Lost & Found

A delayed generation moves forward one sidestep at a time.

Written by Sam George

Portraits by Beau Gustafson

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”

— Allen Saunders (widely attributed to John Lennon)

To begin with…

Let’s start with the numbers, shall we? Everyone knows that the current economic climate is terrible, but nothing throws an ugly situation into relief like the harsh light of statistics. Youth unemployment rates are at record highs. According to a recent article by The Atlantic, almost 14 percent of college graduates who matriculated during 2006-2010 are unable to find full-time employment, and only 55.3 percent of those aged 16-29 are working, which is the lowest percentage since World War II. Globally, the rates of unemployed youth are also at record highs, as reported by CNN. In Spain, it’s at 44 percent, and in Italy and France, it’s in the 20 percent range.

On the surface, it’s clearly a bad time to be looking for your first job, and the numbers seem to bear out the fact that any delay in your professional career track will have lasting and measurable repercussions. A separate report in The Atlantic quotes Yale economist Lisa Kahn as saying, “It’s as if the lucky graduates had been given a gift of about $100,000, adjusted for inflation, immediately upon graduation—or, alternatively, as if the unlucky ones had been saddled with a debt of the same size.” The Huffington Post cites a new report estimating the average student-debt load for graduates of the class of 2010 was over $25,000, which makes the loss of potential future earning all the more keen. When faced with that six-figure number, it’s hard to remember that it’s only the possibility of money lost. It’s not tangible, and it never existed.

And that’s just the thing. When you look at the numbers and the dire prognostications of future calamity, it’s easy to call the landscape bleak and leave it at that. But that is not what this so-called “Lost Generation” is doing. They are leaving the moaning to us, the generations that put them in this predicament, and getting down to the business of making their way. Most of the people I talked to for this story have found some way to make do, to find joy in what they have and hope in what they may accomplish. Life for them is an opportunity waiting to happen, and though many have dealt with uncertainty and depression, the moniker “Lost Generation” couldn’t be more inappropriate. These young men and women aren’t lost; they’re just defining their own direction, and in the end I think we’ll find that they are stronger for it, even without that hundred grand.

Latoya Buggs

Graduated: UAB

Major: Mechanical Engineering

Like many people who go to college, Latoya Buggs had a pretty good plan set for herself. She would get a degree in mechanical engineering, get a job with a big company in the South’s burgeoning automotive industry and work her way up the ladder. That all changed with a small addition to her life, an addition that gurgles and coos contentedly on her lap while we chat.

That’s right, shortly after graduating from UAB, Buggs discovered that she was pregnant, and though she was already having trouble with her job search, the happy news ended it completely. “A lot of mechanical engineering jobs are very physical, and being a pregnant woman was not safe,” she insists. “Being outside in the heat, being around welding. Also, it’s hard to go find a 40 to 50 hour a week job when you’re sick every day. Mentally I wasn’t motivated, but I was looking. When you get a degree, you feel like, ‘I have to do this.’”

Now that she is contemplating a return to full-time work, she has to face the reality of the new environment. “The American dream of, ‘If you get a college degree, you’ll get a job,’ it’s not true anymore. You feel cheated,” Buggs says.

Yet despite feeling cheated, she doesn’t try to place the blame on the usual culprits. “I think each person has to be accountable for their own actions,” she says. “I do think there are a lot of factors that have affected the economy, and I can’t just blame the President or blame Wall Street. I think that times have changed, it’s getting tougher no matter what you do.”

Now, as she looks for work, she finds everything colored by her new son, Ethan, and thoughts of how she can make the world a better place for him. “I know now that I need to prepare him and teach him that there are no guarantees in life. If you want to go to college, that’s fine, but I would probably encourage him more to start his own business, do his own thing, use his brain for himself to help himself be more self-sufficient.”

Tiffany Davers

Graduated: Troy University

Major: Broadcast Journalism

When it comes to a bad job climate, one of the strongest weapons in a young person’s arsenal is hustle, and Tiffany Davers has some to spare. She originally came to Birmingham for an unpaid internship with ISP Sports and later a low-paid job with UAB Athletics, all while working at a retail store in the evening to make ends meet and driving the hour-long commute from her home in Chilton County twice a day. The UAB Athletics job was rewarding initially, but they had her working full-time hours on a part-time wage, and eventually it was time to move on.

