My high school curriculum required a course titled “Personal Finance.” Taught by the girl’s volleyball coach, the class included what were, in retrospect, some astonishingly bad lessons about money. We learned, for example, the benefits of day-trading with risky, volatile stocks, and why as voters we should oppose minimum-wage legislation. At no point did we learn anything that might actually help us survive—our legal rights as workers or tenants, for example. This was during the Bush years, before the global financial crisis, when to many Americans it still seemed, apparently, like becoming rich was not only possible but a mathematical inevitability.
I will never forget one particular lecture on the virtues of the four-year college degree. With a few strokes of the dry-erase marker on the whiteboard, our teacher demonstrated the simple and irrefutable correlation between education and wealth. The difference in average lifetime earnings, we were shown, between someone with only a high school education and someone with a four-year college degree was no less than one million dollars.
A million bucks—who in their right mind would turn that down? Especially given the alternatives, which in my town were either joining the military or working at the Exxon station down the road. “Working at the Exxon” was the local stock phrase for failure. Everyone went to its convenience store to buy coffee or rent DVDs or play video poker; everyone was familiar with the exhausted faces of the workers, had heard the stories about the arbitrary cruelties of the local capitalist who ran the place. Everyone could recognize the smell of kitchen grease, cigarette smoke, and gasoline that would infuse your clothes and hair if you spent too long inside.
I washed dishes at restaurants over the summer through high school. I had a small taste of what it was like to work and sweat, to endure the glares and stupid remarks of the boss, to earn and then waste a tiny paycheck on pot and cigarettes. It wasn’t the life I wanted.
From a childhood marked by bullying and alienation, witnessing the brazen crimes of the Bush administration, and learning about the impending horrors of climate collapse, I had developed a bitter cynicism toward American society, an instinctive repulsion that was sharpened by punk rock lyrics and dystopian science fiction. But after the financial meltdown, this cynicism hardened into total rejection. School, work, marriage, debt, politics—it was all a scam, and I wasn’t going to fall for it. But then again, a million bucks…
In 1940, the proportion of the U.S. population age 25 and older that held a four-year college degree was 4.6%. By 1980, this had quadrupled to 17%, and by 2020 had more than doubled again to 37.5%. While rates of college attendance remain uneven among racial groups, the percentage of people of color who hold degrees has increased steadily.
Among many educators and college administrators, it is an article of faith that increasing college attendance is a measure of social progress, an ethical imperative, an urgent question of racial justice. It is characteristic of neoliberalism to propose solutions that ignore root causes, treating the ramifications of capital accumulation—low wages, unemployment, little or no social welfare—as inevitable facts of nature. From this perspective, the solution to poverty is not a higher minimum wage, reinvigorated labor unions, or a federal jobs program, but simply funneling more poor people into college.
Yet if higher education were free, working people would not need to be cajoled, shamed, or threatened with poverty in order to get them to attend. As the cost of tuition at public universities has skyrocketed over the past four decades, students and their parents have had to borrow increasingly large sums to pay for education. In 2021, the total amount of outstanding student loan debt surpassed $1.7 trillion among 45 million borrowers. A greater percentage of Black students are forced to take out loans to pay for college as compared to their white peers (85.7% compared to 66.1%), and they typically need to borrow more. And for what? Wealth and income inequality continue to worsen; the costs of education, healthcare, and housing soar, while wages stagnate.
Despite the fact that millennials make up the largest share of the workforce with 72 million workers, we control only 4.6% of American wealth. Baby Boomers control over ten times as much. Inequality in general, rising for decades, has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The combined net worth of the top 1% of Americans is now over $34 trillion, compared with $2.08 trillion held by the entire lower 50%.
The authors of a 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office on the economic status of millennial households (declining economic mobility, low rates of homeownership, and massive debt), after acknowledging that millennials are the most educated generation in American history, remark that, “Millennials have not yet benefited from the potential additional lifetime income earned by college graduates.” Not yet benefited? Potential income? We did what we were supposed to do—we served our time, got our degrees. Where’s our million dollars?
