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Occupy Wall Street: A Generation Of 20-Somethings Airs Its Grievances, Its Frustrations

Posted: 12/07/2011 7:31 am

NEW YORK -- Since graduating a year and a half ago from the Rhode Island School of Design, Nate Barchus hasn't shaken a nagging feeling: that he's aimless.

During college, the 23-year-old illustration major had grown accustomed to feeling like a productive member of society. But ever since Barchus got his college degree, prospective employers have told him that his credentials either overqualified or underqualified him for nearly every position he coveted.

Earlier this fall, he relocated to Brooklyn from Winston-Salem, N.C., hoping that a new and larger city might offer better opportunities. But when that plan fell through, the self-described "overeducated and underemployed" Barchus packed up his belongings, and moved off his friend's couch and into lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park.

"I came here for a job search and was so demoralized by the lack of meaningful jobs that I figured this was a more valuable use of my time," says Barchus, standing in the middle of Zuccotti Park in early November. "Here I am utilizing all of my skills, which is more than I could say about any job I could possibly land right now."

Prior to the early morning raid in mid-November, when the New York Police Department evicted thousands of protesters from Zuccotti Park, Barchus had been living there for six weeks.

By day, he worked as a librarian who tended to the Occupy Wall Street's library of about 5,000 donated books. By night, he participated as a facilitator of the LGBTQ caucus, acclimated to the challenges of living outdoors, and shared a tent with the five other librarians.

Barchus says he can relate to the struggles facing many of his peers. Unable to find work, he is also on the hook for about $25,000 in student loan debt.

"Our futures are on the line because of this overwhelming debt," says Barchus. "Our entire generation is behind the curve and it's been unbelievably devastating."

Barchus sees the physical occupation stage of the Occupy Wall Street movement as particularly appealing to many 20-somethings because it represents a tangible space for activism -- one that many in his generation have read about in history books but had yet to experience firsthand.

"Because we are disproportionately unemployed and a lot of us are sort of wandering around, it was great to have those spaces to bring us together," says Barchus. "Finally, we had a space to talk about what our generation is capable of doing, what our obstacles are, and learning to really find solace in knowing that we aren't alone in the struggles we face each day."

Over the past few months, 20-somethings from around the country have flocked to the Occupy Wall Street movement in droves and have found an outlet for their growing frustrations.

In particular, many current students and recent graduates are enraged over the increasing cost of tuition and rising amounts of student loan debt -- not to mention a dearth of decent job prospects for many of their well-educated and well-credentialed classmates.


According to the "State of Young America," a national poll released in mid-November, young Americans are growing increasingly unsure that they can attain the American Dream. Further, nearly half believe that their generation will be worse off than their parent's generation.

While a majority of the 872 18-to-34-year-olds surveyed still perceived a college degree as a vital pathway to success, many simultaneously reported feeling strapped by the rising cost of college.

In November, the Institute for College Access and Success, an Oakland, Calif.-based non-profit, released its annual report looking at average debt loads. Amid a difficult job market, it found that 2010 graduates owed an average of $25,250 -- with many in their generation struggling to pay off far more.

Though many 20-somethings embarked on their dream of a college education when a decent-paying job was virtually a guaranteed part of the package, the rules have changed, and a new generation is learning to readjust its expectations.

The morning of the Zuccotti Park raid, Barchus had been getting ready to close up the library when massive floodlights suddenly beamed down on the tree-lined park as hundreds of police in riot gear lined its perimeter.

Along with many of his fellow protesters, Barchus gravitated toward the center of the park to lock arms. But rather than face arrest, he moved on to Foley Square just as the sun came up.

Barchus believes the Occupy Movement has the potential to continue, but he returned to Winston-Salem just before Thanksgiving and has now resumed his job search. He's also participating in local activism by helping to conduct facilitation training for Occupy Winston-Salem. Meanwhile, he's also weighing whether to apply to graduate school in public policy. Eventually, he plans to seek public office and advocate on behalf of the 99 percent.

He credits the Occupy movement with revivifying his passion and refocusing his ambition. While he says he does his best to tune out his mother's relentless chorus of "get a job, get a job," Barchus sees a potentially larger victory at stake.

"I think I'll always look back on this and wonder what might have happened had this movement not existed during this very crucial period in my life," says Barchus, who plans to enroll in graduate school if he can stomach the possibility of taking on more debt in order to finish. "In all honesty, it really brought me back to where I needed to be."

AN IDEA, NOT A LOCATION

Occupy Wall Street first swept up Christy Thornton on a balmy Wednesday afternoon in October when she walked out of class at New York University to meet up with thousands of fellow college students in Washington Square Park.

From there, the group moved south on Lafayette Street and later linked up with tens of thousands of other Occupy supporters in Foley Square. The crowd continued snaking its way farther south, ultimately ending up in Zuccotti Park.

Later that night, surrounded by thousands of like-minded protesters, Thornton was hooked.

A 31-year-old Ph.D. student, she had watched the first rumblings of the movement from the sidelines -- by reading blogs and news stories or by scanning friends' Facebook and Twitter feeds.

But after helping to organize NYU's first student-led walkout and illegally marching down the middle of Lafayette Street and ignoring law enforcement officials along the way, Thornton says she forged a deep and abiding commitment to the burgeoning movement.

"At first, I'll admit it, I was skeptical. I didn't think it was possible for this to happen and I didn't know whether very many students would get behind it," she says. "But it was really empowering to be out there that afternoon and first take the street -- to feel that you could actually be a part of helping to change the parameter of political possibility in this country. It was addictive."

Thornton can also relate to the suffocating effects of onerous debt and looming joblessness.

All told, she says she took out about $35,000 in student loans in order to finance her undergraduate and graduate education. She still has about $20,000 left to pay off.

Thornton grew up in a one-parent working class home in rural New Hampshire. As a young child, her mother's meager salary as a restaurant line cook qualified the family for public assistance. Later on, her mother's job as a prison guard provided access to a pension and health insurance.

After high school, Thornton moved to New York to attend Barnard College. She also earned a master's degree from Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. She's the first in her immediate family to graduate from college, let alone graduate school.

In the two months since participating in her first protest, hardly a day goes by when Thornton isn't engaged in some form of Occupy organizing -- whether planning for an upcoming demonstration, organizing teach-ins as part of the People's University in Washington Square Park, or participating in a working group focused on issues related to higher education and student debt.

"We feel compelled because we're here and Wall Street is here," says Thornton. During a recent three-week stretch, she says she attended an Occupy-related meeting every single day. "It's really inspiring and definitely tiring, but it's still really exciting. Zuccotti Park or not, it's about conceiving of Wall Street as an idea and not a location."

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