“I wanted to get into TV, that’s still very much what I want to do, and I felt that there was no more for me to learn, there was no more experience for me to gain,” Davers says. “I had talked to a couple of TV stations, and had the opportunity to shadow with ABC, but being at UAB I didn’t have the time to devote to it.”

The ABC gig is also unpaid, but according to Davers, it is an essential part of the path she is taking. “It’s an experience,” she says. “When you try to get a job in TV, it doesn’t matter how much experience you have with producing, directing, film editing, anything like that, if you don’t have newsroom experience it’s really not going to do you any good.”

Which explains why Tiffany Davers is willing to take so many jobs for low pay or for free. She recognizes that if the economy was better she might have achieved her goal sooner, but doesn’t identify with the “lost” tag.

“Instead of being able to be complete four or five years of school and immediately find a job, you just have to take smaller steps,” she says. “It’s not just one big leap. So, we’re not really lost, it’s just there’s a different path to what you want to do.”

Sarah Heath

Graduated: University of Georgia

Major:  Master of Fine Arts

When Sarah Heath, sculptor and metal artist, first went back to school, it was really for the experience of school itself, not to further any ambition. “The promise of grad school in the arts is that it’s three years to just make art and focus on your career as an artist,” she reveals. “I wanted that. I wanted to not have to work and just make art for three years.”

That changed when Heath discovered, while fulfilling her graduation requirement, that she loved teaching, loved “actually hearing synaptic gaps being hopped over.” Unfortunately, getting a teaching job is one of the most ornate, complicated and often unfulfilling endeavors a job-seeker can undertake. It’s a yearly cycle that centers around one massive convention. “It’s like speed dating for college universities,” she says. “It’s a meat market. You have 30 different interviews for professor jobs that pay upwards of 55,000 dollars a year happening in the same room at the same time. Talk about distracting!”

When her job search failed to pan out, it was very deflating. “All of a sudden the rug’s pulled out from under you,” Heath says. “You’re out of grad school, so you don’t have your free studio that the university gave you, you don’t have student loans that you were basically living off of, you don’t have the stipends from the university. Nobody promised that you were going to get a job, but everything was gearing toward that, so coming out of that and not getting it, I felt a little broken at first, and I kind of forgot who I was.”

Heath, who is working as a bartender at Bottletree while she prepares for next year’s job cycle, feels good about her situation. “All I have is gratitude now,” she says. “I didn’t get the job I thought I would, the job I was dreaming about getting, but I work at the coolest music venue in America. I love or really like all the people around me. They are like a family. You have in your mind, ‘This is what my life is going to be.’ I hadn’t even allotted for time to fall in love and get a house with a dude and do all these other really great adventures that I hadn’t really had time to think about. And now, it’s like a whole different and awesome situation, just not the awesome situation I thought I was going to be in.”

Jamaal Gamble

Graduated: UAB

Major: Photography

These days, many post-grads find themselves having to work jobs they never wanted, not the jobs they dreamed of. Jamaal Gamble is one such job-seeker, but unlike many, he planned on having a job he wasn’t attached to. “I was going to graduate, go back to Huntsville, since I already knew a few people, get a job and save up money,” he says. “Since I didn’t have to pay rent I’d be able to start paying on the loans I have from school and then build up from there.”

Currently, Gamble works at the Toyota plant pulling auto parts. “The hardest part is staying awake, to be honest with you,” he admits. “My first job they had me doing was moving attachment parts for the engines that they build from one part of the assembly line to another, and I did that for 10 hours. I was literally falling asleep standing up. They were laughing about it. It’s real tedious, man.”

Still, it’s better than being miserable, which he’d had his fair share of. “I was getting to that point where I felt I couldn’t do anything,” Gamble says. “It’s not an easy thing to get over it, but you have to just keep moving, because I swear to God if you dwell on that shit every second of every day you’ll go crazy.”

To help himself out of the rut, Gamble has chosen to dwell on something more fulfilling. In addition to being a photographer, he is also a talented B-Boy (break-dancer) and often performs locally with the LOBOTOMIX crew. He’s managed to find a niche for himself that fulfills him creatively, even if it doesn’t pay, and he thinks the rest of his generation is doing the same. “I think we’re just trying to find our place,” he says. “There was this system that was built up to work a certain way, for generations, and now all of that is going to hell because everything didn’t pan out right. It’s coming to a point where things are about to change, and we’re going to have to step up and take the reins. I’m just doing everything I can to make a better life for myself. I’m not trying to get too stressed out about it. I mean, I got what it takes. That’s pretty much it.”

