When I was in 7th grade, my gym/health teacher failed nearly three-fourths of my class, including myself. I had never received a failing grade before. I was completely ashamed. My mother pulled me aside and said, "When the majority of a class fails, it's not because they're all bad students. It's because the teacher failed." When I came back the next year, that teacher wasn't there anymore.
I think there a few things missing from the discussion of Millennial college grads and typical early 20's struggle. For some reason, when the issues facing my generation are examined separately, it seems most people agree that they are objective problems. Minimum wage is certainly not livable. Student loan debt has reached $1 trillion dollars, and the interest rates on student loans have just increased. Youth unemployment is at about 16%. Certainly these are issues that need to be dealt with. However, when my peers or I talk about our experiences with these issues combined, it's often met with "Oh, well, everyone struggles when they're young!" or "You're not special! Suck it up and stop being so entitled!" or other confusion about why we're complaining. We often respond with "But it's not the same!" and while I'm inclined to agree, I think we don't often quantify our struggles, using the numbers we pay as college graduates for our student loans, and how much money we make to support our argument.
Some comments I come across argue that nobody forced us to go to college. What they don't often understand is the academic culture surrounding high school students. While I was in high school, the guidance department would herd us in to our cafeteria to hold assemblies about what we would be doing after we finished high school. "Don't worry, you can afford college!" the head of guidance told us. They talked about financial aid, affordable student loans, and how to apply for scholarships. Guidance counselors would try to talk to us about our resumes and how attractive they'd be to colleges. How many clubs are you in? Are you taking any honors or AP courses? The entire curriculum was geared toward making the student as attractive to colleges as possible. Graduation requirements included a certain amount of hours volunteered. Each course we took would talk about how this would affect us in college. The school even worked in mandatory SAT prep courses. Anything to get us into college. When the message we received as kids ages 15-18 from nearly every educator was about going to college and how it will get us a good job, is it so far-fetched that so many of us followed through?
As the economy crashed, the message got even more fervent - a college degree is essential. So many of us took on a debt that we thought would be paid off later with a decent job that would make the price worth it. Student loan debt expanded, and it's now at 1 trillion dollars. While this number is impressive, the articles I've read about student loans don't often talk about the direct monthly payment. Students who graduated in 2011 owe an average of $26,600 per borrower. In repayment terms however, that's nearly $300 a month on a standard ten year payment plan at 6.8% interest.
This debt is absolutely crippling to someone who can really only find minimum wage/low wage jobs. Federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. The livable wage in my area is considered $10 an hour. In order to make ends meet, I would have make little over $20,000 annually, and that's not counting the additional $3,600 needed for student loans. 41% of 2011 college grads are underemployed. Is it any surprise that 45% of us live at home?
Those who graduated without debt might not understand the head start they have when they first start out. They have more money in their pockets each month, and they can better afford to take longer strides toward a career, such as taking several unpaid internships. Someone who just graduated with debt can't always take such chances, not when delinquency on your loan destroys your credit, and that can affect your ability to get a loan (which affects your ability to get a house or car), get an apartment, and even some jobs. People who graduated without debt don't know the nightmare of having Sallie Mae call you daily.
I'm one of those 2011 graduates. I graduated from a community college in 2011 and stopped at my associate's degree. I am part of the 41% of the underemployed and one of the 45% at home; I work as a waitress while living with my parents. One busy night, an old high school classmate of mine was seated in my section. She was arguably a better student than I was, and I was a pretty good student - graduated with honors, was a member of two honor societies, led three clubs and was a straight A student through my junior and senior year. I felt a bit embarrassed to be recognized while working a lowly job as a waitress. Yet, she seemed happy to see me. "This is a pretty nice gig you got here!" I was confused. She talked about how she had just picked up a job as a waitress for the first time in a town over. She seemed sincerely relieved to see someone else in the same situation as her. I was relieved too, and less ashamed about my current life direction, or lack thereof. To know that there is someone else who was successful and ended up having to take any job available to pay the bills is reassuring.
This isn't to say that only 20-somethings are completely boned. I know everyone who isn't independently wealthy is having a hard time. However, I think it's ignorant to label this generation lazy when so many of us have very little prospects. It's gonna take more than bootstraps to get us out of this mess. Many of us worked hard, like my classmate, and it hasn't helped us much with a slow recovery. When almost half of us are struggling to make ends meet, I can't say that this is due to laziness. I think it's a failure of a system, and one that hurts all of us. Somebody needs to fire the teacher.