Mills: Graduating in debt, but not soured on life

The Class of 2013 is driven not The Class of 2013 is driven not by a sense of entitlement but by the fear they are not going to have the same chance at success that their parents did. Photo Credit: Tribune Media Services / Paul Tong

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As an American studies professor in the midst of commencement season, I can't help comparing the challenges of my seniors and those across the country -- who conducted their studies during the Great Recession -- to the challenges college grads faced 80 years ago during the Great Depression.

The Class of 2013 seniors I know are the very opposite of the "lazy, entitled, narcissists" that Joel Stein claims they and their fellow millennials constitute in his Time cover story, "The Me Me Me Generation," now getting so much attention.

The most accurate way to think of today's college grads is as young men and women who have accepted the idea of putting their lives on hold while they wait for our hard times to improve. The Class of 2013 is driven not by a sense of entitlement but by the fear they are not going to have the same chance at success that their parents did.

HBO's much watched series, "Girls," reflects the postgraduate world the Class of 2013 is preparing for. A cluttered apartment, shared with friends and without real space for privacy, is the new norm. The underemployment rate for young college grads -- which includes those out of work, those working part time and those who have stopped looking for a job -- is a whopping 18.3 percent, but even young grads with jobs aren't doing especially well. In 2012, 52 percent of employed college grads younger than 25 were working at jobs that did not require a college education.

The Class of 2013 has come of age at a time when unpaid internships are touted as a way to get ahead. But most seniors have concluded, rightly it turns out, that unpaid internships aren't the career path companies claim. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, just 37 percent of unpaid interns got job offers, a mere 1 percent better than grads with no unpaid internship experience.

Nonetheless, for many in the Class of 2013, finding work immediately after college is a necessity because they are starting their professional lives with negative net worth. The average student loan debt at the end of college is $26,000, and right now, 43 percent of 25-year-olds are struggling with student-loan repayments. For today's student debtors, taking a year or two after college to "find themselves" is a luxury they can't afford.

This situation has caused members of the Class of 2013 to have second thoughts about their employer appeal and, even in this era of grade inflation, to worry about not having enough A's on their transcripts.

That's a lot of pressure, and it is no accident that, as reports from colleges around the country show, when the Class of 2013 has done drugs, Adderall, a drug designed to help those with attention deficit focus (the very opposite of a drug designed to get you high) has been a big favorite among students, even if they don't have a prescription.

The miracle is that, when I look at my students, the prospect of graduating into an era of diminished expectations hasn't turned the Class of 2013 into dull grinds. I find my students enrolling in as many courses in fiction, dance and art as they did 20 years ago despite wanting a transcript that says, "I'm ready for work."

At least at my college, members of the Class of 2013 have not let the possibility that they may end up worse off than their parents sour them. They are driven by a basic kindness that ranges from volunteering at food pantries to participating in scholarship auctions. The Class of 2013 was part of a youth vote in which 60 percent voted for President Barack Obama, and they continue to side with politicians and movements committed to greater equality.

While Occupy Wall Street was going on in New York City, I had no trouble finding students I taught there alongside students from across the country. What Woodstock was to my 1960s generation, Occupy has been to the Class of 2013 -- a coming together in which "me" is subordinate to "us."

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.”

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