Justin Nelson

Graduated: University of Alabama

Major: Religious Studies

Shortly before Justin Nelson graduated with a degree in religious studies, he became suddenly disillusioned with the entire academic process and decided to make a sharp left turn, becoming involved in software and information technology. He got a job working for the founder of software company Daxko at a start-up called Yacht Record, and later for Daxko itself, and just as he was interviewing for a new job with Earthlink, he was laid off from the company. At the time, he didn’t realize it was the beginning of a sea change.

“I was already interviewing with Earthlink, so I thought that was great,” Nelson recalls. He got the job at Earthlink, but when the request went through HR, it was denied due to pending cutbacks.

“That was really deflating,” Nelson says. “Then I interviewed with a start-up, and they said I had the job, and I even went to a day of training. In the end, they got the account but they still didn’t have the money to sustain another salesperson.”

Left with nothing, he turned to his father’s business, Nelson Trucking, for relief. It’s not what he wanted, and he works an exhausting 80 to 100 hours a week, but he’s in a leadership position and is essentially his own boss. However, in the corporate business environment, Nelson says his generation is truly delayed. “We’re not lost, we’re screwed,” he says. “The longer you get from having that magical five years of experience, the less marketable you are. Struggle is good, but insurmountable odds are completely different. If you’re in the business climate and you get a late start, they let you know it in your reviews and how you’re treated. Corporate America is a nightmare. It’s really all about going public, the bottom line and the spreadsheet.”

Nelson also doesn’t see much hope from the political arena. “With Congress and the current two-party system we have that can’t agree with anyone, I don’t have any hope right now,” he says. “They’re all bought and paid for by these God-awful corporations we’re talking about. They run the country. I’d like to occupy the hell out of ‘em.”

While Nelson hasn’t actually participated in an Occupy protest, he identifies with the movement, but thinks their goals are ultimately doomed. “I think the individual people on the micro scale, they’re going to find ways to do things, but on the macro scale nothing ever changes,” he says. “Individually, we’ll be unique and creative and beautiful, but societally, culturally, we have Alzheimer’s. Everyone has it, it’s horrible, and no one cares.”

Jason Roche

Graduated: UAB

Major: English

When Jason Roche first went to college, he didn’t think he was starting a process that would take almost a decade to complete and see him attending four different universities. At first, the delay was of his own making. “I wouldn’t go, I would stay home,” he says. “I worked at Full Moon Barbeque and I smoked a lot of weed. I was 19, I had no idea of the consequences I was getting myself into. Basically, I was a moron.”

Roche kept trying, transferring from his first school, Jefferson State, to Holy Cross in Indiana and then to the University of Alabama, only to drop out shortly after arriving in Tuscaloosa. At this point, he thought perhaps college just wasn’t for him and decided it would be cool to cut meat. That’s right, you read that correctly. “What drew me to it was kind of silly, but it’s Daniel Day Lewis’s character in Gangs of New York, Bill the Butcher,” he admits. “He was amazing to me, and I thought it would be cool to be a butcher.”

At first, being out of college was a huge relief. “I remember that day I decided I quit college. I remember walking out of work and knowing it was the first day of school for everyone else, and I just had to go home,” Roche says. I was done, my day was done, and it was amazing, and I knew that I would never go back. Then, a year or so later, I’m looking around at my co-workers, and thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”

So back to Jeff State he went, and to his surprise, discovered that he loved early American literature. “That’s what drew me to become an English major,” Roche says. “It was the one thing that could really keep my attention. Emerson lit a fire under my ass.”

It didn’t last. “Once I finally got into UAB and realized how wildly unprepared I was for academic writing, I found I hated it. It was just so sterile to me. I thought, ‘Why am I here? I’m getting an English degree, I may as well not have a degree. What is the point?’”

Finally, after eight years, he was done. “I graduated, and then I didn’t believe it,” he says. “I got the degree in the mail and I cried. My first inclination was to burn it, and then I thought, ‘No, maybe I’ll frame it, maybe in some neon light.’ I want to keep it on me, so that when people see me at the meat department I can be like, ‘Look, I got a degree, I’m just here serving you steak.’ I’m so conflicted now, because I feel really good. I feel good about myself. I can see the work that I did, and that feels nice, but at the same time, I can’t keep it up. There’s an artistry in making the meat look good and I take pride in that, but my hands hurt, and I’m standing for eight hours a day.”

