Stuck' - Young People Take on the Opportunity Gap
By Raj Jayadev
I edit a youth magazine
here in the heart of Silicon Valley. The last three
articles I edited were: "Undocumented and Stuck
in Community College"; "Life as a Felon
Is No Life at All"; and "A Generation
in Debt." Our publication, Silicon Valley De-Bug,
was never intended to present only pessimistic outlooks.
But given the utter lack of opportunity for many
young people today, anything but pessimism seems
out of touch.
According to a recently released report from a think
tank called The Opportunity Agenda, "stuck"
is a national trend. The report, "Opportunity
in America," uses indicators such as economic
security, equality and civic voice to determine
what many young adults know simply by looking at
their own life options -- the ladder has lost its
The report reveals some dismal statistics. The number
of uninsured Americans has reached an all-time high
of 45 million. Wage inequality is greater now than
it was three decades ago. There is greater segregation
of minority and low-income students than in 1986,
while college tuition is becoming farther out of
reach for low- and moderate-income families. Home
ownership has declined over the last 35 years for
those in lower income communities, with increased
reports of discrimination in mortgage lending and
The generation represented by our magazine, ages
18-25, suffers the most from the opportunity gap.
They are coming of age at the same time the avenues
to adulthood -- living-wage jobs, higher education,
home ownership -- are narrowing. Offered little
opportunity to move ahead but saddled with all the
responsibilities of adulthood, they have become
One of our artists came here from Mexico as a young
boy when his mother carried him across the border.
Even while working to ease the burden of his constantly
working mother, he became a star athlete and student
at his high school and community college. He was
the All-American teenage boy, except not officially
"American." He graduated from community
college with stellar grades. Any university would
be lucky to have him. But because he is undocumented,
he is ineligible for financial aid; without it,
tuition at a four-year university is out of reach.
Another one of our folks is a 23-year-old man I've
known for seven years. I've seen him grow up and
out of his past, which was marred by childhood abuse
and neglect. Along the way he caught a few cases
-- mostly graffiti -- and served his time. Now he
has defied the odds and transformed himself into
an honest and hard-working young man. He has filled
out hundreds of applications, but employers won't
hire him because he has a record. He had the courage
to give up his lifestyle and commit to becoming
a new person, but I see an anger brewing in him
Then there's the writer who just completed cooking
school, a dream of hers growing up, who now finds
herself shut out of jobs she has trained for because
she is a woman. She wrote about the sexism that
thwarted her job search, and was happy to expose
the injustice, but she's not trying to become the
Norma Rae of cooking -- she just wants a job. The
"Opportunity in America" numbers suggest
that even if she gets one, she'll earn 20 percent
less than her male counterparts.
Despite the absence of opportunity, or perhaps because
of it, there is an urgency among this generation
to make moves now, before inertia is all one knows.
So the artist who can't go to university has started
his own design company, creating shirts, hats and
Web sites. The cooking-school graduate shut out
of restaurant kitchens is developing a business
plan to launch her own catering company.
A lot of the young people I meet don't have jobs,
but they all have business cards, most sporting
multiple titles -- CEO, Producer, Promoter, Designer
-- stacked on top of each other. The cards reflect
the only real prospect these young adults have:
each other. If opportunity is not going to come
from institutions like school, or jobs, then networking
with peers is the only viable option. That's why
the latest cyber-networking phenomenon, Myspace.com,
has spread like wildfire. Young people have started
record labels, clothing companies and skateboarding
companies just through the connections made online.
When folks talk about how many "friends"
they have in Myspace, it's not about popularity
-- it's about currency. It's the new money, like
how stock options were for Silicon Valley techies
five years ago. Back then, your worth wasn't in
your paycheck, it was in your stock portfolio. For
this generation, it's how many people you're hooked
Networking for this generation is not just about
getting ahead, it's about getting together: organizing.
The same group of authors who are writing about
being stuck are now working to change city job applications
to remove questions about criminal history. They're
going after credit card companies that are targeting
youths and keeping them in debt. And they're holding
forums for young people to talk about their experiences.
Perhaps the most hopeful sign is that this generation
is naming the condition of their collective moment.
The word "stuck" makes everyone nod his
head -- the undocumented, the previously incarcerated,
the couch-cruising, the under-employed. It may not
be as explicit as previous generational calls to
action -- the 1960s struggle for civil rights, the
'80s fight against apartheid -- but may in the end
prove just as significant.
Being "stuck," young people in this generation
know, is not inherit to their character, but comes
from outside. Opportunity is shrinking in America.
Rather than just accepting it, Generation Stuck
is working collectively to address the problem --
and change society for us all in the process. Isn't
that ultimately what we expect adults to do? - New
(Editor's Note: As more and more doors to economic
security are being shut, young people are finding
new paths to adulthood and challenging the forces
keeping them locked out of the American Dream. New
America Media contributor Raj Jayadev is the editor
of Silicon Valley De-Bug, the voice of young workers,
writers and artists in Silicon Valley and a NAM