements of the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights and Women’s movements. In our current case, conditions suggest a near perfect storm is forming: favorable youth demographics, heightened immiseration and conditions of electoral instability which usually produces party competition and responsiveness. This movement, it should be noted, enjoys the added bonus of cheap, widespread digital communication technology and the benefit of youthful audacity.
In the midst of precarity, this younger generation appears to have found both its legs and its voice. Occupy is boldly staking ground and announcing “Enough”. In this sense, the Occupy movement indicates a positive, resilient response to precarity and a healthy desire to overcome widespread anomie, to roll up their sleeves and seek large-scale solutions. Occupy demonstrates a generational longing for community, for civic camaraderie, for collective processes and problem-solving and, perhaps most poignantly, it speaks directly to the young’s need for hope in a viable collective future. Occupy’s trigger, it seems, was discovered in the dissonant insight that their future was the ransom willingly paid by government to voracious corporate and bank elites
Ok, So What About Obama?
Right before the 2008 election, I published a piece in the online journal Logos commenting on the percolating and increasing activism by young American’s leading up to 2008 and speculated as to how interests might play out in the context of the election and beyond:
…what exactly is the source of this new youth engagement? Does it indicate a new faith in traditional politics on the part of the young or does it reflect a deeper, more widespread sense of social and political discontent? If the latter is true (as I will argue) then the question arises whether this discontent is sharp enough– or deep enough– to break out of the channels of electoral routines and demand more serious attention through the leverage of protest. Following then, on what issues can young people best use their leverage? What should they demand? Or, more tellingly, what happens if students don’t apply the leverage of protest? Might they allow themselves to be used by the Democratic Party in close contests in November which may very well turn on the new youth vote? ….If history is any indicator, young people’s newly energized electoral influence will not alone guarantee leverage. Instead, as argued below, their electoral influence will only win them concessions if combined with strategic protest on select issues logically connected to specific institutional targets.
In the 2008 elections cycle, the simple fact is that Obama made direct and specific appeals to the “young” because he needed them. He promised them specific relief. Obama’s rhetoric and social media outreach gave him overwhelming support among the young. His message of hope, his commitment to job creation (particularly to green jobs), his promise to end the Iraq war and to increase funding for education at all levels were all appealing messages to a generation feeling anxious about its future. We now know that without the youth vote, Obama stood to lose in several important, close state races (Florida, Ohio, and Virginia among them.) With 51.6% of 18-29 year olds voting in 2008–the second strongest electoral showing of American youth since 18 year olds won the vote in 1972– Obama captured the greatest share of the youth vote of any presidential candidate on record. More than 2/3rd of young voters supported Obama. In that process, I believe these now Occupying-young-Americans caught a glimpse of their untapped generational leverage refracted back to them in the electoral edge they gave Obama and the sense of “victory” they rightly owned in its wake.
But by 2009 and certainly by the 2010 midterm election, young people were beginning to signal growing disappointment with Obama: his pro-corporate appointments, his continuation of Bush-styled bank bailouts, his lack of fight back with the Republican Congress, his concessions on key social spending cuts, Race to the Top, the two on-going wars and expanded troop commitments, the lack of jobs creation and, the now rapidly growing and acute sense that nothing is being done to help them with the looming student loan-default crisis.
Where then is a generation to turn, for help? For sympathizers, allies or even curious spectators, important roles can be played by attending, writing about, financially supporting and generally engaging the Occupy near you. Its cannot be denied that the intervention and message of Occupy has already changed the terms of the 2012 election. By encouraging good analysis of the Occupy movement, all generations insure that the debates that will frame the 2012 election will not be determined either by corporate interests or Tea Party nativism.
One Foot in the Ballot Box, One Foot in the Streets
This early phase of the Occupy movement is best understood as a logical response by a generation in crisis; a generation demanding to be seen and heard and who are in fact entitled to positive governmental response. Their lives serve as prism through which the much broader deterioration of the American social fabric can be understood and the political choices of the last thirty years confronted. While logical and reasonable, these young people should also be recognized as brave and courageous. With one foot in the ballot box and one foot in the streets, this generation has alerted the nation that they are a significant force and should not be ignored. But without a broader base of support, this embryonic movement may be subject to a range of attacks, seeking to isolate and repress their powerful critique.
For those on the sidelines, frightened by the prospects of non-violent disruption or fearful of the collapse of the liberal order, the question must be asked: what kind of liberal order is worth the price of a generation or two? What kind of democracy is it that we ordinary Americans—the 99%–are trying to preserve if it requires we sacrifice our young? What, we must ask ourselves, have we permitted to be done to our childrens’ lives and futures?
It seems imperative that we also resist the two related but perverse moments enacted in the streets of Chicago in August of 1968: 1) we must make clear that state-sanctioned repression of dissent at any level of government must not be tolerated in a democratic society, and 2) we must creatively and non-violently confront repression and resist the illusory idea that there is, somewhere, a safe spot for us on the sidelines. Instead, collectively, we must refuse to be reduced, either metaphorically or literally, to first-aid squads, bandaging our young in the lobbies of Wall Street corporations.
Now is the time to listen to these young people who are bravely demanding accountability from the 1% and reinvestment in the 99%. Reprioritizing the US economy and budget will first require an end to the perpetual-war-spending that motors so much US debt and second, a dramatic over-haul of the current tax system as a necessary pre-condition for reinvestment. If we take our cue from the threats confronting this generation, a broad outline then emerges for 2012: Create Jobs, Shrink Jails, Forgive Debt and Sustain the Planet.
 See “The Millenials”, Pew Foundation, December 2009. http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1437/millennials-profile
Department of Labor, “Employment and Unemployment of Youth Summary” July, 2010. See http://bls.gov/news.release/youth.nr0.htm
 Tamar Lewin, “Burden of College Loans on Graduates Grow” New York Times, April 11, 2011.
 Project on Student Debt “Sharp Uptick in Federal Student Default Rates”, September 11th, 2011. See http://projectonstudentdebt.org/pub_view.php?idx=780 )
 In July of 2010, Consumer Reports reported that an estimated 20% of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder and 14% will experience a serious bout of depression in their life-spans. The report argues that SSRI and SSNI medications, now widely prescribed, are over-represented in treatment option materials despite the fact that consumers in their survey did not report these medications to be any more effective treating their disorders than those who undertook a series of talk-therapy treatments. See: http://www.consumerreports.org/health/conditions-and-treatments/depression-anxiety/depression-and-anxiety/index.htm
 Christine Kelly, “If Not Now When? How Student Protest Can Help Save U.S. Higher Education” Logos: a journal of modern society and culture , 2008, vol. 7, no.2. See: http://logosjournal.com/2011/kelly/