Fear and Fretting in an Economic Crisis

Surprisingly little has been written in these pages about the ongoing economic calamity that has plagued the country for the last several years. Make no mistake, either—the crisis is certainly ongoing, as unemployment hovers around nine percent nationally, with much worse numbers for our age group, and the further economic deterioration looking about as likely as the prospects for dysfunctional Eurozone governance (that is, almost certain). I suspect that this lack of commentary is not indicative of a judgment by the college community that such a state of affairs is desirable. Instead, I believe that our age group has tacitly accepted terrible economic conditions and the accompanying terrible uncertainty as the new normal—an acceptance that has its own devastating consequences.

I recall the fall of Lehman Brothers and the beginning of the broader financial crisis quite well. Immediately after I began a new life in California, a new life in that storied place called college, the system whose presence I had barely been conscious of began collapsing all around me. Basic aspects of our economic system that everyone had accepted (less severe recessions, permanently rising housing prices, cheap gasoline, the unquestionable wisdom of the gods of finance) toppled like a house of cards. Although I didn’t really understand much of what was going on at the time, I was aware of the climate of fear and uncertainty that enveloped those heady times. This fear came through as Pomona changed from an environment where we emphasized our wealth (that’s what students talked about at the orientation for the class of 2012) to one where budget cuts were a disappointing reality. Meanwhile, the headlines spoke of job losses, and family and friends fretted about their own job security. The extent to which my shift to adulthood coincided with the shift to perpetual crisis is truly remarkable to me.

That fear has pervaded American culture over the past few years, as the crisis has dragged on and on. The decisions I have made over the past few years—important, life-changing decisions, fraught with risk and uncertainty—have certainly been influenced by fears that I have about the economic future, and I doubt that I am the only one to take that into account in the decision-making process.

Even beyond the horrors of unemployment and underemployment that currently plague all generations, then, I wonder what this uncertainty will do to our generational tolerance for risk. Will it destroy our ability to strike out on our own? How many will settle for the safe, certain job with a reliable paycheck rather than opting courageously to follow their passions into writing, music, politics, or community service? Thinking more broadly, what will happen to an economy—a civilization, even—that relies on entrepreneurship if everyone takes the safe route? What will happen if (when?) a permanently higher probability of failure becomes ingrained into youthful minds?

We can draw parallels to one of the more interesting debates currently taking place at Pomona. Last year, the Board of Trustees decided to make career services one of the two themes that they would focus on for the year. The goal to improve career services is laudable, but critics have alleged that turning Pomona College into an institution with more focus on employment and less on education more broadly construed would be a betrayal of the purpose of a liberal arts college. If we were not experiencing such anxiety about the economic future, would the Board be trying to alter a model that has worked for decades? Will we abandon our commitment to education simply for the sake of education (rather than employment) in the face of high unemployment? I ask this not to question the idea that Pomona students should focus more on post-graduation plans but to highlight how the current economic crisis impacts the very institutions upon which we rely.

I don’t think that conditions are going to improve much in the coming years, and for the most part economic forecasters agree. College students will still face a terrible job market, and our friends and family will face trying times as well. The fear that this future summons is a problem in and of itself. Can we summon the courage to fulfill our potential despite the risks?

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