Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Loser Generation: Part One

Let me tell you about the loser generation.

Our beginnings were auspicious, as is a requirement to be a loser. Something had to be lost. What happened specifically to me won’t match many other people’s story, but it’ll be close enough, I hope, to identify with. And it doesn’t start when I was born, but instead, in 1991.

In kindergarten I didn’t know what was going on, just that we were in the other classroom and the other teacher was telling us something important. She may even have said we wouldn’t understand what was going on. I was young for my grade, five years old with a summer birthday. The Wall had come down when I was three, and now the Soviet Union – and the Cold War with it – had collapsed. The U.S. had won.

That was a fact I would not understand fully until very recently. I understood historically what had occurred years later, but the ramifications I am still grappling with. The loser generation had the best childhood in the history of world. If you were American, middle class, growing up in the 90s there really was no better childhood for an average kid that I can think of. We never had bomb drills. The economy was roaring, and the middle class on the swell. Crime was down, optimism up, and no enemies.  Never before had there been a global super power so totally unopposed. No one in the world was there to challenge us, and scores of old feuds were being settled. Ireland made peace. The Israelis and Palestinians made peace. The Balkans settled. It was now Pax Americana and for a child with no understanding of the background forces of the world all I knew was life was good.

When the Gulf War broke out I asked my dad if he had to fight (since that’s what happens in the movies and stories). But he explained the war would be over before he could’ve gotten to a base. And so we became the first post-Cold War generation. We had no memories of a time or life before then.

(Students entering high school for 2012 will have no memory of 9/11. I was a sophomore in high school by then.)

Our title soon changed, though, due to other things in 1991. My school days were standard for the time, perhaps. Slide rulers, dictionary drills (to find words quickly), and learning from the librarian how to use the card catalogue. In third grade we did some logo programming on computers. By fifth grade we were learning how to make rudimentary HTML pages. They felt more like art projects – expressive sheets about us filled with silly .gifs and garish .jpegs. I had seen graphics come a long way from my mom’s Apple Plus – the screens weren’t green anymore, the printers weren’t rotary. The screen and computer diverged and the iMac lost the floppy drive. We were becoming the computer generation - the first ever to grow up with this technology and the internet at our fingertips.

Eighth grade graduation came in 2000. I’d grown up north of Silicon Valley, and seen the bubble burst. But the internet, and the companies that were critical to the new world, were still around. Y2K didn’t happen. I went to high school with an email address, an AOL chat name to keep in touch, and an interest in the Bush-Gore election. In mock elections, that freshman fall, our hippie school voted overwhelmingly for Nader. Such views perhaps aren't surprising for youthful optimists.

Already the tide was shifting, the halcyon days were preparing for storms again. After the ugliness of the real election Bush proposed No Child Left Behind, and Boehner cosponsored the bill, passing it that summer. This legislation, signed into law in 2002, would affect everyone to go through school after us. It is a sharp dividing line between me and the younger generation. We didn’t suffer tests the way they did.

The computer generation had by now been redubbed. We were the first teens experiencing a post-9/11 world. I remembered the Oklahoma City Bombing, the photos in the papers. Home-grown terrorism I could understand as a tragedy of life – no matter how good we had it as kids there were still horrible moments, personal losses and madness in the world. The notion of enemies abroad was inconceivable, though.

Not having grown up on the east coast or having any connection to it I initially had no knowledge or context for the Twin Towers. Likewise some, in their high school mock elections, probably had a vast majority vote for Bush in their schools. I can only tell my own story and in the process remark upon the moments and threads that unite us, and define us, as losers.

Half of one percent of Americans were enlisted in Iraq or Afghanistan. No one I knew was. The Selective Service had been designed precisely for this sort of contingency, and had it been invoked my time as a young man would have been very different. But when I left high school the only thing that happened was that during my freshman fall Bush was, to me and my friends' astonishment, reelected. We had been too young, only teens, to demonstrate the first term, and we were now too cynical to demonstrate against the second. I had voted for Kerry, and my first experience with democracy was loss.

College was busy. I’d gone to a small liberal arts school with a reputation for hard work. Not an Ivy, but on the east coast. My mom moved to Boston. Steadily others began to see the President in the same light as I had for eight years, and he was turned out with historically low approval ratings.

I’d begun dating (having grappled with acne throughout high school) and was doing well. The wars didn’t really exist. My view of how the world worked had certainly shifted: there were enemies of the United States out there, politicians don’t always make the right decisions, and Americans don’t always make the right decisions. (For me any decision which preserves, increases or champions human dignity is the right decision.) It would have been tempting to become cynical and depressed, a condition I’d first encountered in high school, but, as I said, I was busy and dating.

By now our generation was making a new name for itself. Unlike most Americans fellows like Mark Zuckerberg were not seen as young upstart, but as peers. Web 2.0 was here, and we were interacting with each other in a new way – we were the target demographic as well as the movers and shakers of this new type of connection. It was a way to be back in control of our lives, if not 'irl'.

My career path was teaching. I’d enrolled in a BA/MAT program in 2006, and so had only one year of Grad school, basically a year of student teaching. I’d been told this was a good path, and I was civil servant-minded. I wanted to help people. And I was starting to froth against NCLB. 

That fall of my graduate year I witnessed a very different scene on my campus than that of 2004, with jubilant hugs, fireworks and screaming for joy. A teary Virginian girl cried out in ecstatic repeated disbelief “I live in a blue state! I live in a blue state!” For those of the loser generation who experienced a different night the point remains - a very different Presidency had begun. It felt to us to be vibrant and youthful, perfect for the Web 2.0 Generation.

Yet there was a distant thunder rolling in fast. Bush had left under a serious economic crisis. By the swearing-in the greatest recession since the 1970s was taking place. My choice to get a Masters was now looking foolish. Everyone gets in debt for school (excepting those families mine was vaguely covetous of) but this social contract now looked very scary indeed. I had been warier than many of my friends, growing up in an economically fluctuating household, and my fears were coming true. I had to pay about $600 a month for ten years. More worrisome was getting a job at all. “Double Dip Recession” and “Depression” were being thrown about and teachers were being sacked in the tens of thousands per state. The baby boomers couldn’t retire and free up the positions we’d been promised when I made my career choice in 2006. My Masters now meant that legally I had to be paid more to teach in a public school, but had only student teaching experience to back me up in applications and interviews. 

We graduated nervously.

Job hunting was a full-time job that summer, and I very luckily got a position – in October. We were now the group hardest hit by unemployment and underemployment in the worst economic crises since the 30s: We were now the loser generation.

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