Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Hope for the jobless?

I tuned into NPR the other day and Tom Ashbrook was leading a panel discussion where he and several guests were summing up the events of the past decade and discussing what they mean/have meant for life in the U.S. There was a lot to talk about, obviously, but I tuned in just in time for a debate about joblessness, particularly as it is affecting young people in this country.

I bring this up because there has been a very similar conversation taking place recently on Justmeans.com, amongst two of the Sustainable Development writers, Kendra Pierre-Louis and Sara Wolcott. Kendra and Sara have been discussing the high number of young and well educated people who have recently found themselves out of a job, and pondering the shortcomings of higher education, in general.

Tom Ashbrook had a caller, James – an unemployed, 27-year-old graduate from a fancy university – who phoned in to say, basically, this:

“I’ve spent the last decade doing everything I was told I was supposed to do. I did well in high school, went to a good college and studied something that I was passionate about that had real-life applications; I worked internships to get experience and went to another good school to get a graduate degree to set myself apart. Now, I’ve been unemployed for over a year and can’t make my student loan payments. Where is the world that I was promised?”

I was at the edge of my seat by the time the caller got to this point. I was thinking about how many people I know who have found themselves in a similar situation recently and I was desperately awaiting what I knew would be Tom’s reassuring advice to James. I was waiting to hear: “the economy’s tough right now, but hang in there; everything will be okay; you’ll find work; you’ll do great things, etc.”

No such luck.

Tom and two of the other panelists basically told James that they felt his pain over the crappy situation [I don’t think they actually said “crappy” on the radio.] Then, they agreed that everything – the economy, the climate, the way we live our lives – was changing so fast that there wasn’t really any way to anticipate what was going to happen or what skills/jobs/careers would be necessary over the short or long term. Basically they just told James that he was right, that it was very possible he wouldn’t find the world he had been expecting.

Really? That’s it?

In their posts, Kendra and Sara addressed some of the unsustainable aspects of our educational system. I guess all I want to add is that we can’t wait for the system to fix itself. We all know that the world is changing really fast and we’re all looking for better ways to do things – more sustainable ways to live, work, and act. It’s hard to think about big picture things like changing the system when you’re worried about day-to-day things like paying your rent.

Yet, at the same time, maybe the rough job market is an opportunity – a chance to avoid getting sucked into the unsustainable ways of old and to experiment with different lifestyles and different priorities.

Who knows, maybe we couldn’t do it any other way.

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