State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Work, Youth, Optimism, and the Drive Toward a Safe, Sustainable Planet

As a professor directing several master’s programs educating sustainability professionals and as a father of two daughters in their twenties, I think a lot about the job market and the type of employment opportunities available to our young people. I wonder if we can create a high throughput economy that provides opportunity for everyone without destroying the planet.

I recognize that my Ivy League graduate students and my daughters may not be typical of all young people, but what strikes me about the world of work that stands before them is how difficult it is to understand and navigate. Naturally, I compare the world in which they are making their way to the world I grew up in, but those worlds are so far removed in time and place that I am not sure the comparison is of much value.

I did not know what a resume was until I graduated from college. Today I know twelve year olds with resumes. I suppose if I had drafted a resume when I was 16 it wouldn’t have looked all that bad. I worked every summer in high school and college (always for one tolerant relative or another). I worked for a bicycle company, a recording studio, and a locksmith. I was very active in student government and the anti-Vietnam War and pro-civil rights movements. I took a course for college credit at the New School — granted, it was a seminar titled “Civil Disobedience.” I sat at tables near the Kings Highway subway station in Brooklyn selling campaign buttons for a bunch of political causes. I was a busy kid, but I never thought of connecting any of this activity to a career. Today’s young people need to calculate every move and work hard to build a record of accomplishment that might help them stand out in the competition for a good job. I never thought about the job market as a competition, just a place I would end up in when I completed school.

While privileged children prepare, make plans and struggle to make their way in a changing world, these kids are the fortunate ones. We must also recognize the utter hopelessness, frustration and even anger of young people raised in poverty, often by single parents. With family structures disintegrating, these young people often do not have the love and support of an extended family to help them. Mentorship is hard to come by, and in the competition for employment with wealthier young people, they find themselves left in the dust.

It is remarkable that in the face of these difficulties we do not see more pessimism and social dysfunction than we do. The frustration we have seen in Ferguson, Missouri in recent days is news because its expression is so unusual. Young people may be deluding themselves, but they remain optimistic about the future. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, a 2012 Pew Research Center study entitled “Young, Underemployed and Optimistic” noted that:

Despite the Great Recession and the sluggish recovery that followed, young adults remain extremely confident about their financial future. While a large majority of those ages 18 to 34 (whether they are employed or not) say they do not currently have enough money to lead the kind of life they want, most believe they will eventually attain that goal. According to the new Pew Research survey, only 31% of all young adults say they now have enough income to lead the kind of life they want. However, an additional 57% say that while they don’t have enough money now, they think they will in the future. Only one-in-ten (9%) say they don’t have enough now to lead the kind of life they want and don’t believe they ever will.

There is of course something almost classically American about this one-in-ten number. This remains an optimistic culture. Young people today plan for the future in order to influence outcomes they have confidence they can influence. Their belief in a better future remains intact.  Americans who are victims refuse to see themselves that way. Jodi Kantor’s stunning New York Times story about Jannette Navarro, a 22-year-old Starbucks employee and single mom is a case in point. Her struggle to raise her son and make a living under incredibly challenging conditions is deeply moving. As reported by Ms. Kantor, companies seeking to keep labor costs under precise control use advanced software to schedule their employees without concern for the employee’s home life, commute or parenting responsibilities. Ms. Navarro’s remarkable can-do approach to meeting her challenges included no complaint about the system of work she operated within. As Kantor reported, “she had a way of flicking away setbacks — such as a missed bus on her three-hour commute — with the phrase, “I’m over it.” Almost as remarkable was the nearly immediate response to the Times story by Starbucks Executive Chris Barrows. According to Ms. Kantor, the next day Mr. Barrows:

…specified that all work hours must be posted at least one week in advance, a policy that has been only loosely followed in the past. Baristas with more than an hour’s commute will be given the option to transfer to more convenient locations, he wrote, adding that scheduling software will be revised to allow more input from managers.

Class warfare has always been a tough sell in this country because everyone thinks they, or their children, will eventually “make it big.” You don’t want to soak the rich if you think that someday you might be the one getting soaked. My generation didn’t bother to plan, but rather simply assumed on faith that when we were ready to get serious and grow up, there’d be a way to do that. We expressed our optimism by assuming things would work out; today’s young people express their optimism by developing and implementing strategies for getting ahead.

As events in Missouri have recently highlighted, young African Americans face additional challenges as they view the world they will come of age within. Nevertheless, a 2011 study by the Children’s Defense Fund found that:

Black children and young people are generally more optimistic than their adult counterparts when assessing their current circumstances. Two-thirds of Black young people characterize these as very good or okay times for Black children, compared with one-third who characterize them as tough or really bad times.

Like the Pew study, the Children’s Defense Fund study found that young African Americans were optimistic about the future:

Youthful optimism shows when adults and young people are asked to think 15 to 20 years into the future. Black young people are significantly more likely to think that their lives as adults will be easier than those of adults today, with 63% thinking that things will be easier compared with just 34% who think that things will be harder. This optimistic view is held among both boys and girls and older and younger Black children. In contrast, Black adults are much more likely to think things will be more difficult for young people when they reach adulthood, with a majority (54%) thinking things will be harder and just 30% thinking things will be easier compared with the lives of adults today.

None of us is capable of predicting the future, but the optimism of young people is even more impressive to me when we think of the uncertainties of the world to come. These include:

  • The sustainability challenges of climate change and ecological damage from economic development;
  • The changing nature of work and the impact of technology on work, families, communities, people and the planet;
  • The unpredictable impact of a world economy, global media and culture;
  • Increased sectarianism and tribalism in seeming response to the force of the global mega culture and the seductiveness of modern lifestyles; and,
  • The ever-increasing technology of destruction, particularly when coupled with evil and terrorism.

The nature of work is changing and the opportunity structure is a moving target that is difficult to understand and advance within. Change can be scary, but seems inevitable. I am comforted by the successful transition of my home city, New York, from industrial era disintegration to today’s post-industrial world capital. It was not a smooth transition, but it worked. I am reassured by the optimism of young people as measured by pollsters. I am impressed by the attitude and ability I see in my students and in everyday heroines like Jannette Navarro and superb reporters like Jodi Kantor. The transition to a sustainable economy will require an optimistic human spirit, ingenuity and creativity. The path and skills needed to get there are still being defined, but perhaps out of this uncertainty our children will find their place in the world and build a world that has places for them to find.

This post was originally published on the Huffington Post website on Aug. 18, 2014. The original post can be found here.

The Earth Institute and its affiliates offer a variety of academic degree programs in sustainability. These include the one year MPA in Environmental Science and Policy and the MS in Sustainability Management that is offered both full- and part-time. For more information about all of the Earth Institute’s education programs, click here.


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