I should be clear. I am not advocating a generational politics—the vast majority of millennials have nothing whatsoever in common with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg or Pete Buttigieg. I am also not really advocating that I, or ‘us,’ collectively as a generation, necessarily deserve the normative spoils we were promised—a place in the American middle class, a two-story house and an electric car, an annual vacation to Disney World or Barcelona, a constant stream of new appliances and electronic gadgets delivered to our doorstep, and—perhaps most important of all—a smug sense of pride as we look down on those who didn’t make it, those with the wrong kinds of jobs and the wrong kinds of ideas, those beneath us. This is the American dream: a consumer lifestyle built on an empire of war, exploitation, and ecological ruin. We’re not entitled to it. No one is.
My grandfathers on both sides—my mother’s father and my father’s father—were the first in their family to attend college. One was a sailor from New Orleans, and the other grew up on a farm in Georgia. Both earned graduate degrees, found a place in the professional class as it swelled in size during the post-war period, bought houses and cars, raised families, sent their children to college.
Still, my parents were not handed everything; they had to struggle in their own way. When I was a child, my father was in graduate school, and we survived on his meager stipend, supplemented by food stamps. But then he got his job, and my mother went to school and got hers. By the time I was in elementary school, I always had new clothes, the latest video game console, a dog, a skateboard, whatever breakfast cereal I wanted, instruments to play in the school band. I was lucky, I guess.
In the 1990s, after the apparent discrediting of state socialism and decades of dismantling the worker’s movement, the ideologues of American empire reveled victorious in the “end of history.” There now appeared to be no limits to the expansion and domination of capital. The libertarian, individualist ethos of the age was imbued in the triumphant slogans that covered the walls of every elementary school classroom: Follow Your Dreams. Believe in Yourself.
We were supposed to follow our dreams. But what if we didn’t know what our dreams were? Luckily, the school was happy to tell us. We were all required to take “aptitude tests,” which, like astrology charts, revealed to us our own inner proclivities and desires. As it turned out, just like my father and his father, I was supposed to be a college professor.
One way I convinced myself to take out student loans was by adhering to an earnest belief that impending social collapse would nullify all debts. This was, of course, completely naïve. Without radical change, rather than sudden collapse, we risk a slide into barbarism. It has been underway for decades already, and continues to accelerate with each periodic crisis. While the climate, infrastructure, care, and community continue to degrade, the ownership class will seek to run the engines of debt and extraction unto the very last.
But there was another reason why I allowed myself to be persuaded, despite my cynicism, to sign the papers and take out the loans. It’s embarrassing now to admit it, but I was seduced by a dream. I believed that in college I would meet fashionable artists and radicals, that I would fall in with a circle of bohemians, have romantic adventures and conversations about important books. I thought I would find some dream, absorbed from old novels and Hollywood clichés, reflected back at me. But I found nothing like this. Instead I found ordinary people, struggling and suffering, worried about money and sex, wearing the same cheap clothes, addicted to the same cheap food and TV shows, just as I was. We were assigned nine-digit identification numbers that we were expected to memorize; these numbers took the place of our names when dealing with the university bureaucracy. I washed dishes in the school cafeteria, kept my head down, did my work.
As a young undergraduate, it was clear that my professors did not have the time or energy to give much individual attention to my education. I had the distinct impression that just about all of them were terribly unhappy in their personal lives, and resented all the demands on their time. That was fine with me—I got accustomed to the corporate atmosphere and became determined to extract all the knowledge that I could from it. I rarely skipped the assigned reading, and, during lectures, wrote down everything my professors said.
Then, during the autumn of my second year in college, I came across a short clip on the Internet of a protester being assaulted and pepper-sprayed by police in New York City. She was part of something called Occupy Wall Street, an encampment in Manhattan protesting inequality, corruption, and the federal government’s handling of the Great Recession. In the months that followed, Occupy encampments sprung up across the United States and the world, with protests in hundreds of cities in over eighty different countries.
I tried, with limited success, to work with other students to organize an Occupy-style protest at my university. I was so disappointed by the results (which in retrospect were partly the outcome of my own inexperience with organizing), and so depressed by the implosion of the entire Occupy movement that winter that I dropped out of college for a year.
OWS was both the dying breath of the anti-globalization movement of the ‘90s and the birth of a new cycle of anti-capitalist protest and organizing. In many ways it was a flawed and incoherent movement, the product of raw anger, muddled with conspiracy theories and confused libertarian ideology stemming from a historic low point in left-wing theory and practice. The movement was hamstrung by its refusal to build lasting institutions or present a clear set of demands. Nevertheless, it remains a transformative moment, and not only because it brought the question of class inequality back into public discourse. I, along with thousands of others, learned for the first time that I was not alone.
