The Looming Spectre of ‘Social Unrest’: Millennials, Joblessness and Politics

“I have no connections…”

Last weekend, I spent an afternoon in a coffee shop on the Danforth, where I struck up a conversation with the barista. He noticed some residual University of Toronto insignia on my person and asked me if I had attended the school. After a deprecatory remark about how this paltry logo was the only useful thing I’d gotten out of the place, he told me that he had an Engineering degree from Queen’s University. We commiserated over our mutually unsatisfying jobs for which we were both vastly overqualified. He cited a “lack of connections,” a remark I’ve made lamenting my own career situation too many times to count. After some time floating around the job market, I’ve come to realize that without some oligarchic hookup or familial nepotism, you don’t stand a chance.

We were living out a scene strikingly similar to one featured in a recent documentary by CBC, aptly titled “Generation Jobless.” In this memorable scene, the camera pans over the waitresses at a sushi restaurant in Vancouver, text floating down to describe their educational credentials, set against the backdrop of them serving drinks: Honours degrees in International Relations, Modern European History, etc. etc.  The effect is jarring and immediate. These young people are forced into low paying service jobs, struggling to pay off the mountains of debt accumulated through pursuing an education: an investment that our parents, our teachers, our guidance counsellors told us would be worth it.

I came away from the conversation thinking about all the times I had been told that my “Arts” education was useless and that I would never get a decent job with it. I wished I could go back and brandish this piece of evidence in my colleagues’ faces: I guess Engineers are not immune either. But unfortunately, I already knew this. The reason is self-evident: this is not a crisis of too many history majors, but a case of an entire generation being sidelined and forgotten. We simply do not matter to those currently stalking the corridors of power.

Although, one does find oneself muttering under one’s breath from time to time, about the future of all those spacious Baby Boomer houses, left to rot in the suburbs because there will be no one able to buy them, about the economic calamity which will occur when the Baby Boomers do (at long last) retire, and there is no one to fill their positions. What will our economy consist of? Legions of well educated people whose only work experience consists of pouring drinks? Our resumes are filled with service jobs and advanced degrees, monuments to frustrated desire.

How sustainable is all of this, really? How long will it be before the system collapses under it’s own sagging weight?

Perhaps, as the experts are already hinting, we will begin to experience (as they delicately put it) “social unrest.” And what else could possibly happen? Are we really expected to sit back and watch our lives drain away in endless shift after shift in jobs we hate, jobs which are a complete waste of our potential, our education, and the skills we’ve paid so much to cultivate through incurring thousands and thousands of dollars of debt?  The situation is akin to a stack of kindling, waiting patiently for a single spark to ignite the entire building in a roaring inferno of destruction.

A vengeful voice breaks into my stream of thought to whisper: perhaps then they’d listen. Perhaps if the experts are correct in their predictions, the media and the government wouldn’t call us lazy, useless, spoiled, entitled. Perhaps then our experiences and our voices would be taken seriously. Perhaps then they would decide that we do matter.

Before we can demand some justice for ourselves, we need to abandon the neoliberal models of selfhood we have been handed. Instead of criticizing the government, instead of thinking critically about systemic forms of oppression, we turn that potentially transformative energy on ourselves. In doing so, we end up anxious and depressed, caught in the tertiary time of the precariat: constantly working to find work. We believe the problem must lie with us, that we are somehow inept, if we just rewrite our cover letters one more time, if we just scour the internet for a dozen more job postings, if we devote more hours in the day to searching, somehow things will turn around. This is a self-defeating attitude, but one that I’ve found myself slipping into many times during my own periods of joblessness. But who, exactly, benefits when we beat ourselves up over these things? When we turn this criticism on ourselves, instead of the real causes of economic precarity? Certainly not us…

As it stands now, it’s obvious that the issues our generation faces are not taken seriously in wider society. Is it any wonder we millennials don’t vote? We aren’t blind: we see that we have no recognized voice in these matters. We are not permitted a voice. We already know we will not be receiving any pension payouts in our old age. We will work until we drop. That is, if any of us will be permitted to have access to jobs by then. We know that under the current government income inequality is growing, our environment is being ravaged, and our country is being transformed into a democratically hollow petro-state. But if all these things are self-evident, if in every conversation I have with a person my age, these pieces of knowledge lie between us, known and acknowledged without even needing to be spoken, then how long can this status quo hold? All over the world, from Egypt, to Spain, to Hong Kong our generational fellows utter a collective scream of “enough.” How long before we join them?

Because the truth at the heart of the matter is this: If not us, then who? And if not now, then when?

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One thought on “The Looming Spectre of ‘Social Unrest’: Millennials, Joblessness and Politics

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