We have already been labeled a lost generation. An Economist story from April said that the global “financial crisis and its aftermath” has had an “unusually big effect” on young people the world over. Meanwhile, the United States, they say, is feverish from a toxic mixture of low growth, clogged labor markets, and a class of over educated and over skilled young people entering the job market via unskilled positions in retail and the foodservice industry.
Due to “scarring,” they say young people who begin their professional lives in low skill, low wage jobs, (or no jobs at all), will have lower lifetime wages and a greater chance of joblessness in the future.
Factor in the total $1 trillion in outstanding loans American graduates have to pay back and our future as a generation, not to mention the future of the nation’s economy, looks dubious.
But are we lost?
For a long time I thought yes. At least, I certainly felt like I was. I’ve graduated college, like 34% of my peers, with loans on the high side of $40,000. I had no prospects when I got my degree. No job offers, no internships. So I took the first job I found, cooking at Uncle Boys on 4th and Balboa for minimum wage.
Coming from a working class, agricultural town in Upstate New York, an honest day has never been an alien concept to me. I started work at 16, at a Subway. I’ve washed dishes, I’ve worked construction, I’ve done landscaping and sod installation. Good work, but hard work. Working a few hours a day behind a grill was something I thought I could easily do. But I only lasted a week.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the job. I was angry that I had to. I was angry with history, and the myth that a college education is an investment. And I was angry at myself for buying into it and expecting the world to slide open for me like an automatic door. I was restless.
My boy Passport volunteers at Adobe Books once a week and I was there with him recently. He was leaning back in the chair behind the desk, his legs crossed, dressed in all black, from his shirt, fastened up to the collar, down to his socks and shoes. He was eating fried rice from Big Lantern with a plastic fork. Leyland Kirby rolled listlessly from the stereo.
“I guess what I’m saying is your restless ‘cause you know you could do something better, but you’re stuck with this job because you need to pay rent and you either don’t know what field you want to get into or you don’t know how to get there,” he told me.
Passport works at the café in the De Young Museum as an all-around busser, cashier, food runner and barista. “I like the job,” he said, “No complaints.” But still, it’s not exactly what he wants to be doing.
If he had his pick of jobs he’d work at a record store, like Aquarius or Grooves. He’s also thought about pursuing a career in writing, but to do that “would take a little more time and I wouldn’t be making the bills I need to make immediately,” he said.
“I have rent to pay.”
Rent has been a hot topic of discussion lately. The average price per month for a one bedroom hovers around $2,500. That rate is too high, even for the average income per household in San Francisco, which is $75,000 a year, compared to the state average of $59,000. Considering people in San Francisco under the age of 25, like passport and I, make closer to $10,000 a year on average, what can we do?
For Victoria Mortati the answer is simple; work and work some more. At 22, Mortati works as a waitress at Sparky’s, in the ticket booth at the Roxie Theater, and in the media lab at her college, where she is studying philosophy.
It was early evening when I wandered into Sparky’s alone for a burger. The place was so empty that Mortati, a blonde whose face is stern and serious, was able to sit down at the table next to me. She had a big red ring on her left hand in which she held the coffee pot, to look busy.
“Since I was like 13 or 14 my mother just instilled this belief in me that if I can’t take care of myself, like completely take care of myself, then I would struggle and live a life that was unsatisfactory,” she said. So at 14 she took a job at her local library in Westchester County, New York, organizing books. From that point on she’s always been working.
“Have you ever gone without a job?” I asked her.
“For one semester,” she said.
“And how did that feel?”
“Amazing,” she said. “I fell in love with other things. I was able to make a lot of art and I didn’t have to fight for that time.”
For me, the most troubling aspect of working for a living is the way it monopolizes time, the most valuable asset a person has. Beyond time spent at the actual workplace, there is commute time, which depending on where you live and work in the Bay Area could take hours.
For Mortati, her daily commute is short and includes a walk through the Tenderloin at the break of day, to catch the bus. It is real life, she said, but still, all the open drug use and shitting on the sidewalk has started to bother her. And what she finds disturbing, is she’s begun to see The City’s most desperate as a bothersome annoyance.
Then there is the time after work. Specifically for the 1 in 13 young people in the U.S. working in the food service industry, this time seems to be spent napping and recovering after long hours up on their feet. For someone like Passport, who ultimately sees himself in a different line of work, it can be hard to find the energy to cultivate his creative side.
