In the eighties and nineties, the cultural clichés about young people getting started in life were Hollywood’s fables about the young and gorgeous, weighing offers for competing top-tier business and law schools, on their way toward earning a solid middle class income straight out of school.
Tom Cruise in Risky Business was looking at Harvard, but would settle for Penn State as a safety school. The brat packers in Bright Lights, Big City and The Secret Of My Success and Breakfast Club and, worst of the lot, Saint Elmo’s Fire, slid from the inevitable Evanston that John Hughes froze in time, to Big Ten or Ivy League credentials, to jobs in the big city, whence story devolved into plot devolved into genre.
Real life was a little more pedestrian – but there was opportunity out there. I could pack up everything I owned and trek off to an affordable-enough city – which Minneapolis was at the time – and with little more than a dream, find a trade to ply. and start the process of building a life.
Now, on the one hand, I think when I was in high school and college, people were realistic; my English major advisor never told anyone a BA in English was going to pave your way to success, the way kids over the past fifteen years have been sold on the idea.
Kids today are, at least for the moment, embracing the far left. Socialism is seen as not merely viable but preferable by a dispiriting number of younger people.
The education system certainly plays a role – kids today get twelve years of “progressive” indoctrination. If you did it to dogs, you’d get them taken away.
And the post-secondary system, which has spent years turning college into a semi-private wealth transfer that grifts kids into unrealistic expectations, plays its role.
But even with all that, between college debt and a bulge of baby boom workers still in the workforce and the perverse incentives that impel companies to work toward short-term return rather than long-term growth and prosperity, there’s a solid case that this is a tough time to be an entry-level worker.
And those perverse incentives – like the college debt crisis itself – are downstream of government policy. Companies chasing an IPO, or a valuation bubble to draw mergers and acquisitions, draw away from the kind of focus that used to lead to companies building for and working toward the long term.
This hasn’t surprised anyone who’s been paying attention. And while Democrat-driven regulation bears plenty of blame, the GOP focus on benefitting business qua business, as opposed business as part of a free, sustainable market, is part of the problem as well.
30-40 years ago, America’s most recent golden age was built by people whose prospects were, as a sarcastic but on-point song of the era pointed out, so bright they had to wear shades. The breezy optimism of John Hughes movies was a caricature, but not a sarcastic one.
And optimistic people b uild golden ages.
We’re lacking both today.