According to a popular conservative fantasy, for years now, radical college professors have been brainwashing students with Marxist ideology. As a student of literature in the early 2010s, I was trained not in Marxism but in “theory,” which, in this period, was not really a particular school of thought but rather a marketplace of competing frameworks that arose from postmodernism and poststructuralism. Each was a different “lens” which could reveal particular features of a text, or of society, while obscuring others.
These new methods have their place. But their intellectual history (who developed them, under what conditions, and for what purposes), and their place in a larger account of modernity, was absent from my education. The possibility that these various lenses might contradict one another, that they might be marshaled in the service of totally antithetical political tendencies, was never raised. In short, these “lenses” were presented as reifications: not as living ideas that emerged through a process of struggle, replete with their own histories and contradictions, but as interchangeable objects that could be picked up and discarded at will. (“Tools” in a “toolkit,” to use another popular metaphor.)
Marxist critique was certainly permitted, but only as one more theory in the marketplace. Even then, there was something suspicious, something uncomfortable about references to capitalism, labor, and the ruling class. Something distasteful. Theorists and critics often made passing reference to Marxism as obsolete, discredited, politically backwards. But, much like in the capitalist mass media, these alleged rebuttals of Marxism were always assumed, and never actually presented in any detail. Marxism was Eurocentric, oblivious to ecology, unattuned to feminist concerns, inherently totalitarian—so the story went. Though these are commonly held beliefs in the academic world, these arguments have all been thoroughly addressed by serious Marxists, who, despite their marginal position, do retain a foothold in the academy.
If revolution is a dangerous totalitarian fantasy (a belief shared by both the Republican Party and the leading “radical” theorist of the postmodern era, Michel Foucault), then what is the solution to the rampant injustice and horror of capitalist society? In place of revolution and class struggle, Foucault shifts our attention to “micropolitics,” an emphasis on small, incremental changes to language and institutions that neatly aligns with liberal reformism. But in this era of self-cannibalizing capitalism, an era of global decay and crisis, does anyone really still believe that “micropolitics” is sufficient?
There’s no doubt that universities, particularly elite schools, function as ideological training grounds. However, it is not Marxism into which students are socialized, but rather the neoliberal ideology of the professional class.
In Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right, Timothy Brennan points out the irony that the label “Marxist” is so frequently attached to the un- or even anti-Marxist projects of poststructuralist theory. It was “as though opinion makers had found a way instinctively to create a buffer between the establishment and its dangerous other by inventing a proxy,” Brennan writes. “Consequently, the real social democratic alternative became an enemy so beyond the pale that it could not even enter the debate.”
As for myself and thousands of others in my generation, it was not college that made us Marxists. It was history. It was the brutal depredations of late capitalism, the utter bankruptcy of neoliberal culture and democracy. I am here reminded of something a professor, a self-described “critical theorist,” once told me in private. “Revolution will never happen,” she said, “because the working class doesn’t have the time and education to read theory.”
Social change will not happen just because more workers went to college. But it would be aided by the inverse—as intellectuals and artists, no longer guaranteed a place in the crumbling middle class, are forced by material circumstance to join with workers in mass movements.
Eventually, I finished my college degree. Though I hadn’t planned on going to graduate school, it was the logical next step. As a teaching assistant, I could get free tuition, and I wouldn’t have to make payments on my undergraduate loans while I was still in school. After grad school, I kept teaching, but as a part-time adjunct.
Over 70% of all college courses in the United States are now taught by so-called “contingent,” or non-tenure track, faculty, including part-time adjuncts and full-time instructors on short-term contracts. While tuition rose for students over the past several decades to compensate for cuts in public funding, spending on actual instruction declined as resources were shifted to administration, marketing, and student services. The replacement of tenured faculty with precarious contingent workers mirrors the move toward flexible “gig” labor that has characterized the broader labor market in the neoliberal period. Not only is this a bad deal for teachers and students, it also poses a threat to academic freedom. Burdened with large course loads, contingent faculty have little time for research and writing, and, without the protection offered by tenure, may be less likely to risk raising controversial topics in their teaching and scholarship.