He said that after work, “I feel like I should be working on something else, but working in the café or whatever can be physically draining to the point where mentally, I feel like I want to work on something else, but physically, I can’t, because I’m too fucking tired.”
In May, anthropologist and best-selling author David Graeber told the Bay Area Guardian that “being young is supposed to be a place where you can let your imagination run free and explore your sense of possibility…that’s where everything comes out of in a generation, where everything new and exciting emerges.”
“What could be more stupid,” Graeber asks, “than taking all those people and turning them into debt peons?”
Debt is like a never-ending ball of string, in that the more you unravel and examine it, the longer the list of things you are indebted to becomes. If not college, then you are indebted to the Federal government, so you pay taxes. Or you are indebted to an employer, meaning because they pay you, you constantly owe them your gratitude. You pay your debt in gratitude for being a team player, meaning if you get called in on your day off, you come to work.
Then there is the debt we owe in our relationships. After leaving Uncle Boy’s, I went through a long period of unemployment before finding my current job. My father was paying my rent; my girlfriend was paying the utility bills and buying groceries. I was spending a lot of time reading, playing basketball, and hanging out at Adobe Books. I’m fortunate, I know, to have parents and a girlfriend who are willing and able to support me. I enjoyed my time not working. Yet it wasn’t a good life. What I learned, after receiving my first paycheck is just how important money is to being a complete human being. More than allowing you to buy things; money truly allows you to be yourself. I hadn’t realized how empty I was feeling, how purposeless until I got some money of my own.
Again, Graeber says “that’s what’s scary about debt. It forces you to think like a capitalist, you have to think about money and profit all the time.”
At Zeitgeist not too long ago, I was with the whole crew. Passport was there and Casual too. Wolf Boy was making an origami swan from the lining of a pack of cigarettes. Silent was sipping a hot toddie, when two friends of his from Alabama came and joined us at our table. I’ll call them L. and Z., though those aren’t their real names.
Z began stripping almost two years ago she said, seemingly out of boredom. She was invited by a friend to give it a try while working at a P.F. Chang’s and liked the work, and the pay, and stuck with it.
L on the other hand, who has been stripping for just about a year, got into it more out of desperation. She was studying chemistry in college and doing what she described as “extracurricular activities” that resulted in a felony charge and a heavy fine to pay off. Like Z, a friend who knew she needed the money, and knew she was an accomplished ballet dancer, offered her a gig.
What struck me about these girls wasn’t the line of work they were in, but of all the young people I spoke to, they were the most sure of their future. They know how to do their own taxes. Still in their early 20’s, they have already found work that they enjoy doing and pays them well enough so they can have the kind of life they want.
For L. at least, living in San Francisco had been a dream of hers, even when she was 15 and working her first job at an Abercrombie and Fitch store for junior girls. She said that job was “fucked” because she’d have to ask these preteens, in front of their parents, if they wanted to try on “our new sexy shorts” and spray the clothing racks with perfume every three hours.
In our city of nightlife, with 18 strip clubs (by Yelp’s count) Z. and L. were able to make their dream a reality. In their second day here they found work at a club downtown, though it took some getting used to. L. said it was more “like a burlesque show” then the clubs she worked in Alabama and Georgia.
Casual rolled up a spliff for the girls. Z. was quiet and a little uncomfortable from the sunburn she caught on her first day in town. L. was more talkative. She had light hair, pale skin, dark eyebrows, and rhinestone on her eyelashes that glittered like bubbles in ginger ale.
While they smoked, the girls schooled us amateurs in proper strip club etiquette. Their job is to make sure the customers are having fun and spending money but if you look tight-fisted, they won’t give you the time of day. Giving a girl a few dollars is a symbol of good faith.
By the following week, Z. and L. had found and rented a two-bedroom in the Richmond.
Which brings me back to the question, are we lost?
In the 1920’s, after “the war to end all wars”, a generation of people lost faith in the values that moved the world toward such brutal slaughter. In the era of Bebop and Beat poetry, people lost the ability to see value in human life, blinded by the fires from concentration camp furnaces and mushroom clouds. Today though, I don’t think we have lost anything. The generation before us may have lost faith in us, and thrown us away in favor of a few extra dollars. But that’s their loss. Because they won’t be in control for much longer and if we can get by now, when things are bad, we will do bigger things in the future. The bad times won’t last forever.