'Generation 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 rungs.
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 home sales.
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 Generation Stuck.
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 now.
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 up with.
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 America Media
(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 project.)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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