These are probably figures you’ve read as many times as I have: 14% of college graduates between 2006 to 2010 are without full time jobs. Of all people between the ages of 16 and 29, 55.3% have jobs. One in five young adults lives below the poverty line. Nearly 25% more people ages 25 to 34 are living with their parents than did before the recession began in 2008.
The last of these stats is a particular subject of expertise for me. Since graduating from college more than six years ago, I have spent the majority of my life under my parents’ roof again. After college, I prolonged the inevitable return home by decamping for a year to a cheap artist’s program in Southern Israel. A year later, I found myself back in the one place I tried like hell to avoid. I tried sneaking my way into a Hopkins grad program, I tried living hand-to-mouth on friends couches, I tried a desperate scheme to start a performing arts organization that would set the world afire, and God help me over the years I’ve even applied to somewhere upward of a hundred jobs.
Let’s be clear here, during this long fallow period I should probably have applied to upwards of a couple thousand jobs, but nobody has that much morale. Eventually, everybody loses faith that they’re going to find work. I just lost it much, much earlier.
Everybody has that existential moment. Some call it the “20’s moment” - the moment when you’re called to account for the fact that life will not occur as you’d planned it. If you don’t have that moment in your twenties, it will be that much more devastating to have it later. A few lucky people don’t have this moment at any point during their lives - they’re either sociopaths or in need of a sociopath.
For me, the moment was about a month after I graduated American University. Even if I managed to avoid a real education, I worked like a horse for that degree. I put on a two-hour composition thesis recital for which I rehearsed twenty-seven musicians and actors. For this recital, I’m told that I may be the only person in the history of AU to get five honors credits for a thesis. After the recital was done, I left my friends and musicians to have outings by themselves while I returned with my family to Baltimore so I could write sixty pages of papers on Orson Welles and Monteverdi.
And suddenly it was done. Sadly, this is not one of those post-graduation letdown stories. Would that it were. Instead, I was extremely relieved to be rid of the bothers of school and looking forward to experiencing, for once, an entirely normal type of ennui which could have easily happened to anyone else my age.
But I will never forget being in my friend Der Huber’s car when I received a call from my mother saying that she just got a call from AU. ‘One month and they’re already asking me for money,’ I clearly remember thinking. But that was not why they called....
Apparently my credits never arrived from the summer abroad I spent in London. My professor claimed to never receive the final paper I clearly remember handing in early so that I could go to the party my co-workers from my internship at the Association of British Orchestras threw for me. Rather than fail me, the teacher gave me an incomplete. In order to receive credit for the class, I had to write another paper and was therefore not yet a college graduate. This would probably seem to be a routine mix-up for most people - easily clarified. But not for me. This was a devastating turn of events for one simple reason.
I never graduated high school either.
For reasons I will elaborate upon in part three, there is to my knowledge no document in the world which shows that I graduated high school - in spite of the fact that it took me five years to do it. After the Miltonic epic that was my high school career, I made myself a solemn promise that I would graduate from college at any cost. And I would do it as quickly as possible because after an adolescence like mine, life can’t wait.
And with a single swift stroke, all the morale I’d built for myself in college to bear any burden to meet the single goal about which I cared was destroyed as easily as a kite in a thunderstorm. No doubt, I overreacted in my mind. I wrote the paper and graduated in August rather than April. But nothing could change that for all the hard work and obsessive over-preparation, I'd still not graduated in the normal allotted time. Over four years I’d braved a thousand anxieties to achieve that degree just as any other kid my age would, and even after all those headaches and heartaches I still couldn’t get what comes to other people so easily. I’d like to fancy myself the master of my destiny just as anybody else would. But now that the big 3-0 is a mere four months away, it’s difficult to escape the realization that the rest of my twenties were written out for me on that day as clearly as if it were etched in stone.
Please don’t think the last five yeras have been a washout. There’s much I wish I’d done differently, but it’s been a reasonably decent time all the same. I may not have technically been accepted into graduate school, but I have nearly two-hundred pages of papers from Johns Hopkins University classes to show for my time. I may not have made it as a choral conductor, but I have choral arrangements galore which I hope might prove useful for a later time (or regretfully, a later musician). But one development of the past few years stands above them all.
