College debt burdens today's youths

"You weren’t as sucky parents as I used to think.” High praise from a child who flew the coop long ago. Our relationship thawed following this admission. My wife and I became more involved in the lives of my kids and their friends. Inevitably I compared my youth to theirs.

I’m 60 now, but I remember how things were when I was a young adult back in the stone age. The process of self-discovery doesn’t seem different in substance from then to now. The pertinent questions remain constant: “Who am I?” “What is my purpose in life?” “How do I fit in?” “Will I find true love?”

Our life journey involves searching for answers to these questions. Most never grasp that everyone is asking the same questions and going through the same process.

The young people I meet all seem to be following that same path of self-discovery that every generation must travel. There is one glaring difference: Hope. Most young adults I meet believe things won’t get better.

Many are buried in student debt. My generation was raised to believe that a college education was the ticket to prosperity. Schools were more affordable. A lot of our parents had good jobs in factories and could help financially. I don’t know anyone my age that graduated from college with a large debt.

Today, inflation and an unending recession limit many parents’ ability to help their kids. Predatory lending practices suck students into large loans. Then, upon graduating, they discover that diploma is just a piece of paper that everyone is using to go after the same low-paying job. Today’s college diploma is often worth less on the job market than a high school diploma circa 1971.

Back then, with only a high school diploma, my first minimum wage job afforded me a duplex with a garage to house my two motorcycles. I raced motorcycles three weekends a month. I dated a lot. Try that on today’s minimum wage job.

I was upwardly mobile, progressing to a couple of factory jobs before getting into the motorcycle industry. Now moving up means having to pay more on your student loans, so your standard of living remains the same.

It also seems harder to move up. CEOs of large corporations all seem to ascribe to the John Schnatter (Papa John’s Pizza) business model: Pay your help minimum wage with no room for advancement, cut their hours to avoid having to pay for health care, and live in a multi-million estate. Those able to claw their way up to a better job find their standard of living eroded by inflation fueled by a government run amok.

In previous columns I addressed some government practices that have the effect of enrichening the already rich at the expense of the rest of us. Young people see this, but see no way to change it. They have lost faith in the system.

Many turn to the military for job security, but many see a succession of useless and expensive wars. They decline the opportunity to come home in a body bag or with debilitating injuries.

While unemployment statistics seem encouraging, they’re skewed. Many unemployed are out of the system and are not being counted. Actual unemployment might be pushing 20 percent. Ironically, this often strengthens families. The un- and under-employed 20- and 30-somethings are integrating into their extended families in ways reminiscent of the 19th century. Like my son, many are contributing money and energy into the multi-generational households that are becoming common.

Our family now prepares communal meals. Every dinner turns into a holiday feast, and no one has to drive 1,000 miles. Chores get done without teenage angst or rebellion. They even do their own laundry. It’s pretty cool.

Soon my son will marry and we’ll welcome a new daughter to the family. There is still hope for the future.

Originally printed in The Olympian on September 30, 2013