Does anyone else find it notable that people showing up here in the Occupy Café are mainly older? The Occupy Wall Street movement was started by young people.  There are a few things we might keep in mind about these members of a generation that have either finished college, dropped out, are under-employed or unemployed. A large number are working in jobs that do not utilize the skills they pursued in school. They are delayed in career development.  They are living at home or with their peers in tight and often not very hospitable circumstances. Many live precipitously close to an economic edge. If they fall off, they are either homeless or dependent on the kindness of friends or they tax the already stretched resources of family. They are saddled with debt in an environment of declining wages. This is the first generation that is not likely to be better off than their parents.

My daughter is part of this class. She is twenty-six, working a job that supports a very modest lifestyle. But the intrinsic rewards are very limited. And the atmosphere is, as most everywhere, brutally insecure. As a 2008 graduate, she landed in the market just as it was about to shed 4 million jobs. So she struggled for a couple of years with regular assistance from me. She is now working on graduate school applications (more debt). She juggles life in the big city with all its attendant logistical issues and maintains a circle of friends who have dialed down their lifestyles and learned to enjoy small pleasures in a stagnant economy of limited and declining prospects. So it should be no surprise that some of the less fortunate among this cohort are rising up. 

At some point in my own education, I encountered the concepts of “locus of control” (a behavioral theory referring to the extent to which individuals believe they can control events that effect them) and “learned helplessness" (meaning they believe that their environment, some higher power, or other people control their decisions and their life). The latter condition is, in a way, what the 1% depends on for its existence. That is, as long as the 99% can be conditioned to maintain a narrow view that doesn't look beyond their own individual self-interest and are dissuaded from imagining that they can have any significant influence over the larger context of life, the system is safe. Business as usual prevails. And the terms of business as usual are defined, as we all know, in boardrooms, backrooms and K Street.

Whether this up-wising (as Swami Beyondananda calls it) is a product of the maturation of the 18-30 generation and the shift in locus of control from external toward the internal domain of each person or whether it’s a product of sheer desperation, the effect is the same. The young people who have sparked a movement in this country have managed something primal, powerful and contagious. However, even as they break out in the form of living protest, they are not completely delivered from the addictions of modern culture, the seductive enticements hatched in corporate culture, the promised rewards of self-interested tunnel vision. None of us are. But they are breaking out enough to signal to all the rest of us what is possible.

Even though I am a medical professional with what most (even in this climate that redefines security) would call an exceptionally secure job, a relatively cushy excuse to keep my blinders on, I am not immune to the contagion.  Aside from my basic philosophical orientation, which is completely aligned with the ethos of this movement, it is perhaps also because I am nearing retirement age that I am greatly susceptible to it.

For all the relative privilege I enjoy, I would rather be spending my time, even with greatly reduced economic rewards, creating the infrastructure of an enduring and broad awakening such as this space portends. And if there wasn’t someone else for whom I still represent the sole safety net and bank of first resort, someone of that Occupy generation who is delayed, thwarted, whose future prospects have been significantly eroded, that’s what I would be doing.  But even as my own locus of control remains internal, life doesn’t seem quite so simple as a black and white choice. For me to pursue my impulse would not make her life any more secure or facilitate her gaining the traction she seeks.  

Curiously ironic as it may be, my passions are acutely aroused by this awakening in the face of an economy and political system that is upside down (not to mention the environmental issues we also face).   But the distortions of that upside-down world are also the reason you may not be seeing me here on a much more regular basis. I’ll be working.

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Comment by Jim Barton on October 24, 2011 at 7:14am

Thanks Gary-- one of the best things that's been written here. It would be interesting to hear you and Ben talk about your daughters (19 & 26?) and your hopes for their economic lives.

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