Some students say that “real life” begins after graduation. But for many others, it begins in the middle of junior year, the strange stretch of time that starts sometime in the winter and bleeds into the early spring. It is when juniors scamper—heads down, but with purpose—across campus, dressed in their finest Western business attire. It is when the big banks (that caused the 2008 financial crisis) and the consulting firms (that turned yesterday’s blue-collar workers into today’s Trump supporters) send their representatives to campus. They claim they’re looking for the most creative, innovative and imaginative students who, once hired, will spend twelve hours a day fiddling with Excel spreadsheets. The juniors are looking for summer jobs that will lead to employment after graduation.
It has been years since the Great Recession, but a certain economic anxiety remains. “Consider a snapshot of the situation young people face,” Sarah Leonard and Bhaskar Sunkara recently wrote in The Nation.
“The unemployment rate for workers under age 25 is 18.1 percent; unemployment for black people who have not graduated from high school is 82.5 percent; the people most likely to be shot by police are black 25-34-year-olds; the national student loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion; and the only jobs lucrative enough to pay off college loans are in the financial industry that detonated our economy or Silicon Valley companies deregulating working-class industries.”
The social movements of the past five years, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, arise from these conditions, a reality that presents young people, and especially young black people, with few options for a desirable future. Princeton’s nexus of finance capital and corporate networking provides students with options and resources for making a secure and comfortable life, as opposed to a precarious and difficult one, a reality. But other places offer no such insulation from the harsh post-industrial economy. Is it any surprise that Bernie Sanders, the presidential candidate calling for a revolution, is winning young people’s votes by massive margins?
Within the FitzRandolph gates, students’ hopes rest on getting on the right side of rising inequality rather than on systemic change. Friends who graduated a few years earlier had warned me, half-joking and half-morose, that this would happen, that all of a sudden everyone would be applying to work at banks and firms and hedge funds with names that sound like private military contractors. Still, I was surprised when I learned that people active in the school’s broader social justice sphere, who seemed critical of the economic system and aware of issues like housing inequality, had chosen to work for the companies that had a part in causing the most significant economic disaster since the Great Depression—companies that undid, by orders of magnitude, the activism and advocacy students had done on and off campus.
It is hard to blame students for making what is, rationally, the best economic choice for their futures. And I know that for many students, there are other considerations, such as family need, that go into these kinds of decisions. I can also understand the temptation.
For the most part, the only jobs the University consistently and prominently promotes are at banks, large corporations, and consulting firms. The first time I logged into Handshake, the dystopian job-application website, the top post on what looked like a newsfeed for job opportunities was an event called “Goldman Sachs—Why Wall Street.” The following postings were variations of openings for “analysts,” positions with the highest salaries you can get with three quarters of a humanities degree. Other options are hard to find. Hoping that maybe there would be something different abroad, I applied to be matched up with an internship through Princeton in France. I was offered more of the same: a job at a company describing itself as “a social business that is developing a new concept” to “reinvent internships and foster relationships between the corporate world and social innovators.” Bullshit business-speak knows no borders.
Some of the other humanities majors with whom I’ve spoken refer self-deprecatingly to “selling out,” while others profess to find the work genuinely stimulating. Many express the feeling that there is no alternative. It is hard to disagree with them. Summer jobs in journalism and publishing, perhaps more natural fits for humanities majors, pay nothing or close to nothing. And as long term options, the days when journalists could expect livable salaries and benefits are long gone. In 1990, newsrooms around the country employed 56,900 people. By 2014, that number had shrunk to 32,900. Jobs in journalism and publishing are also fought over intensely not only by undergraduates but also by legions of unemployed graduate students whose only other job prospects are poorly-compensated adjunct positions. The world of NGOs and political organizations is only slightly better; few campaigns pay their interns.
While for some students, the middle of junior year marks the beginning (or a continuation) of a cushy and well-heeled existence, for others it is the moment when downward mobility becomes a reality. “The past is another country,” Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic last year. The current generation of college students and recent graduates will be worse off than their parents. Working unpaid internships while our classmates bring home upwards of $20,000 in a matter of weeks is just a taste of the future. But for now, or at least until graduation, we are lost in the oligarchy, protected from the brutalities that lie outside: municipalities failing to provide residents safe drinking water, looming climate catastrophe that will impact the poorest people first, and a predatory economic system that remains mostly unchanged since the last crisis.
When I took Intro to Macroeconomics with Alan Blinder during my freshman year, he lamented that some of his former students had contributed to causing the economic meltdown in 2007-2008. Sitting in McCosh 50 with hundreds of other students, I couldn’t help but think that at least some of the architects of the future financial disaster were there, too. Many of those students have begun accepting offers—some for lack of other better options—from the same that nearly brought down the global economy eight years ago. The next crisis is only a matter of time.