Job seekers speak with corporate and government recruiters at a recent… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
One day we may remember this as the season when the "Occupy Generation" came of age.
Encampments inspired by Occupy Wall Street have sprouted across the country: Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Texas — and, of course, the one killing the lawn outside Los Angeles City Hall.
But this upwelling of righteous anger against corporate power isn't going to be enough to bring down the Bastille of plutocracy. Not yet.
That's the conclusion I reached after visiting Cal State Dominguez Hills this week.
"Discouraging, very discouraging," Elizabeth Madrigal, 22, said of her future as we sat and talked outside a campus meeting hall Wednesday.
Yet Madrigal wasn't protesting. Instead, she was dressed in a business outfit, a stack of resumes in her hand. She had just attended a campus job fair.
"Some of those positions in there are paying barely above minimum wage for students with degrees," she said, after speaking with various corporate and government recruiters. "You wonder: Did I go to college and work all this time just to make that?"
If anybody has a right to be angry at the whole rotten system of capitalist avarice and government ineptitude, it's your average Cal State graduate.
They're the sons and daughters of our middle and working classes. Thanks to California's budget crisis, tuition increased every year they attended college. They've seen required classes canceled or filled, making it all the harder to complete their degrees.
Now they're entering a job market where many employers are offering little more than low-paid internships. Smart young workers come cheap because the economy is so bad.
"It's ridiculous," Madrigal told me. "It's taking longer to graduate for jobs that don't exist."
But they're not going to rise up any time soon. Protest is a luxury they think they can't afford.
Madrigal told me she's applying to graduate school, working a full-time job as she aims for a master's degree, paying her own way, so that her Whittier parents can send her four younger siblings to college.
The institutions of American meritocracy are teetering. But these students still think they have a fighting chance.
"It's tough when you're on the outside looking in," said Shaakira Young, a 32-year-old working mom who's about to graduate with a human-services major. "You have to go to school and work at the same time to support your family. But I know it'll pay off in the long run."
The students I talked to were happy to have gotten degrees before the whole California public-education system collapsed. And they're eager to get jobs before the next recession hits.
"You're looking at $35,000 [a year] starting out," said Aaron Virgil, 29, who hoped to land a job with an insurance company after working two low-paying jobs to get through college. "I expected something much better. But a degree does help. Without it, you won't find anything you can live on."
Virgil admitted to being frustrated, but his irritation wasn't focused on any one group of people or institution. "It's a combination of things, including the global market," he said. For him, bad economic times are like bad weather — you just hope it blows over.
"I think things are starting to get better," he said.
Still, there's something humiliating about being young and looking for work these days.
Christian Covarrubias, 24, is studying public relations. So he went to the AEG table at the job fair, wondering if they might have a position where he could put those skills to use — but the recruiter told him to apply as a security guard.
"He said I'd get my foot in the door that way," Covarrubias told me, looking deflated. "But I don't think that's the right route."
Imelda Zara, 30, told me she'd graduated from Cal State Dominguez Hills a year ago and had yet to find work. She'd come to the job fair because there, at least, she'd be able to actually speak face-to-face with a prospective employer, rather than simply submit another application on the Internet.
"I'm not angry with anyone, I don't want to blame anyone," she told me. "I'm just trying to stay positive."
Cal State Dominguez Hills has a large number of students working toward teaching credentials. But the recruiter at the L.A. Unified table announced forlornly: "We're only recruiting for chemistry, physics, and moderate-severe special education teachers."
The Occupy Wall Street movement argues that it's the unwillingness of our leaders to overhaul tax laws that favor the wealthy that's keeping us from hiring the teachers we need, which is driving up tuition and forcing the public disinvestment that's undermining American life.
They're right. But not many students at Cal State have gotten the message.
Marlene Nigbur was the only activist I found. She came hoping to provoke a debate — but with the prospective employers, not the students.
"They still believe in the American dream," she said of the student body. "There's a mentality that says, 'We'll take what we can get.' They still believe you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps. But what if you don't have bootstraps to begin with?"
True believers can sound condescending when talking about the passive majority.
But until the left can find a way to convince many more young people that political action is as essential to their futures as resume-building, little in this troubled country of ours is going to change.