Americans generally claim that what you get in life is mainly a result of what you put in, your talents and your effort.
Yet it hard to deny that, often, factors outside a person’s control have major consequences – such as the year the person was born. This post is about what some social scientists have called the intersection of biography and history, when turning points in individuals’ lives coincide with turning points in history.
One critical life transition is looking for that first job. And young people entering the job market now are severely disadvantaged by the fact, totally outside of their control, that their parents conceived them in the late 1980s instead of earlier.
This is a terrible job market to start one’s employment career. While there have been periods when employers flocked to college campuses to recruit new graduates, these days graduates scramble just to find low-paying jobs or even non-paying “internships.” The statistics are daunting: high unemployment rates for young people, many of whom are returning from college or lost jobs to move in with their parents. The consequences are lasting. Men who entered the job market in the 1970s – another slack period, although not nearly as slack as now – started their earning lives at lower incomes than those before and those after and that cohort hasn’t caught up.
There are, of course, even more dramatic examples of how timing matters. Turning 18 around 1940 meant that a young man ran a good chance of spending time and even of losing his life in the war. Those who were young children during the Great Depression ran elevated risks for psychological problems produced by the strain the Depression put on families, according to Glen Elder in his classic study. And in an earlier post, I discussed how the experience of being a teen in the ‘60s shaped the baby boom generation.
Thus, when an unfortunate 2009 graduate told The New York Times that “‘I have friends with the same degree as me, from a worse school, but because of who they knew or when they happened to graduate, they’re in much better jobs . . . It’s more about luck than anything else,” he was saying that he was a loser in the roulette game of biography and history. The quotation comes in a story that also reports a major drop between the college graduating class of 2007 and the class of 2010 in the percentages of who have jobs.
False (?) Hopes
Still, Americans continue to insist that success is all earned by the individual.
The General Social Survey has regularly asked representative samples of Americans, “Some people say that people get ahead by their own hard work; others say that lucky breaks or help from other people are more important. Which do you think is most important?” Respondents could answer that both sorts of factors were equally important. Since the early 1970s, with little change, about two-thirds of the interviewees picked the “hard work” answer.
In the Spring of 2010, in the midst of bleakest economic situation in generations, as high a proportion as ever, 7 in 10 respondents, still told the GSS interviewers that getting ahead depends mainly on individual hard work. Not much, then, at least as of 18 months ago, had shaken Americans’ beliefs that it’s mainly about biography, not history. If respondents are focused on who manages to weather the storm, maybe they are right; maybe the hard worker can ride it out. Or maybe Americans are just hoping that willing it to be so can make it so.
(This column was cross-posted on The Berkeley Blog on October 5, 2011.)