As I walk around campus or check my email, I am bombarded with ads for events and services to help Macalester students advance their career or market their skills. These opportunities, like links to apply for prestigious unpaid internships, grants to create technocratic solutions to problems students see or a professional clothing drive, are certainly not “bad things.” There is absolutely no reason somebody who cannot afford professional clothing should be dismissed for a job. But I am interested in how these things came to be.
Similarly, I pass by events and initiatives aimed at reducing waste or combating climate change. Again, these things aren’t “bad.” They are, however, instilling within us a similar sentiment to all the career opportunities on campus. They are spinning a problem much larger than any of us students, into avenues in which you can personally advance (in the realm of marketing yourself above others to get a job) or fulfill your personal obligation against climate doom. Chasing the high of personal and professional success doesn’t leave room to ask why we’re struggling against these problems in the first place.
Graduating from the elite institution that Macalester is no longer guarantees a ticket to the middle class. I first want to acknowledge that it never truly did; Macalester prioritizes certain types of learning and students, historically excluding many people from its walls and letting many of those inside slip through the cracks. Those that do make it to graduation from any school, however, are faced with a new predicament. A predicament in which your degree — your four years of studying and taking classes — is not enough. We are increasingly expected to spend more time “networking,” and applying to jobs and internships that are unpaid, only to be rejected. And to think a generation that has provided a surplus of free labor is being called “lazy.” This is not to say that job markets are just now relying on private networks and word of mouth. I’m sure if you asked any alum who attended before Career Exploration had a staff of two dozen (including student workers), they would have loved that support in finding a post-grad job. But now as a graduating senior looking for jobs with the assistance of Handshake and several unpaid internships under my belt, getting a decent-paying job post-grad will take more than getting my resume edited.
So should we be less picky about our jobs? Suck up and do those unpaid internships? That would be forgetting about student debt, not to mention the strain these unpaid internships add even before you add the monthly interest bill. When I bring up how the cost of Macalester has been rising every year, over $10,000 across the past decade, I often hear that that is on par with other colleges. That is exactly the problem.
I hope I sound like a broken record. And I write this because I know I am not alone in these struggles. We are living in an overwhelmingly precarious world, with every worker teetering on the 100-foot precipice of bankruptcy while at the same time scrambling to support others who have already fallen in. We are always one missed paycheck, one earthquake, one social media post, one layoff, away from destitution. The problem lies in each of us only having an inch or so of rope, and all the while vultures circle our bodies (and our debt), the imminence of our decay wafting up enticingly to these predatory financiers.
I am not calling for more or less campus activism, rather to put it in the context of the global crisis. The reality that any issue could occupy space on a campus where time is the one thing everyone complains they don’t have reflects the urgency of these issues and the lack of state action to rectify them. We do this work with the knowledge that the change we affect must be dramatic and shouldn’t settle at the first concessions we win. We cannot stop once we’ve passed the threshold of survival. We must return to a new era of prosperity.
How then do we face our precarious futures? The first step is pushing back against the neoliberal explanation for how our troubles came to be. The neoliberal model prescribes a focus on the individual. In this view one solves poverty with hard work and charity from those who are only slightly better-off than those without houses in the first place. This model leaves no room for the question of why poverty exists in the first place, and the answer isn’t people who make $60,000 a year. We’re told that if the poor worked harder, they wouldn’t suffer, and if we (the laboring-without-owning class) did the same we could take care of those in need. This is not to say those of us who live comfortably ought not care for the problem of poverty, but as Judith Butler puts it the goal is “to shift the entire problem of poverty to the socio-economic and political level, where we can ask why and how poverty is being augmented at such alarming rates, and how it can be countered.”
Instead of presuming that poverty will always exist, we should ask why it does and what we can do about it. The alternative is an eternity of people who aren’t currently in poverty scrambling to complete GoFundMe’s for people who are impoverished through circumstances outside their control in an endless cycle of precarity. To continue this way ensures our defeat.
The second step is action. We won’t find every solution simply, but the first step comes clearly. Our only hope lies in collective power. We tie our threads together to stop scrambling between emergencies and lash back against the systems that keep us apart.