(New Society Publishers, December 2012, 207 pages, $14.95)
Today's young adults seem to get under a lot of people's skin. We're accused of being pampered, entitled, egocentric and so different from our parents that we might as well have come from Mars.* But that summation completely misses the mark. Rather, it's more accurate to say that our parents' world has morphed into a strange new one in which the old rules don't apply. We find ourselves adrift without the old social contracts and economic opportunities enjoyed by previous generations, and that's the real reason for our underemployment, poverty and protracted parental dependence. Good credentials and a solid work ethic, once the key to success and prosperity, count for so little now.
Such is the plight of Generation Yers, the roughly 70 million Americans born between 1978 and 1995 who are now trying to make their way in an era of crisis and dwindling prospects. It's a predicament poignantly captured in the new book Share or Die, a collection of short writings by those on the front lines of Generation Y. The book is a portrait of the lives of Gen Yers from around the world, representing a wide range of backgrounds and aspirations. Their common lament is perhaps best captured by this line from a community center volunteer who despairs of ever making a living: "I am still knee-deep in the slush of a muddy economy right beside my peers, feeling the cold shun of a job market that has shown itself to be quite stingy with the young and hopeful."
Share or Die takes its title from an exchange that one of the editors, Neal Gorenflo, had with a poor man he met on the street. The man asked for money, Gorenflo handed him some, and the two struck up a conversation. When Gorenflo mentioned that he publishes an online magazine about sharing, his companion brightened and said, "Oh, I get that. When you're homeless, it's share or die." Gorenflo asked him to elaborate and he did, explaining that when you give to others in need, even if you are yourself in need, it comes back to you. And it behooves you to avoid those who just take and don't give. This conversation marked a turning point in Gorenflo's thinking about sharing. He and co-editor Malcolm Harris began using the phrase "share or die" in talking about their book, and eventually it stuck.
It's truly a phrase to live by for the young people featured in this book. The biggest lesson of their post-college lives seems to have been how necessary it is to share with others in your same lot if you are to survive yourself. Many have come to renounce the very notion of ownership altogether in favor of something called collaborative consumption. Dubbed "the sharing economy," it's an economic model in which everything is shared, swapped, bartered, traded or rented–but never owned. Car sharing services like Zipcar are a perfect example. Hundreds of dollars a month can be saved by not owning a car and renting one occasionally as needed.
Worker cooperatives are another form of sharing. They're employee-owned businesses in which the worker-owners democratically manage the organization, elect their board from within the membership, own most of the shares and receive commensurate amounts of surplus revenue. Young entrepreneur Mira Luna tells us how it works and how those with enough business acumen and capital can flourish in this setting. Starting a worker co-op, she explains, is much like starting any business: there's a lot of homework and planning to be done before you jump in. Luna lists some co-op development organizations that can provide valuable guidance and recommends talking with co-op-friendly attorneys and accountants when first getting started. She also gives detailed advice on how to find others willing to join your co-op.
For those who remain consigned to the world of corporate employment, Liz Kofman and Astri Von Arbin Ahlander describe an alternative to the traditional, rigid corporate ladder structure that they refer to as the corporate "lattice." In an essay titled "Get on the Lattice," they demonstrate how restrictive most nine-to-five jobs are for people who want to pursue parenting and homemaking along with a career. Most corporate employers, they observe, let their employees have only a couple of months of parental leave per year at most. And when considering candidates, they aren't understanding of employment gaps resulting from having taken leave. As its name suggests, the corporate lattice can offer far more flexibility. A lattice lifestyle can take many forms, a common one being job-sharing, in which two or more people hold a single position so that they can fill in for one other during lengthy absences.
In addition to its insights into frugal living in hard times, Share or Die also explores efforts to reform the economic order so that things aren't so tough for so many. The book offers an engaging look at the Occupy protest movement, which has had a significant representation of Gen Yers. In a narrative titled "Occupy Everything," Brooklyn-based writer and editor Willie Osterweil provides a firsthand report on last fall's demonstrations in New York. Noting that the media coverage was "either dismissive or outright malicious," he sets out to tell the truth. His descriptions of police brutality during the occupation in lower Manhattan and the rollicking shouts of "Our Bridge!" during the Battle of Brooklyn Bridge are spirited and trenchant indeed.
Even more trenchant is the book's exposť on the charade of higher education. In an excellent but disturbing article titled "Bad Education," Malcolm Harris poses a very good question with regard to the crisis of student loan debt. "What kind of incentives," he asks, "motivate lenders to continue awarding six-figure sums to teenagers facing both the worst youth unemployment rate in decades and an increasingly competitive global workforce?" His answer is that student loan lenders, like mortgage lenders during the subprime crisis, feel protected by their ability to bundle the loans into securities and re-sell them. His conclusions about higher education are damning ones: colleges and universities have become corporate enterprises run by high-salaried executives who are perpetrating an egregious scam.
The book has another fine piece related to education titled "Learning Outside the Academy." It's a how-to on mastering new subjects and skills without having to pay money for formal schooling. The author relates how he learned to speak Mandarin in five months without the benefit of an immersion program, becoming fluent enough to be admitted to a Chinese university. He then recounts how he did it. Out of all his pointers, my favorite is that you should "[f]ind something you can pour yourself into happily. Don't bother trying to learn anything you aren't truly interested in."
Though Share or Die is quite good overall, it does have some off-notes, and these are sadly located near the beginning. We read several pieces by new graduates who enter the job market feeling full of potential, only to be crushed by reality. While some of the authors speak of silver linings, lessons learned, or a sense of resolution, the ones who don't cast a pall of whininess over this section of the book. Don't get me wrong; I feel their pain. But I also find myself uncomfortably aware that such passages are ideal fodder for those who like to attack Generation Y as entitled and coddled. I can also see readers from other age groups countering that the terrible economy has left many besides Gen-Yers feeling dejected and broken.
But aside from this lapse in tone, Share or Die represents a compelling account of the hardships faced by young people today. It doesn't explore in detail the reasons for their plight, aside from brief mentions of the peaking of resources and affluence that is now happening across the industrial world (those looking for more depth in this regard would do well to read Richard Heinberg's The End of Growth). However, the book excels as a practical reference.
* In the December 8, 2003 edition of the St. Petersburg Times online, business columnist Robert Trigaux wrote that Gen Yers "may as well have landed here from Mars" (URL: http://www.sptimes.com/2003/12/08/Columns/Bending_business_atti.shtml; accessed Jan. 1, 2013) .