Long before I was born or my mother married into the family, the Tucker household resembled an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond crossed with a Eugene O’Neill play. Like any immigrant family that lives and works together, there is bound to be moments of high tragedy mixed with low comedy, sometimes indistinguishable from one another. But living and working in such close proximity as my father’s parents did all their lives got them through Stalin and Hitler and allowed them to begin a new family in America.
My Dad’s family was not here for the Depression or the War. Postwar prosperity and the GI Bill were not meant to benefit refugees. When my father got to college, he was still the son of barely middle-class shopkeepers. When his peers started rebelling against the social norms of the 1950’s, he felt completely out of step. No one in his family ever experienced the norms of the 50’s. My Dad was too busy helping his parents in their store to have anything to rebel against.
My father was born in Bialystok, Poland. He was also born on January 7th, 1946 - at the very start of the American baby boom. In certain ways, he’s very much part of his generation: marching for civil rights and against the War, going to grad school to avoid the draft, making (though mostly losing) money on Wall Street. But he is also quite apart from his generation - neither as radical as most baby boomers were in their younger years nor as conservative as they’ve become. Most boomers were starved for the challenge and adventure which life in the most privileged country in World History could not afford them. So they created their own adventure by insisting that the great society their parents built needed to be destroyed - it wasn’t great enough. But Dad, to whom privilege was a word for other people, grew up on stories of a far worse place. To him, as to his parents, the very meaning of life is to settle.
If there is one thing which Americans are not supposed to be, it’s ‘pessimistic.’ Amurrikans are optimists dangnabbit! This country is chock full of politicians and businessmen who not only tell us to expect the future to look brighter than the past, but expect us to believe it. For reasons that are a combination of empirical evidence, national identity, prosperity without precedent, and a lack of thoughtfulness, Americans of our age believe that a life of prosperity and continual improvement is our birthright. Our parents were the first generation Americans for whom that mentality would ring true from cradle to grave. Our generation of Americans was to be the first that any other view of the world would be outside of living memory.
But it was not to be. My story, such as it is, turned out to be not much different from my generation’s after all. We share a failure to live up to promise that once seemed unlimited, an unearned self-confidence turned on its head, and the disappointment that life is not what we thought it would be.
In a few hours, I’m going to sign a lease on an apartment. My father is coming out of retirement to found a business with all three of his sons. Like my father was with his father, I am now in business with him. My father, who earned a PhD from the University of Chicago, tried to find work in the 70’s as an historian. But he quickly learned that history had no future. His father also came out of retirement to help set him up in business. My younger brothers, both businessmen to the manner born in the way I’m clearly not, have the brains I lack for this sort of operation to work extremely well. Jordan had the unfortunate luck of graduating from business school at the exact moment when finding work in the finance industry became impossible. In less than two years, Ethan will graduate college with no guarantees of a job market better than the one we face. As my family has been compelled to do at so many other moments, we must turn to each other in a world that’s indifferent to our prosperity.
America made a damn good effort to create a new world in which people can rely on the system for prosperity. The liberal system of welfare which succeeded in creating American prosperity for so many was doubted at every point - by conservatives, by socialists, by communists, by fascists. But from Teddy Roosevelt onward, the American safety net created an ever-increasing ability for more people to follow their bliss than at any time or place in world history. But systems have life cycles just as people do, and we now see that there can only be a steady decline in its effectiveness. It’s still the best possible option by a long shot, but we cannot expect that it will shield us from the worst life has to offer as it once did. Just as my grandparents did, we have to accept that life may throw us tragedies which once we never thought we’d face.
But so long as we have a family upon whom we can rely, whether by blood or by friendship, we will weather whatever life throws at us and endure it with strength we never knew we had during more prosperous days. We are a generation no longer entitled to prosperity, but we are entitled to love. And as it has from time immemorial, love must be what saves us.