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Generation Y's Wall Street SPO

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This post was written by Zoe Mendelson, 21, who is trying to do more with less in NYC. She is an author of "RED the Book," a collection of essays written by 58 American teenage girls, available in paperback.

This weekend, I headed down from my dorm at Barnard College with a few friends to the Occupy Wall Street rally. We were giddy on the way -- all those people our age showing up in the name of activism -- but the whole thing turned out to be a bit of a bust.

As one friend put it, "It's unfortunate when you agree with a mission enough to go to the event, and then some people take it as an opportunity to dance around in their fairy wings."

I respect the drive behind OWS. But reading the signs down there, the Gen Y wish seemed to be for someone to come along and sprinkle the magical dust of democracy over a diffuse collection of complaints: No blood for oil, no more racism, stop homophobia. Greed is bad. Life's not fair.

Yes, I agree. Saying so, however, will not make a 60-something CEO decide he just doesn't deserve his salary, or drive the drug companies to slash their prices. It won't reset an income gap that has been degrading our dead democracy for decades, or halt the force of globalization that siphons off jobs, or reverse the impending ruin of our health care and education systems.

If the goal of the movement is to bring about great social reform, isn't it easier to start with the sector of society that's less set in its ways?

What can we, as twentysomething Americans, do to fight the greed and disparity? And more intriguingly, what might we possibly be doing to perpetuate it? About the only pot I didn't hear or see stirred down there was one assuming even the smallest share of culpability for this mess we're in.

Growing up, we (the middle-class protesters) got to be sleepy. We answered no great call. We just had to follow instructions and try to look cool. We looked forward to moving comfortably into our parents' roles.

Turns out, our quiet consumer lives wreaked a lot of havoc, behind the scenes here and overseas. The lifestyle we inherited has proven unsustainable: What will we do with ourselves when we stumble out of school with five-figure debts into a barren job market? The career-family-home-car-vacations that we conditioned ourselves to expect will not materialize. Our lives will be less full of the petroleum-based staples that we were raised to consider markers of success.

What has come of this incongruity? Fear, dissatisfaction, and anger on a grand scale -- that vaguely targets the deep-rooted institutions that aren't apt to budge.

This mess is too hot to sleep on, particularly under a wet tarp in a park. I say we skip that part by re-envisioning our futures and redefining success, before it's too late.

Forget the CEOs and IPOs and HMOs; they're lost causes. I'm talking about an SPO for my generation, a six-step satisfaction paradigm overhaul. It could look like this:

  1. Admit that we have a problem. Hi, we are Generation Y, and we are overly entitled consumption addicts with expectations that are incongruous with a finite world.
  2. Put our unprecedented talent as consumers toward good. We may be young impassioned liberals, but we rarely act on our ideals. We beg for cars as soon as we turn sixteen. We continue to buy from multinational clothing brands, despite their widely known questionable labor practices. We have adopted a defeatist attitude, complaining about the power of big money. Big money is just lots of small money put together. And P.S., as young adults we constitute a major chunk of the market. Quit with the cars already and get a bike. Or better yet, sell your car, and buy bikes for the kids in your neighborhood. Stop thinking of your clothes as trendy and disposable, and therefore picking them up at prices that surely reveal a sweatshop somewhere. Shop at the farmers' market. Bother to move your IKEA couch with you when you go. Share consumer goods like vacuums and food processors instead of buying everything new. Learn a trade. Barter. Feel good about it.
  3. End your one first-hand relationship with Wall Street. Bank Transfer Day is coming up November. Take your money, however little it is, out of the banks that invest in fracking and Monsanto. Put it in a credit union that helps create a sustainable local economy and provides financial services to the traditionally underserved. Psst: "underserved" is a euphemism for poor, and that is going to be you soon.
  4. You're over 18 -- act like it. Vote. Start voting in local elections. Local-level politics present the quickest route to change in your community.
  5. Create a job for yourself. There's never been more work to do in this country, and we're the generation equipped with the energy and technological prowess to do it. Make it your job to try to solve our problems. Make it your generational pride that you're not striving for the same things your parents did. Now here's the key: In order to take advantage of this grand opportunity, most of us will have to accept a lower material standard of living. This is easiest to swallow when you recognize that our standard of living was shamefully high in the first place.
  6. Live together. Cohabitation is a solution to the housing crisis that's entirely within your reach. And I have to say, in a world where relationships have been so reshaped by technology -- where we socialize alone on the Internet, and constant contact seems to keep us so far apart -- increasingly communal living does not sound bad. If we all end up sharing living quarters into our 40s it would probably do us some good. Look where our radical individualism has gotten us.

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