Thankfully, Jason has another profession where he stands up—as a comedian. He performs his comedy locally at open mics and comedy shows, and talking to him, you get the feeling that it’s his sense of humor that has guided him and continues to guide him through a life that has been fraught with disappointment and disillusionment, and that the ability to laugh, at one’s self and the world at large, is a necessary talent for anyone trying to struggle in today’s economy.

And in the end…

Every generation faces a moment where they realize that the reins are getting handed over to them, a moment where they step forward and define who they will be, what they will stand for and how they will shape the world they live in. It has happened in hard economic times before, and it will most assuredly happen again. What matters is how you react, how you learn to live and grow in response to those hard times. I think Sarah Heath said it best:

“You can get shaken up by something, you can get all fractured, but you’re not broken, you’re just a little banged up by the way things turned out. Give yourself a couple days and wallow in it, and then get out of it, because there’s no use to it. You have to be able to be grateful for the things you have and the things that are around you, and if you can’t recognize that, than you could get all of those things you wanted that were your dreams, and it wouldn’t matter. If you can be happy here, you can be happy anywhere.”

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One Response to “Lost & Found”

  1. Notes from the Underground Occupy Campground

    What are the Wall Street, ”Occupy,” protests about? It’s a revolution and not too hard to figure out with a little help from the past. History is repeating itself and the outlook is not good.

    Eighteenth century industrial revolution’s proximate cause was the advent of abundant energy supplied by steam power. The texture of society was changed forever by socialized labor and manufacturing; cities evolved into masses of laborers who worked in great factories turning out cheap, yet quality, assembly line products which could be made en masse through abundant energy. Individuals with capital embraced the revolution, and fortunes of unbelievable value were made. Of interest to us is that the number of craftsmen became markedly diminished while the few capitalists became manifest and rich; unable to compete with the affordable products of the factories, craftsmen ended up as low wage workers or simply out of work. There is a similar revolution going on today, and it is hidden in plain view.

    Today, computers and robots are the new “steam engines” of production and social change. Factories, and practically every walk of life, are more and more computerized and robotized. The replacement of workers is not limited to the “floor,” but is increasingly taking out the middle level white collar, and many professionals. The digital manufacturing enterprise is much more efficient with computers and robots than utilizing human labor to the extent that it is revising the corporate workplace. This reduction in working force does not exclude medical enterprises, utilities, large retailers, investment firms, or government. Consider. More and more, the future of war power is through machines; unmanned drones, flown by readily trained video gamers are far cheaper than an F-16s and top gun pilots. Online shopping and truck delivery will make brick and mortar department stores too costly to maintain. Stockbrokers are being left behind by online trading. There are no more secretaries –only the few administrative assistants who know computer-processing software. Many people turn to the web for medical help, rather than going to a physician. Bookstores are now event orientated to survive, and with e-publishing, printing of books will be too costly. Large banks will be replaced by in store small banking enterprises. Even the Post office must replace offices and employees with robots and computers to survive. College tenure will disappear as online courses and part timers replace the traditional structure. The list can go on, but the gist of the matter is that the future lies with digital production of goods, web marketing to those who need the goods, and on time safe delivery. Persons not needed for those tasks will join the unemployed.

    How will these persons survive? By voting themselves a salary. The government thus becomes a distributer of goods, here, money. Where does it get the goods? From those who have the money. What do those who have the money do to manage the government, factories, and still live a wonderful life? Many things.

    First. Because corporate “persons” have practically the same rights as do individual persons (human beings) large, ”eternal” businesses can be used as placeholders for individuals who wish to take advantage of the revolution. CEO’s of corporations vote themselves into a club of board members who govern the large corporations. That makes it easy to vote CEOs of any particular corporation the desired stock bonuses and benefits. Of course, the CEOs must turn a good profit for shareowners, which task is done by utilizing computers and robots thereby reducing the costs of production. Or, if the robots and computers are not readily available or are too expensive at the moment, the answer is to ship the factory overseas to a country with cheap labor. In either case, the company makes profits, which are distributed to the stockholders and upper level employees. CEOs have board granted stock options and golden parachutes –a win in any situation for them.

