Instead of accepting low-paid work or unpaid internships, young people should focus on globalizing themselves.
The 20-somethings of my generation have been marginalized by the economic situation in America. We’ve had a tricky time finding a place in the economy and many of us have become burdens on our families, through student loans and living costs. Now, how do we fix that?
Emigrate, if you can afford it. Millennials have a ton of education and no use for it. There are many other countries that represent a great opportunity for millennials looking to enter into an increasingly globalized work market. I’m not saying we should try to be members of an elite in other countries — we should reject our shackles and become more worldly.
Part of that is learning a second or third language, something I thought I never would do. This changed after my time abroad in Ireland while studying at University College Dublin. I decided I was going to learn German, even though it was not the most useful of languages. Four years later, after teaching myself German from scratch, I have an operating fluency in German and now live in Berlin, where I’m working towards my master’s degree. The tuition costs a fraction of what it would in America. Despite being an foreigner, I have access to public health insurance available for students at only 60 Euros a month.
How did I get here? It started with the betrayal and selling-out of our generation.
In the 1950s and 1960s it was possible to attend a state college, work for minimum wage for a nominal amount of hours, and graduate with no debt. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a minimum wage worker in 1979/1980 would have had to work 254 hours to pay tuition to attend a four-year public institution. As of 2010 a minimum wage worker would have to work 923 hours. That means instead of finding a summer job and working to avoid debt, many students need to find steady full-time jobs while studying, or graduate with massive debt. The class of 2013 has an average debt of $35,200 and a lot of them still attended state school.
Neoliberal reforms have been shoved down the throat of America since the ’80s and had two large effects: lowering taxes on the rich and the destruction of organized labor, resulting in declining wages and worker protections. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that union membership fell 400,000 in 2012, to a 97-year low.
And it has been by design; illegal firings of union supporters exploded in the late 1980s, seeing one out of every 36 union supporters fired in contrast to one in 110 in the late ’70s. Millennials have it even worse. With a great proportion of job “opportunities” coming in the form contract or part-time work, their entry into organized labor is increasingly difficult. A senior economist at Wells Fargo remarked recently, “A large portion of the jobs we’re adding tend to be in low-skill occupations.”
Meanwhile, our higher education system is failing the younger generation in different ways — it’s increasingly taking on the appearance of a lending operation, and treats students more and more as customers. My alma mater recently built a large series of luxury apartments on campus. The facility is not owned by the university, though it was built by a private contractor. The cost? Rent comes in at $1,500 for a one-room apartment, $2,500 a month for a two-room apartment. Public institutions like state universities weren’t founded to shackle us through debt.
The University of Maryland also recently built luxury boxes for the football stadium and charges almost $6,000 for rent for only eight months in a dorm, and almost $4,000 for a meal plan. With tuition at almost $10,000 a year, a student receiving no grants or help could easily pile up almost $80,000 in debt.
Instead of providing practical skills or work training at universities, students must often decide whether to take unpaid internships and put themselves further in debt, or risk being unemployed for extended periods after graduation. Both higher education institutes and companies alike have created a race to the bottom environment where students jump at the chance to work for free, and are often afraid to complain when such work impoverishes them. After my independent contractor contract expired at a public relations software company (after a year and four months) I was desperate to find anything that might allow me to work in the policy field. I took an unpaid internship in D.C. and racked up a $2,000 credit card debt from transportation costs over six months.
In contrast, many countries like Germany, Austria and Switzerland have a “dual education” system, in which students who do not pass an entrance exam for university can attend technical schools, and work while studying. The government subsidizes wages that companies pay students. Practical experience and education are combined, and despite rising youth unemployment thanks to the euro crisis, young workers are prepared for their careers.
Young people today should not have to fall into the trap of make-it-or-break-it by accepting low-paid work or unpaid internships (unless your parents can afford to support you). Instead, millennials should focus on globalizing themselves. The wage race to the bottom is something that will only get worse by accepting societal pressures and worrying about resume gaps.
Americans can gain valuable experience simply by stepping on an airplane. Learn another language. Globalize yourself. Attend university for free, or even get paid to do your doctorate (often as much as 1,300 euros a month). Emigration, or simply going abroad for graduate or undergraduate studies, is a way to expand your mind.
As Americans we can serve as warnings to other nations of what happens when neoliberal fanaticism runs its course. We have something to offer the world as a generation; we must offer the real picture of America, a nation divided under class and race. Here in Germany the people joke that things have become more Americanized, i.e. a deteriorating situation for for the working and middle classes. The low-pay sector in Germany has grown since the Social Democratic Party enacted neoliberal reform under former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. As I like to say, “Don’t do it like we do, please.” Get out there and spread the message.