Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Kendzior Keeping It Real

Here's a healthy, heaping dose of Sarah Kendzior for ya'll.

Kendzior writes about the plight of the millennials, the so-called lost generation, and what their condition signals for the larger economy and the American dream. She interrogates these issues as an intellectual and publicly engaged anthropologist, meaning, she's a rare breed. Kendzior represents the power and promise of anthropological work when it sheds its inter-disciplinary insecurities and engages the public on important issues affecting our lives.

Anyone concerned with addressing the major concerns of human history and society through socially committed critique will find in her work a focused passion worthy of emulation. An enemy of conformity, I'm sure Kendzior would insist you follow your own path. But you get what I mean. She's a role model, and that's cool.

"The millennial parent"

In today's society, opportunity is open to competition - but it's a pay-to-play game which excludes many.

You know our economic straits are dire when perseverance is no longer a survival strategy but a mode of privilege. With a single anecdote Kendzior captures the precariousness defining the millennial experience:

I have a friend who was the first in his family to go to college. He grew up poor in the rural Midwest and earned his BA from a top school in the region. But when the recession hit in the early 2000s, he could not find a job. He decided he needed more training and applied to graduate school. When Harvard accepted him, he was thrilled. Within one generation, his family's highest level of education went from a high school diploma to an Ivy League degree.

A Harvard education was supposed to provide opportunity. But with the degree came debt. Now in his early 30s with children of his own, my friend's social mobility has stalled. He wants his sons to have the same quality of education he did, and the professional advantages that came with it. But he does not see how this is possible. When his sons are old enough for college, he will still be paying back his own student loans. With wages stagnant and tuition fees well outpacing inflation, there is little chance he will be able to afford their education. His children will be back where he started. Mobility was a mirage.

"It kind of sickens me to think I might have to say to my kids, 'Hey, I went to Harvard but you can't'," he said. "The whole thing is turned inside out. People imagine that you are supposed to build legacies around things like that, and instead they can't go there because I did."

My friend is part of the so-called millennial generation: young adults born roughly between the late 1970s and the late 1990s. While the start and end dates of the millennial generation are up for debate - and the idea of inherent generational traits is dubious - people of this age group share an important quality. They have no adult experience in a functional economy.

As someone who graced her way through grad school (while birthing and raising children), Kendzior isn't afraid to tell us academia is a Ponzi scheme before it's a meritocracy (itself an elitist concept because it assumes everyone has equal access to the tools needed to succeed). She clearly critiques a system like academia because there's value in that critique; what Kendzior is battling isn't the idea of higher education but its corruption. 

Now onto your second question — what are you going to do with that? First of all, higher education and the economy are both such disasters that you cannot assume any major or degree will guarantee you a good, secure life. STEM, liberal arts, law – no profession is safe. Industries are disappearing or being restructured out of existence. Practical training you get in college will likely be useless ten years from now. There are no safe bets.

So what is the point of an education? The point is to think critically, become an informed citizen, gain some specialized knowledge, gain broader insight into the world, and communicate well. Some people will say they don’t need to go to college to do this. I actually agree with that. But since college is a prerequisite for most jobs, you might as well get a solid education.

As a UN internship mistakenly goes up for auction, focus must be given to the nature of unpaid UN internships. 

Seeing unpaid work as a form of "charity to the powerful," as Kendzior argues, is to see it as a form of servitude, a knid of modern bondage with the rich and well-connected as overlords. When will we fully own ourselves and the value of our labor? 

The United Nations is far from the only organisation refusing to pay its interns. Most human rights, policy and development organisations pay interns nothing, but will not hire someone for a job if they lack the kind of experience an internship provides. Privilege is recast as perseverance. The end result hurts individuals struggling in the labour market but also restructures the market itself.

Unpaid internships lock out millions of talented young people based on class alone. They send the message that work is not labour to be compensated with a living wage, but an act of charity to the powerful, who reward the unpaid worker with “exposure” and “experience”. The promotion of unpaid labour has already eroded opportunity – and quality – in fields like journalism and politics. A false meritocracy breeds mediocrity.

Worst of all, unpaid internships in policy and human rights send the message that fighting poverty, inequality, and other issues of injustice is something that only rich people should do. Qualities that should be encouraged in society– like empathy and the willingness to stand up for others – are devalued when ordinary people are told that they literally cannot afford to care.
What happens to the American Dream deferred? The UN internship auction – whatever it may actually entail – is in the end a good thing, because it made plain a system of privilege and bias few want to acknowledge. Economic discrimination is often not visible. Nor are the people it leaves behind. 

What a relief it would be if every unpaid internship was an auction – if instead of a vague line about how the intern must “cover their own costs”, the organisation would tally up those costs and see who is able to pay them. The rest of us could watch, from the sidelines, as bias long denied plays out in public, as wealth morphs into merit before our eyes. Let them do their bidding in the open, and show us what it costs to succeed.

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