IS THE GENERATIONAL FAULT-LINE TAKING US AWAY FROM SUSTAINABILITY? Part 4 in a series

A generational fault-line is growing across the Globe. Something fundamental, with the makings of a historical shift, is in the works. We see signs of generational revolt among unemployed youth in Europe, in the Arab Spring and in the Occupy movement. It’s time we looked squarely at this to see how it relates to the challenges of sustainability.

These new realities are breaking into the mainstream media; the Sept. 5, 2012 MacLeans carried an excellent story by Kate Lunau depicting a “broken generation”. A survey at the University of Alberta found over 80% of students reported “exhaustion” and being “overwhelmed” by commitments during the last year. Over 60% reported being “very lonely” and “very sad”; over half had a period of “overwhelming anxiety” and “being hopeless”; one-third were so depressed it was “difficult to function”. Seven percent “seriously considered suicide”.

These university students, supposedly the most advantaged youth in the upcoming generation, live in a province of great economic boom, vanguard of Canada’s energy superpower. Studies elsewhere indicate similarly severe problems. One-quarter of university-aged Canadian youth face some mental health challenge – severe stress, anxiety or depression. A rising suicide rate and escalating demands for campus counseling suggest this stress is societal in scale.

TWO TRANSITIONS

The transition to adulthood is typically stressful, but the upcoming generation faces unprecedented challenges. Stressors that in combination can push youth “over the edge” include moving far away from home, heightened academic demands, parental expectations in smaller families, harsh peer pressures, a very tough job market and extreme student debt.

Today’s youth face the most economically competitive, precarious situation of any post-WWII generation. Higher risks in their transitory period of life are compounded by the historical and environmental challenges facing the larger society. There are increased pressures to stay “on top” and “plugged in”, while facing shrinking future prospects. There’s no talk of “dropping out, turning on and tuning in”, as there was in the sixties. Despite being the most educated generation ever, the upcoming generation faces prospects of downward mobility. Students groomed to be high-achievers since birth face “failure” at school as well as in the job market.

FAILED COMPETITION

We hear unsympathetic judgments of youth as if they are simply inadequate or solely responsible for their deteriorating situation. We also hear comments from youth who blame the “baby boomers” for today’s hopeless and stressful times. Such separation and blaming won’t provide the understanding or “tools” to address the crisis.

An individualistic-competitive ethos has been vigorously promoted since the 1980s, a time when global economic growth based on the consumer society ascended. Students are clear “victims” of this neo-liberal ideology. As Erin Anderssen writes in his article on post-secondary education in the Oct. 6th Globe and Mail, “expanding university education was linked to economic growth”. There was a five-fold expansion of students from the 1950s to the 1970s. Yet today’s bulging student body faces an economic reality where jobless economic growth is the new reality. There’s a growing disconnect between the promotion of education as a means to mobility and this stark reality.

This precariousness is reflected in many coping strategies. “Performance enhancing” drugs aren’t just used in sports; some students use medical and non-medical uppers/stimulants to get an edge over their peers, while downers/depressants are used to self-medicate for stress. Thus drug-related problems are added to their stressor list.

STAYING PLUGGED-IN

The pressure to stay “plugged in”, to be “on top of everything” and to be “a winner all the time”, clashes with vital developmental needs. This undermines the need for regular periods of moratorium to digest one’s expanding social learning. Challenging jobs which allow for a change of pace and skill-set and provide a period for re-integration are less available.

The constant presentation of “self” through social networking is a double-edged sword. Ongoing, instant communications can build a sense of inter-connection, even community. But it can also become a compulsion to always “be connected”. Excessive focus on external stimulation undercuts the deep need for time and space for reflection and introspection, which is part of balanced social and spiritual development. It seems counter-intuitive, but all the available communications technology, and all the “choices” it presents, can lead to greater feelings of isolation and the sense of being overwhelmed, that is reflected in recent student surveys.

Youth are naturally inclined to seek out a high pace of social engagement. However the growing opportunities to stay “plugged in” interfere with their diurnal-recuperation cycles. It becomes more difficult to wind down. Stressors are then more likely to turn into triggers for mental health challenges which are on an upswing.

With youth being so encouraged by the predatory information market, to “post” personal experiences with a broad range of “friends”, matters that used to stay private can “go viral” and turn against people in future endeavours. Job interviews are increasingly requiring access to Facebook accounts. And physical blowback to the new “techno-toys” is already happening; physiotherapists see increasing repetitive strain injuries (RSI) from the constant finger and arm movements used with mobile information technology.

INVESTMENT FAILURE

The frantic stress is part of a larger change. A recent Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) report concludes that the “linear path from school to career, home ownership and family has disappeared.” Since the 1980s students have been encouraged to treat education as an investment in higher-paying future jobs. It’s been a form of off-loading as government funding for higher education has dropped below 60% from 90% in the 1970s. Consequently there’s been a shift away from the universal values of a liberal education, which stress that education is much more than training.

The pots and pans came out in Montreal to announce that the individualistic investment strategy hasn’t paid off. The average student debt after a four-year degree is now $27,000 which takes, on average, 14 years to repay. Meanwhile the ability to earn while going to university has declined; this past summer saw the lowest student employment since 1977. Official youth unemployment of 15% is twice the national average, and this has spiked since the 2008 crash. According to Ian Bird, CEO of the CFC, though youth 15-24 make up only 16% of the population, they suffered 50% of the job losses since the 2008 crash.

CRUNCH-TIME

Compared to high school grads, university grads still have lower unemployment, but Canada ranks second (37%) behind Spain (44%) of all OECD countries in the percent of university grads ending up in low-skill jobs. While Canada’s university and college grads do earn 38% more than high school grads, the OECD average is 55%.

We are finally awakening from the dreamland of individualistic mobility through higher education tied to endless growth. Students graduate carrying high indebtedness and facing economic insecurity in a jobless growth economy. Some students postpone higher education to try to keep their debt down, but high youth unemployment makes this strategy risky. Some youth now compete with retired people who increasingly need low-paying work to compensate for lost savings, especially after the 2008 crash.

You can see why there is some inter-generational resentment brewing. The Conservatives attempted to exploit this as a wedge issue with their cuts to the OAS. With one in five Canadians between 18 and 34 foreign born and one in six from a “visible minority” there are some signs that “immigrants” may also be scapegoated for what’s clearly a structural shift occurring everywhere in the unfettered and ecologically unsustainable globalized economy. We need to quickly get an objective handle on the growing generational fault line if we are to move towards positive rather than negative socio-political scenarios.

Next time I’ll look at the crisis situation of youth as part of what’s being called the growing global “Precariat”.

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