    Second. The rich must manipulate the government to distribute precisely that which is needed to maintain a civil society whose laws are enforced. The calculation must be to tax with prudent selfishness those who are making profits. The monies are used to provide for the general welfare of all persons, be they employed or unemployed.

    Such cooperation between the rich and government has been successful, up until the effects of robots and computers. The problem is now that there are too many persons who do not have sufficient government support to live a civil life. And, too many new poor (middle class unemployed) who provided tax income, but have now interrupted that supply and are making withdrawals rather than deposits –much faster than governmental bureaucracy can handle. Moreover, the government finds that the corporate persons are able to avoid more stringent taxation.

    The rich have covered their “guilt” by enabling religion, education, and sports to take off the heat. Unfortunately, sports and religions have become such big businesses in themselves, that they are becoming unattractive to the masses. Video games are replacing them, but too few persons have the intellectual skills to utilize them. And, the young are disenchanted with most forms of education that lead to no jobs, save the tech junior colleges that are seeing a revival. So, in a nutshell, there are many persons out of work with the distinct impression that businesses and government are making a civilized life beyond their grasp.

    The root of discomfort lies with the breakdown of the social contract, as Hobbes would have it. What bugs thinking, occupy people is leaders ignoring the elephant in the room. Without a social contract, the understanding that government is there to enforce laws that are mutually agreed upon, there is a return to the state of nature. This return is what occupy persons fear, for things get rough, or as Hobbes says, life becomes nasty, brutish, and short. Current, mutually agreed upon laws are for the most part good. However, there are laws and the use of loopholes that enable the rich to prosper unfairly through their corporations, or stock. The unfairness centers in the few rich not being able to get their money back into the system; frankly, they can’t spend or give away enough properly. They make too much. Not that they do not spend or give. But, the simple fact is that money remains unspent; there is no cash flow. So, peaceful protests are a good means to get the unspoken feelings out.

    The danger is that the feelings may change. Here is where the forces of the Leviathan must be careful. Government must do all that it can to make cash flow again. It cannot spend monies on unproductive enterprises (wars) for which there is no payment or return in value. Paradoxically, one of the USA’s most robust products is war machinery. The swords must be advanced and turned into ploughs.
    And, the general population must come to see that overpopulation and ignorance is a straight way to a confrontation with the proper efforts of government.

    So, the Catch 22 danger is that the ignorance of the general masses may drive them from reason to hostile feelings while the government is trying to satisfy them and corporate persons.

    What does all this new revolution mean? Here’s what can be expected to happen in the next five to ten years (maybe sooner):

    • Goods made digitally will last longer. Paradoxically, orders for such goods will diminish over time because demand will decrease; they will not need to be replaced so readily because of precision design and manufacture. They will last longer. Probably why auto companies have trouble; the cars are too well made.
    • Medical advances will enable persons to live much longer physically, though, more than likely, not as long psychologically as would be wished; there will be diminished persons in long life bodies. Big problems for social funding and services. Euthanasia will become permitted in USA.
    • Nevertheless, there will be masses of persons who live long lives, but who have no employment or intellectual means to determine how to survive.
    • Many lost jobs will never return. Moreover, new jobs created by technology will require fewer, more tech and software-appropriate oriented, workers.
    • The government will have to support unemployed persons, for families will not be able to afford long-term expenses.
    • CEOs of large companies will have stockholders rebel and make demands on distribution of profit; dividend yield will rise. Stockholders will want returns in the form of cash, not capital gains.
    • Companies that do not have dividends will be forced to give them.
    • The upper middle class who own stocks will get richer, and those who do not will become poorer.
    • The super rich will own considerable portions of major stocks of companies.
    • Stocks will become the international currency.
    • Stocks will be traded on web accounts that exist in bank “Cloud Networks.”
    • Not all who are “blue collar” will find a hard time. Certain service and craft industries such as heating and air, plumbing, care giving, and refurbishing homes will prosper. Tech colleges will return.
    • Colleges and Universities will fall on hard times to enroll students who will realize that a college degree is not a promise to future employment.
    • With the growth of unemployed, without proper governmental functioning to manage cash flow, government will have to spend more money than it has to provide for the masses.
    • The government will run out of money sooner than expected.
    • Unless the situation is remedied, poorly educated populations in conjunction with unpredictable natural catastrophes will add to social upheaval.
    • The social contract will need to be reestablished.
    • The next election will be very interesting.

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