How to Get a Whole Generation to Sell Out

Occupy Wall Street protesters march from New York City's Union Square to Wall Street protesting student loan debt reaching $1 trillion, April 25, 2012. (Image: Scott Houston/Corbis)

How to Get a Whole Generation to Sell Out

Today's twenty-somethings aren't apathetic or opportunistic. They're just trying to survive an economic system that has saddled them with inescapable student debt.

No one cares about selling out anymore. It's an argument I encounter almost weekly, in a trend piece or through an online acquaintance. Times have changed, these commentators insist. Young people--"millennials," they call adults just younger than me--simply don't see things the same way their predecessors do.

The concept of selling out is passe, we are told. These days, everyone is busy buying in.

And maybe it's true. Consider a striking scene from from the recent Frontline documentary co-produced by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, "Generation Like," which features a montage of teenagers responding to a question about what it means to sell out:

Teenager 1: Selling out? Can you define that?

Teenager 2: Well, selling out means, like--it could mean different things.

Teenager 3: I guess, I don't know, I think first about a concert that's, like, totally sold out, no tickets left. That's probably not what you meant, though.

Teenager 4: I don't really know what that means.

"Over the course of a single generation, education has been transformed from a relatively affordable public good into a social necessity priced as though it were a luxury item."

There's a dark humor to these confused answers. But Rushkoff's aim is not to condemn kids or pass judgment on them as morally inferior to their elders. The scene actually illustrates something more profound--namely, the shifting cultural, economic and technological conditions under which "millennials" now live and learn.

Chief among these new circumstances, of course, is the intense commercialization of the new media platforms that young people use for socializing and sharing. Armies of adult marketers make comfortable livings encouraging kids to "friend" products, as though the products were people--and to "interact" with them around the clock.

In my new book, I make a similar argument about the commercialization of everyday life. Tech companies like Facebook and Google reserve the right to use our likeness to promote products without our explicit consent, which may have profound consequences for how we value ourselves.

Why worry about selling out when you're already an ad--and when you've been one your whole life? Why fret over the ethics of promoting yourself when you're already being used to promote something else?

This is why I'm skeptical when people over 40 complain about younger generations. Older folks came of age in a different world, one in which corporate forces were easier to identify and resist. In the 1970s, for example, the average city dweller saw only a fraction of the thousands and thousands of advertising messages to which we are exposed each day. The younger a person, the more likely it is she has been marinated in marketer's paradise since birth. Today's libraries, museums and other civic spaces are all awash in corporate sponsorship, as are our schools and universities.

No doubt art and culture have long been used to sell things--not just products, but also politics and religion. Scholar Simon Frith, for example, quotes a 1934 obituary for a composer of a wildly popular symphony, which notes that "enterprising commercialists" hired orchestras to play his hit piece in hopes of boosting "winter sales of underwear." Yet I believe we have entered unprecedented territory. Data miners track our media consumption habits in ways that were impossible before the onset of digital convergence--before we communicated, read the news and watched movies on the same online devices.

Still, there's another key to "millennial" life that's not so in-our-face. And it has even more of an impact on "selling out" than the ubiquity of commercial new media platforms, or the alarming abundance of advertorial-dependent news outlets--even more than the decline of record labels and the corresponding rise of soda-supported rock music.

For young people education has become as commercialized as anything else in modern life. Over the course of a single generation, education has been transformed from a relatively affordable public good into a social necessity priced as though it were a luxury item.

Since 1980, the average price of a four-year college has shot up from $8,756 to $21,657, dramatically outpacing inflation. This means more and more people are borrowing money to pay for it. In 2013, the average student was almost $30,000 in the hole after graduation. Total student debt has nearly quadrupled in the last decade alone and recently surpassed $1 trillion in total, most of it held by individuals from low-income families. Combine these facts with dreadful employment options and stagnating wages, and it's no wonder 20 percent of borrowers will be delinquent within their first five years of paybacks. Many more will barely tread water, covering only the accrued interest month after month, even as the years wear on.

Lest one imagine otherwise, there's no way off the student-debt treadmill: thanks to the rewriting of bankruptcy law in 1998 and 2005, student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy proceedings, which sets them apart from most other kinds of debt. Charge your credit card to the max, and you can wiggle out of the consequences. But the fees from those language and math classes you took? They will follow you to the grave, and maybe beyond.

The rising price of education changes us at an existential level, forcing young people and their parents to apply a cost-benefit analysis to learning. The prospect of a lifetime of student loan remittances will turn anyone into homo economicus looking for a return on investment.

You might have a passion for philosophy or dream of being an investigative journalist. But computer science or public relations are more likely to pay the bills, so you change your major--indeed, your whole life--accordingly.

Is that selling out or just trying to survive?

This conundrum, embodied in the heightened tension between vocation and avocation, is no accident. The attacks on education as a public good can be traced back to the 1960s, when Ronald Reagan, then-governor of California, entered a pitched battle with student protesters. Vowing to "clean up that mess in Berkeley," he cut state funding for higher education and made tuition more central, paving the way for the current system of debt financing. Reagan wanted to discipline students, to keep them in line, and landing an enormous number of young people in arrears has proven to be a remarkably powerful tool for doing so.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is only continuing Reagan's vindictive project, albeit with softer rhetoric. Student loans are already a cash cow for private lenders and the government, which raked in over $41 billion in profits from federal loans in 2013 alone, but student borrowers may soon take another hit. Though the latest proposals talk of forgiveness, the policies are hardly merciful.

Among other changes, the administration's proposed 2015 budget puts forward significant reforms to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which currently grants a reprieve to those who work in "public service" after 10 years of payments. Under the revised plan, the total forgiveness for public-sector employees would be capped at $57,500--hardly enough to cover medical or law school. All those borrowers with debt loads above $57,500 will now have to make income-based payments for 25 years. And, just to make their lives a bit more difficult, their income will get tallied to include their spouse's earnings.

Here's how you get a whole generation to "sell out": curb what student loan forgiveness exists for public service and--voila--you'll have fewer teachers and more corporate lawyers.

Let the price of higher education rise every year, and there will be fewer artists and activists--and more folks aiming for middle management.

Some will ignore these changing conditions, preferring instead to wag their fingers and lament that "millennials" just don't care about the state of society. And while we're preoccupied criticizing one another, the creditor class will be laughing all the way to the bank.

That's a real shame. Too often conversations about selling out devolve into inquests focused on personal purity when it's the larger, screwed-up economic system that we should be putting on trial--not individual choices. Selling out still matters, but only because more and more people are being forced to do it.

This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published by The Guardian.

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