I loathe crony capitalism and the lobbying-industrial complex. I was against the bailouts and the corrupt falsely-named "stimulus packages." I hoped that this would be where Occupy Wall Street focused its efforts -- on the collusion between big business and the government. Instead, it's turned into a generally leftist movement with a somewhat narrow focus. Here's how Inside Higher Ed put it:
A prominent (if disputed) criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been its amorphous, platform-free nature. But as the protests that began in New York in September have continued, spreading across the United States and the world, one clear issue of concern has emerged: student loan debt.
We also know that the movement isn't exactly flourishing. A poll last week showed that six in 10 Americans can't be bothered to form an opinion about it and nearly a third of Americans are downright disposed against the protests.
As I watch it from a distance, struggling, getting evicted, being visited or supported by celebrities (This Miley Cyrus bit? Come on, NO one deserves to hear that ear-piercingly awful song. I might prefer pepper spray over listening to that.), I wonder what the future holds for the movement.
But comparing the Occupy movement with some other social justice movements, I couldn't help but think that there are some parenting lessons here.
The failure of our self-esteem obsession. I think I'm too old to have endured much of this, but this was the trend where students were encouraged to have high self-esteem for its own stake. Now, having a positive view of yourself is certainly important. But so is having a realistic one. In hiring and managing situations in recent years, I've had to deal with young adults who seem to have never been told anything critical about their performance. Many of my colleagues and friends have told harrowing stories about managing younger employees of a certain age. There was the woman who turned down an applicant for a job position only to receive a phone call from her mother. I'm not joking. I'm sure that crap worked in elementary school, but it's ridiculous for a grown woman to be unable to deal with rejection or to tattle to her mother.
Some of my younger friends tell me that their parents practically applauded each bowel movement they made. Every piece of art they created was a masterpiece. Every athletic accomplishment was deserving of a medal. (You've heard, I'm sure, of the practice of not letting students actually compete against each other for rankings.)
Don't you get the feeling that some of these kids out occupying were told that they were the bee's knees for so long that they're utterly confused as to why their puppetry degree isn't resulting in a high-salaried position? You thought I was joking there, right? Well, check out this snippet from the first paragraph of a recent Nation article about the movement:
Frustrated by huge class sizes, sparse resources and a disorganized bureaucracy, he set off to the University of Connecticut to get an MFA in his passion—puppetry. Three years and $35,000 in student loans later, he emerged with degree in hand, and because puppeteers aren’t exactly in high demand, he went looking for work at his old school.
And so a generation raised to think it was so very special has created a social justice movement that is largely about themselves and not having to pay back their own student loans. It's embarrassing. I'm not even saying that there aren't major problems with student loans or the fact that the government subsidizes them and the education industry. I do think there are problems with that. But how do these kids not realize that this is not a winning message with the public? And yes, you're right that I'm writing this as someone who had to work full-time while going to school full-time to avoid any debt.
That's right, more American students are majoring in visual and performing arts than engineering. I don't care if you're only 18, if you decided to major in visual arts, you have to know that there's not some fat paycheck waiting for you at the end of the rainbow. And while I don't give these young adults a pass -- plenty of people navigated life without benefit of parents who understood the job market -- you do have to wonder what kind of advice their parents were giving them. I don't think I got particularly good advice from my parents on this front. But whether or not I give my children good advice on their careers, I darn well better teach them that part of growing up is accepting responsibility for your decisions. If you pile up $100,000 in student loan debt without a good plan for how you're going to pay that off, that's not good. If you pick a line of work that is notoriously difficult to get hired into, that's not good. Parents need to assist their children from a young age with how to make responsible decisions. Telling them they're brilliant and everything will work out is not going to cut it.
On that note, this insane attitude about education begins with parents. Somehow we've all gotten the idea that education is the best investment when it comes to children. Many parents begin the competition with education in pre-school, paying an unbelievable amount of money to get into the best school. But the thing about education is that it doesn't always stand that higher prices correlate with positive outcomes. And for many people, they're overspending. They're overspending in grammar school and they're way overspending in college.
Teach your kids that effort is admirable. Achievement is valuable. Maybe I'm repeating myself, but one of the saddest things about this movement is just how little it has accomplished with so much effort. I know, I know, it's part of the whole "consensus" approach. But maybe that approach isn't working (for more on why, I recommend this New York Times op-ed by a sympathetic professor). This movement is failing to resonate with the public -- beyond the very effective 99% messaging. Part of that is because they've accomplished so very little. It's great to put energy and effort into something. It's also great to accomplish something. Civil rights and social justice movements may have just looked like spontaneous gatherings of strong emotions from a distance, but the fact is that a lot of time and energy and effort went into designing these protests. They worked on messaging, targets, primary players. They had concrete goals. My friends in Occupy say that's not the point of Occupy. And I'm willing to wait and see, but the lack of a coherent message and goals is not helping things right now.
I'm not giving up on the Occupy movement. It obviously needs to work on its messaging beyond "get us out of our student debt" and "police are the worst." But I have hope it will. There really are systemic problems with how big businesses play the government racket. If enough people on left and right see this, and are willing to do what it takes to stop it, this could be a great moment in history.
And perhaps realizing that the world isn't sitting around waiting to pat you on the back and tell you "Great job!" is the valuable lesson these guys need. Growing up is tough, but it's actually kind of liberating to realize how it works and makes it easier to navigate life.