Though initially I thought I would be able to transition out of adjuncting to a full-time position (even if it was still contingent), this is seeming increasingly unlikely. In return for the dozens of grad school and job applications I send out, I am typically met with silence, receiving no response whatsoever, not even a form rejection letter. But with hundreds of applications pouring into these openings, I suppose I can’t take it personally that they don’t have time to write back.
As working-class life became increasingly precarious throughout the latter half of the 20th century, college was offered as a way of escaping one’s circumstances, lifting oneself out of poverty through hard work in order to join the “middle class.” But even considering the instances in which education does improve one’s socioeconomic position, we still live in a country where social inequality has increased in tandem with rising rates of college attendance. Lucky individuals may “escape” poverty, but poverty itself cannot be eliminated this way. This is because poverty is not caused by a lack of class mobility. Poverty is a function of class itself.
Meanwhile, the meritocratic myth of education as the key to social mobility militates against class consciousness. The dignity and social value of manual labor, whether “skilled” or “unskilled,” is implicitly denied, and those who lack a college degree becomes objects of, at best, pity. When a paper mill closes down in Maine, or an auto parts factory shutters in Michigan, this is treated by the liberal press as an unfortunate but inescapable fact of nature; if the workers cannot find other employment, it is because they have failed to market themselves adequately.
An earlier generation still believes in the myth of education and class mobility—after all, it worked for at least some of them. They attended college while tuition prices and attendance rates were much lower, so that a college degree was both far cheaper and more valuable. But for people of my generation, born in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it’s difficult for us to swallow the dominant myths about education, progress, and life under American capitalism. The stories we’ve been told all our lives seem increasingly spurious, even malicious, with each passing year that we spend as members of the indebted precariat. It should be no surprise that young people are turning to the movement for socialism, which, unlike the forms of politics favored by the cultural and political establishment, cannot be reduced to individual salvation or economic mobility. It is instead predicated on the notion of solidarity, a notion which is necessary for our survival.
In the 1930s, as demand for white-collar labor expanded, a new generation of cultural and intellectual workers were recruited from the multi-ethnic American proletariat, bringing radical working-class perspectives to their new positions. Radical intellectuals and artists became an important contingent of the 1930s-era social-democratic movement, leading a wave of unionization in the culture industry. Later, they became targets of repression during the Red Scare of the late ‘40s and ‘50s.
Today, we are undergoing an inversion of this process. Culture industry professionals, previously part of the privileged middle class, are increasingly proletarianized and brought into contact with left-wing ideas and movements. Graduate teaching assistants and adjuncts at universities, museum workers, publishing industry professionals, tech workers, musicians, artists, writers—indebted and struggling to survive, young workers in these sectors are increasingly turning to labor unions and other forms of collective politics to fight back.
How long can we keep living this dream? For some, including those whose parents paid for their college education—those for whom unfashionable forms of critique held no appeal, and who were easily molded by hegemonic paradigms—advancement remained relatively smooth. But how long can this last? Those born into the upper echelons will likely remain there, and a few others will claw their way in. But for the majority of the children of the working and middle classes, including immigrants and people of color whose entry into college is supposedly such a critical matter of social justice, there is less hope of advancement, or even treading water.
How many more years of teaching assistantships, of barely scraping by? How many times will we change careers or work towards another degree until reality sinks in? And when it does, when we accept that our future might look like a lifetime of adjunct teaching, or working in coffee shops or bars, driving cabs, cleaning floors, answering phones—at what point do we accept that we’re not “middle class,” that we’re workers, just like the people we had been told all our lives were failures because they didn’t go to college? And what happens then?
There is often a sense of shame that accompanies one’s exit from academia, as if one could not find a job or gain entry to the next graduate program as a result of some personal intellectual failure, rather than impersonal market forces that are frequently compounded by racist, sexist, and nepotistic gatekeeping. I have seen young people, having internalized the viciously competitive middle-class values of the academic world, allow themselves to be devastated by this shame. But the labor movement has always offered an alternative to “meritocracy.” The latter is a myth designed to legitimize the cruelty of class inequality. The alternative to this rat race is the principle of solidarity: the understanding that as members of a class, we have a common interest—and that this interest will never be advanced through careerism, only through collective struggle. The point is not to keep fighting for the cushy jobs we foolishly believed we were entitled to. The point is to fight the whole decrepit system.♦
Reuben Dendinger is a writer and educator living in New York City. His fiction has appeared in The Baffler.