Over at First Thoughts, Matthew Cantirino posted a link to a collection of letters written by jobless or underemployed Millenials, to the Atlantic. It’s searing to read the letters The Atlantic published. For his part, Matthew writes:

Thus far, the so-called Millennials (at least in the United States) have mostly kept their disappointment to themselves. But will their disenchantment ever surface publicly, as it has in parts of Europe? Might this early experience of hardship create a new crop of leaders or result in new definitions of success, away from the resume-oriented, double-working-parent model? Or is there a danger that this group of Americans will begin to resemble another ‘Lost Generation’?

If you’re older, your natural inclination may be to roll your eyes and sneer at these 20-somethings as pampered. I think this is quite wrong — just as wrong, actually, as disregarding the trauma to someone in their fifties or sixties who has been laid off, and who can’t find work, and just as wrong for reasons FT reader John Willems captures in his combox response. Excerpt:

I myself am a millenial (24), and indeed, I am worried about the job situation. I understand that my position is better than most and that people before have had it worse. Here, I think, would be my summary of the situation we are in. Growing up, everyone my age was told that education was the key to success. That was the one constant in the universe. Do well in school and you have a future. Go to college, graduate school if possible. The people who told us this were not sinister or lazy. They thought it was true because it worked pretty well for them. A college education was one of those certain investments that had little to no risk.

More:

Are we mad? Yes, we are mad basically because we made the “responsible choice.” The irresponsible choice was to do what some of my classmates did and party their way out of one semester of college. The irresponsible thing to do was to major in English and try your hand at writing novels rather than go to engineering school or law school, which leads directly to a career. We made the safe investment, and every adult we every met told us it was a safe investment. There are no downsides to going to college, except that there are. Now, in this recession, there are no jobs at all. The number of jobs created in August was zero, and the work force grows every day. We, on the other hand, still have this debt.

You might say: Welcome to the real world. Nothing is guaranteed. Suck it up. And there would be something to that. But I think it is not only uncompassionate — and not in a squishy-sentimental way — but it fails to understand the deep dimensions of this challenge — a challenge that older workers who have been downsized, and who face dismal employment prospects, also face. It’s a matter of once sense of justice, and even what you might call metaphysical order, being violated — and that’s a far more serious thing than being merely unemployed. Explanation after the jump:

I was once going through a hard time with a situation at work, and when I would go to confession, I would lay out to the priest how much I struggled with confusion and anger over what I considered the irrationality and injustice of the particular situation. His counsel amounted to, “What are you complaining about? You have a job, don’t you? Suck it up.” And he was right on a certain level; it really could always be worse. But he was also wrong. What I was struggling with most of all was a violation of my deep sense of order. To someone on the outside, this might look like the whining of the privileged, but it didn’t feel that way to me. I was really in turmoil over this, and didn’t know how I was going to come out the other side. Mind you, I have as part of my psychological make-up a deep need for Order, which made the irrationality and injustice of this particular situation especially hard to take. This, by the way, is why I was undone by the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, whereas Catholic friends who were every bit as outraged by it as I was were able to weather the storm just fine. When I commit to believing that the world is a certain way, and it turns out not to be, the gap between what I think and what actually is is a chasm I risk falling into. But that’s me. The point is, we don’t help people who are in this kind of crisis find ways to be resilient, and even hopeful, amid their confusion and suffering by simply telling them to suck it up. I had fallen into a cycle of despondence that was really toxic for me before things resolved themselves in my case — and I didn’t know how to get out of it.

I am disinclined to sneer at the crisis Millenials are going through, because however coddled they may have been by their parents and culture, and however much greater their advantages are than their co-generationalists in Zimbabwe or Tijuana, they are still thrown into a world they were not prepared for, and they need help and solidarity — as do older workers who foresaw a glide path to a stable retirement, and are now looking at spending their elderly years in deprivation and constant insecurity.

Anyway, all of us in this country, at least among the middle class, have been culturally conditioned by our postwar prosperity to believe in a certain order and rationality to our universe. We were told that if we worked hard, got good grades, and played by the rules, things would probably turn out well for us. This was a rational conclusion, based on common experience — until suddenly, it no longer was. Industrial workers dealt with it as their industries got outsourced (think of the lines from Billy Joel’s “Allentown”: Well we’re waiting here in Allentown/For the Pennsylvania we never found/For the promises our teachers gave/If we worked hard/If we behaved./So the graduations hang on the wall/But they never really helped us at all/No they never taught us what was real…). What I think is so poignant and admirable about John Willems’s response is this passage:

I can’t blame Baby Boomers for this predicament, though I can’t really blame myself either. Both thought based on good information that college was worth it. In the same situation, both would rationally do exactly what they did. What is eventually going to have to happen is that the bubble is going to have to burst the same way that it did with houses, and people will be hurt. I don’t know how it will turn out.
The worst part about this is not our standard of living, which will still by higher than most people. The worst part about this is the failed expectations. Conservatives often note the culture of narcissum my generation has been immersed in, such as giving a ribbon to everyone who participates. What may surprise them is that in the end my generation may end up hating itself. People always told us that we were really going to make something of ourselves. They told that to me. People actually started talking about when I was going to make my first million when I was in high school. However, if I graduate law school, cannot find a job, and I have to rely on my parents in my mid-20s, the worse part will not be the money I could have made, it will be the humiliating fact that I had so much and could make nothing of it. Those participant ribbons never really made anybody feel better about themselves, but they did raise expectations. Those expectations are now crashing down.

