I graduated from college in 1982, so I have sympathy for the classes of 2009 and 2010. Unemployment was officially higher in 1982 than it is today, making it a very tough year for a graduate — the worst until now. I remember a party just before graduation day that featured a door prize for the student who arrived with the most job rejection letters.
But in 1982 we possessed one thing today’s graduates lack: a vision of how things would improve. IBM released its first personal computer in 1982; Apple would shortly follow with the first Macintosh. We didn’t know how exactly, but we knew that these machines would change the world.
The budding computer industry of the 1980s offered genuine independence. Obama's "green" jobs will be determined by lobbyists, not the creative impulses of entrepreneurs.
One of my high school classmates had exasperated his teachers with his waste of potential. Though he had a brilliant mind, he was only interested in drugs, Dungeons & Dragons and girls. (In the 1970s, an interest in Dungeons & Dragons did not preclude an interest in girls. That’s another big generational change.) He went off to college, but dropped out to spend more time playing Dungeons & Dragons. Eventually, he grew bored and frustrated with the game’s repetitive design, so he began fooling around in the university computer room seeking ways to automate the process. He got very good at writing code, becoming famous inside the D&D community. One day, he received a telephone call from a startup company called Microsoft … and you can write the end of this story.
Our intuition about the importance of computers explains why so many in my generation abandoned the Democratic Party for the Republicans. Democrats, then dominated by unions, sneered at the new machines. The small band of Democrats who saw potential in technology were nicknamed “Atari Democrats” after a toy. “We can’t all be computer programmers,” said the party’s 1984 presidential nominee, Walter Mondale.
No, we couldn’t. But we could all discover expansive new possibilities in the work of the computer programmers.
There is no equivalent breakthrough in sight for today’s graduates. President Obama’s promise of “green jobs” is at best an exaggeration, at worst a hoax.
Green jobs are not organically emerging from the marketplace. They are hothouse creations of government subsidy and regulation. Yes, government can generate employment by mandating that utilities build a certain amount of, say, new solar energy generating capacity. Government could also generate employment by banning the electric lawnmower and forcing everybody to cut grass by hand. But these are not the kinds of innovations on which a generation can build thriving careers.
Government can give away only so much taxpayer money before people get weary. It can mandate only so much uncompetitive and irrational corporate investment before the overall economy loses competitiveness. It would be a very foolish 21-year-old who’d make career decisions based on a promise of government support and shelter for an industry that otherwise cannot pay its own way.
The computer industry of the 1980s offered autonomy and independence. The industry’s big idea (computing power on every desk, linked by voluntary networks) inherently empowered the individual. Not so the green dream, which envisions an economy directed and commanded by government, in which whole industries rise or fall depending on the favor of authorities. Will the government invest money in high-speed rail? Or in “smart” electric grids? Will biomass be included in the government’s mandated quota of renewable technologies? Or does biomass release too much carbon dioxide? These are questions that will be decided by lobbyists, not entrepreneurs.
The shape of the economy will change in the decades ahead, as it always does. Recovery will come, as it always does. Young people will find opportunity, as they always do. But the trembling sense of being poised on the brink of something new and wonderful, which cheered my generation through the harsh recession of 1981-82, that feeling is unavailable to the twenty-somethings of today.
What today’s young confront instead is years of harder work, lowered consumption, higher taxes, and reduced government services -- all to repay the debts accumulated by the private and public sectors over the past three decades. The dollars they save will buy less on world markets. They will wait longer for promotion as recession-shocked baby boomers delay retirement well past age 65. They will exert less control over their own lives, and be more subject to the vagaries of decisions made in a remote national capital.
So my sympathies to you, graduates of the Class of 2010. And my apologies too, for the horrible mess your elders made – which you now must clean up.