The recent Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has generated activism and passion in many students and recent college graduates. I, too, confess to a momentary desire to join the angry “99” chants of my fellow youth, but perhaps it’s time to pause and take a step back to think about why we’re so taken with the idea of OWS. That is, “we,” the privileged students of a top university. After some thought, it seems clear, to me at least, that our participation in such a “sweeping” movement may have less to do with a sense of social justice and more with frustration at a lack of professional achievement.
It seems we students are protesting for ourselves, for a collective disappointment at the lack of return on our educational investments: the haunting anxiety over the trade-off of staying true to aspirations versus finding a well-paying job and moving out of our parents’ houses. I think elite graduates and students are riding on the revolutionary coattails of people with real problems in order to express outrage at the fact that a $200,000 education makes no more guarantees of success than a community college degree. It seems unfair that previous generations didn’t have this problem, and we’re determined to howl it out despite being fully aware that such a comparison is a foolish and irrelevant exercise.
There’s also a much deeper reason why many young people are so upset. It’s because we stared at the world upon emerging from ivory tower universities of intellectual greatness and saw that many of us, the supposed great thinkers of our generation, the crème de la crème, are actually only mediocre.
Ever since grade school, the “talented and gifted” have been singled out and encouraged by teachers more than others. Good students were usually given a free pass because they’d somehow received a reputation for being smart kids—so many of us were allowed to skate by, accruing full praise for half-hearted efforts. I’m especially guilty of it. Instead of developing practical skills, we were coached to be cultured and multifaceted with appreciations for highbrow endeavors like free jazz and conceptual art. When pitted against people who have done otherwise, many of us find our skill sets severely lacking.
Sure, it’s easy to boast of being well-spoken, fascinating conversationalists, or possessing “rich souls,” but that doesn’t get the job done any better. And it’s only now, in a recession, that such truth glares out like some monster under the bed. The chant “We are the 99%” might just be translation for “We are upset no one explained this before many of us got to such a dire place.”
But who was going to say anything? Teachers who were too busy giving praise? Parents who were too proud of ever-growing lists of accomplishments? Friends who were in the same boat? There’s no doubt that many people can be faulted for low wages and poor job prospects, but maybe the start of fixing things is taking a little responsibility for our own shortcomings. Of course it wasn’t fair that we were told to cultivate our intellect instead of our worth as part of the workforce, but tough luck: Everyone’s twenties are awful and filled with uncertainty. The onus is on our shoulders to prove that we aren’t just unemployable “emerging adults” who can’t stand being overeducated and underpaid. Maybe getting a job, no matter how “beneath” us it is, is the beginning of the answer.
OWS isn’t something a lot of us truly understand, having been insulated from reality by our rare opportunities, and it isn’t right to pretend otherwise. An expensive education doesn’t make anyone better or more deserving. What should be done is to support the real protesters’ efforts for what they are, and not to co-opting their movement as a platform from which to moan our own discontent. If our educations have given us anything of worth, it should be the ability to recognize the hidden truth behind matters.
The truth is not about how a U of C graduate might deserve to earn more than the minimum wage; it’s about how the economic system put in place by politicians living in the pockets of private interest groups makes it difficult for more than a handful of people to be wealthy. OWS is about fighting the very real problem of socialization of losses and privatization of gains—it’s not about youth entitlement. If college-age students are to participate in the protests, some more research is in order so we don’t fall into the trap of thinking like spoiled children and making the movement about directing blame or bemoaning the injustice of our student loans. And the ultimate truth is that while government economic policy needs to change, our attitude needs to change, too.
Allison Wu is an alumnus of the University of Chicago’s Class of 2011.