Note that he doesn’t blame anybody for having raised expectations so high, but he identifies the worst thing about this crisis: not poverty (relative or absolute), but the loss of dignity, the humiliation of the experience. Do not underestimate the political force inherent in that sense of humiliation. Some of the worst villains of history came to power by giving voice to the disgust ordinary people felt over their own humiliation. More than freedom, I think, people want dignity. They’ll be prepared, at least for a while, to live with a lack of freedom, and even of material prosperity, in exchange for a restoration of dignity (or at least the illusion of same). The difference between the way things are, and the way we have come to expect them to be, is a chasm that an entire nation and political culture can fall into.

Leaving politics aside, the humiliation of unemployment or underemployment is having serious social effects. I invite you to read Don Peck’s most recent piece in The Atlantic, in which he discusses at length the prospects for the middle class at this moment. Note this passage:

What I didn’t emphasize in that story is the extent to which these sorts of social problems—the kind that can trap families and communities in a cycle of disarray and disappointment—have been seeping into the nonprofessional middle class. In a national study of the American family released late last year, the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox wrote that among “Middle Americans”—people with a high-school diploma but not a college degree—an array of signals of family dysfunction have begun to blink red. “The family lives of today’s moderately educated Americans,” which in the 1970s closely resembled those of college graduates, now “increasingly resemble those of high-school dropouts, too often burdened by financial stress, partner conflict, single parenting, and troubled children.”

“The speed of change,” wrote Wilcox, “is astonishing.” By the late 1990s, 37 percent of moderately educated couples were divorcing or separating less than 10 years into their first marriage, roughly the same rate as among couples who didn’t finish high school and more than three times that of college graduates. By the 2000s, the percentage in “very happy” marriages—identical to that of college graduates in the 1970s—was also nearing that of high-school dropouts. Between 2006 and 2008, among moderately educated women, 44 percent of all births occurred outside marriage, not far off the rate (54 percent) among high-school dropouts; among college-educated women, that proportion was just 6 percent.

The same pattern—families of middle-class nonprofessionals now resembling those of high-school dropouts more than those of college graduates—emerges with norm after norm: the percentage of 14-year-old girls living with both their mother and father; the percentage of adolescents wanting to attend college “very much”; the percentage of adolescents who say they’d be embarrassed if they got (or got someone) pregnant; the percentage of never-married young adults using birth control all the time.

One stubborn stereotype in the United States is that religious roots are deepest in blue-collar communities and small towns, and, more generally, among Americans who do not have college degrees. That was true in the 1970s. Yet since then, attendance at religious services has plummeted among moderately educated Americans, and is now much more common among college grads. So, too, is participation in civic groups. High-school seniors from affluent households are more likely to volunteer, join groups, go to church, and have strong academic ambitions than seniors used to be, and are as trusting of other people as seniors a generation ago; their peers from less affluent households have become less engaged on each of those fronts. A cultural chasm—which did not exist 40 years ago and which was still relatively small 20 years ago—has developed between the traditional middle class and the top 30 percent of society.

The interplay of economic and cultural forces is complex, and changes in cultural norms cannot be ascribed exclusively to the economy. Wilcox has tried to statistically parse the causes of the changes he has documented, concluding that about a third of the class-based changes in marriage patterns, for instance, are directly attributable to wage stagnation, increased job insecurity, or bouts of unemployment; the rest he attributes to changes in civic and religious participation and broader changes in attitudes among the middle class.

In fact, all of these variables seem to reinforce each other. Nonetheless, some of the most significant cultural changes within the middle class have accelerated in the past decade, as the prospects of the nonprofessional middle class have dimmed. The number of couples who live together but are not married, for instance, has been rising briskly since the 1970s, but it really took off in the aughts—nearly doubling, from 3.8 million to 6.7 million, from 2000 to 2009. From 2009 to 2010, that number jumped by nearly a million more. In six out of 10 of the newly cohabitating couples, at least one person was not working, a much higher proportion than in the past.

You would do well to read Peck’s earlier piece, from March 2010, titled, “How A New Jobless Era Will Transform America.” Excerpt:

Whatever the reason, the fact that so many young adults weren’t firmly rooted in the workforce even before the crash is deeply worrying. It means that a very large number of young adults entered the recession already vulnerable to all the ills that joblessness produces over time. It means that for a sizeable proportion of 20- and 30-somethings, the next few years will likely be toxic.

These young people have not been prepared — psychologically, emotionally, or spiritually — for the adverse world they now find themselves in. Few of us who grew up middle-class have. This economic crisis is going to have huge cultural and political costs that we are only beginning to imagine. Sooner or later, someone is going to come along who is going to be able to address the humiliating feeling of powerlessness that the unemployed and underemployed feel, and who is going to be able to articulate and direct their anger. This is going to be a very scary moment for America. I wish our political class understood what their jacking around with idiotic partisan games risks. As to my tribe, we do not have a serious conservative politics remotely adequate to these challenges. Or so it seems to me.