A coddled generation

Recently our university held its annual job fair. The concept is simple enough: Invite employers to set up booths; convince students to attend. Coverage of the event by the campus newspaper, however, gave us faculty a glimpse into the economic naivete of the graduating generation.

Student complaints were the theme of the day. No. 1 on the list: The area set aside for the booths was too far from the school building (three blocks). Then, parking spaces were too scarce. And there weren't enough employers in all fields.

One of our faculty, an Army veteran and survivor of 40 years in the news business, was flabbergasted. "What do they want?" he demanded. Our internship coordinator was equally bemused: "Can anybody have such a sense of entitlement?"

Oh, yes they can. I broached the subject with some of my students. The irony of complaining about the circumstances of people helping them find good jobs did not trouble them. One student declared, "Employers should make it as easy as possible to sign up." Another suggested, "Really, they should come to us."

And so on. It struck me, looking at these bright, decent, but befuddled young people, that they had no idea what economic bad times really meant. We have had a generally booming economy for about nine years, in which time unemployment for college graduates has been nonexistent.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, first-time job salaries increased up to 10 percent a year in the 1990s.

And of course nobody apparently taught a lot of these kids economic history or prudent financial planning. According to a recent survey of high school seniors by Americans for Consumer Education and Competition, a group promoting financial literacy, young people today are skilled spenders but most don't know basic facts about what is a loan or the meaning of interest rates. No surprise that 78 percent of college students float more than $2,700 in credit card debt and 32 percent carry four or more credit cards.

What happens when the bad times come? How will our college graduates deal with job scarcity and reduced income? Worse, what if a recession hits home, and mom and dad can no longer be counted on as the cash machines of first resort?

We adults must blame ourselves for raising this fiscally ignorant generation. It's a natural inclination among the old to want to spare the young from pain, especially grandparents who may have lived through hard times. An elderly friend of the family lamented, "They have suffered nothing, no war, no depression, they'll be helpless lambs when hard times come." These are, after all, kids who have gone through life mostly surrounded by folks (teachers among them) massaging their egos, raising their self-esteem, and coddling them beyond every previous generation in history.

On the other hand, a recession might be a vital infusion of prudence and backbone into the slouching, self-obsessed ranks of our youth.

Ordinary people have reserves of heroism undetectable in their lives. When calamity strikes, courage and fortitude can flourish. A meek insurance salesman transforms into a ferocious fighter pilot; a cheerleader pulls toddlers from a burning bus.

I'm hoping a recession will temper and fortify our young. They might learn that times can get bad, what it means to live less profligately, that good jobs must be earned and not demanded.

Such character-building, however abrasive the process, is desperately needed. The mirror of the future is clouded. A world environmental crisis looms; population booms and energy shortages are placing strains on all peoples; wars and rumors of war spread throughout the developing world and Europe.

There are several dozen possible scenarios of disaster that will face the graduating seniors in the decades to come.

So, to borrow from the wisdom of Mithridates, a little poison now may help them survive the harshest effects of the worst events to come. But only if we adults are willing not to spare our children pain.

David D. Perlmutter is senior associate for research at the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at Louisiana State University.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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