"We're stuck in a perpetual state of job dissatisfaction, because we're stuck in a perpetual state of financial anxiety — or actually stuck in perpetual debt. In this materialistic society, money burns holes in our pockets. Trying to escape debt, we're forever scrambling to earn more than we spend. This is the most important add/subtract/divide in our lives, yet we stare at those numbers and scratch our heads as if we missed that lesson in second grade. As soon as our wages increase, so does our discretionary spending. On that fixed treadmill, no job can ever pay 'enough.' Thus, what we actually do all day matters less than how much we earn.
"Interviewing her fellow twentysomethings for her book Generation Debt, Anya Kamenetz noted a pervasive sense of 'real disappointment' among 'millions of young people trapped in low-wage jobs' because 'the nature of youth jobs has changed in the past generation, tilting decisively toward the grinding, the impersonal, and the dead end.'
"Really? At what point in history were youth jobs systematically stimulating, personal, and promising?
"One bitter young interviewee, mired in student-loan and credit-card debt, derided her retail job and called college — where she'd been led to believe that a degree was her ticket to meaningful work — a 'scam.'
"'Following your heart,' Kamenetz concludes, 'can lead to low income, unemployment, and a lifetime of debt.'
"Well, sure — especially if our hearts race off on wild, smiley-face stampedes unmoored to reality. And/or if we expect too much too soon. In fields such as plumbing and drafting and tool-and-die-making, only after a three-to-four-year apprenticeship with a master is one eligible to take a test that, if passed, allows one to obtain a journeyman's license. Further years of experience await before one can certify as a master.
"We've lost our patience along with our attention spans. But most important, we've lost our ability, even our desire, to save. Much of the debt that young Americans accumulate, and which panics them as they enter the working world, occurs via abundant credit-card use in college or even before. A study by the nonprofit research group Demos reveals that credit-card debt among Americans age eighteen to twenty-four rose a whopping 104 percent between 1992 and 2001; in 2001, the average eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old carried nearly $3,000 in debt and spent some 30 percent of his or her total income on debt payments — double the 1992 average.
"What a huge gamble: spending money you don't actually have, based on how much you want to have or imagine that you will someday have. And spending it on what? American eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds pay for at least half their purchases with credit cards and debit cards. While some of that spending goes toward tuition, housing, and other essentials, much has been shown to be for luxuries that young people — or any people — in previous generations and other cultures would never dream of buying. That sense of entitlement leads directly to job dissatisfaction. Young people don't just dream of rich futures, they're staking their whole well-being on such futures.
"So young, so far in hock, they're stuck before they start.
"Nearly any entry-level wages will seem small to someone with a four-figure debt. Playing perpetual catch-up, you're guaranteed to feel restless and resentful. Whatever even dimly silvery lining a job might have is overwhelmed by incontrovertible numbers.
"This isn't the job's fault. It's the debt's fault. Which is, more or less, the debtor's fault.
"And most Americans are debtors.
"And thus we wish our working lives away" (Stuck, 277-279).