Is the 'Screwed Generation' Really Screwed?

07/23/2012 12:06 pm ET | Updated Sep 22, 2012

Last week Newsweek dubbed the millennials "the screwed generation." But this doesn't have to be the case.

While it's true that new graduates are now competing for shrinking numbers of jobs in a stalled and even disintegrating industrial economy, opportunities are also opening up -- some quickly, some more slowly -- in the emerging sustainable society.

Blaming the Boomer generation for this sad situation, Newsweek claims, "Today's youth, both here and abroad, have been screwed by their parents' fiscal profligacy and economic mismanagement." No doubt many parents are guilty of sucking the last drops from a withering tit, but the collapse of industrial economies has far deeper historical and philosophical roots. Some blame "the big lie": the Western delusion that humans are somehow separate from and superior to the rest of nature -- so we can ignore the damage we're doing to our life support systems and the life support systems of every other living being with whom we share the planet.

For over 100 years, industrial economies have reached for the dream of endless growth but are now bumping up against nature's limits. We are no longer able to grow ourselves out of the huge mess we've created. The bill for centuries of years of overexploitation, overpopulation, contamination and corruption is coming due just as this generation of young people from all over the planet is scrambling to join those seemingly lucky folks who are playing musical chairs on the upper decks of the Titanic.

The millennials are being forced to figure out how to find or create a living for themselves and their children in a world far different from the one they grew up in. Perhaps many would prefer to turn back the clock or hope for one last retro party, but this is less and less possible. In the Titanic era, the future may lie more in building lifeboats than in jockeying for a socially prominent position near the band.

This situation can be seen as a disaster or as a tremendous opportunity for innovation.

We all live in a time when one unsustainable economic, social and environmental social system is dying while the next is just being born. So where are the opportunities for today's young people and their children? In the redesign, remediation and restoration of every sector of society, including ecological systems, innovative shelter, new energy sources, organic food production, ethical and truly democratic community governance, economic relocalization, innovative education, integrative health care, reinvigorated spiritual practice, community security, open communication systems and participatory entertainment. Annie Leonard's new video "The Story of Change" (the sequel to her popular "The Story of Stuff") gives lots of ideas for how young people can use their unique skills to be part of this huge transition.

Here are a few tips for young people currently searching for a career that can support them for a lifetime:

1. Find or create work in the slowly growing new economy rather than the old collapsing one.

2. Don't get into debt educating yourself for a career that may no longer exist in 20 years.

3. If you can find a job in the old economy, save as much money as you can so you can transfer into the new when the time is right.

4. Learn how to meet real, basic, human and planetary needs in an entrepreneurial way. People may not continue to need industrial-meat burgers or plastic toys but they will always need access to clean food that doesn't destroy their health; safe shelter; engaging communication, real-world education, integrative health care for all ages, and much more.

5. Take a permaculture design course to learn the nature-based ethics and principles of ecological design that you can apply to a career in any sector of society. Permaculture also teaches you how to live your personal life in harmony with nature's laws, so you can build your own house, grow food etc.

6. Free yourself from addictive "weapons of mass distraction" so you can deal with real life and our all-too-real moment in the history of this planet.

7. Declutter and simplify. Repair, reuse and recycle. Get rid of excess "stuff" and don't buy things you don't really need or passionately love. Forget recreational shopping -- research shows that retail therapy actually makes you MORE depressed. Become immune to ads -- consumerism is an another addiction you can no longer afford, and it doesn't make you happy. Living lean frees you up to try new things, pioneer new paths.

8. Get out of debt, escape the credit card trap and learn to live well on less. If necessary, take advantage of free programs like Debtors Anonymous to help you learn how to deal with creditors and live within your means, whatever they are.

9. Learn to save for what really does matter to you -- perhaps a piece of land, a work of art or special training. Out of every dollar you make, get into the habit of paying yourself first. This will slowly add up, giving you more freedom to choose what you do.

10. Learn to cook. Shop farmers markets. Learn how to grow some of your own food. Who knows, this may even turn into a career. Futurist Richard Heinberg predicts that ecological farming will become a growth occupation as weather change makes industrial farming less possible.

11. Check out thrift shops and garage sales. Our society offers a huge excess of "stuff" for little money. We'll be able to live off of (recycle, rebuild and reuse) the remnants of industrial society for quite a while. Perhaps this could even lead to a possible career!

11. Consider building a life in a less-expensive smaller city, town or relatively uncontaminated rural area. Everyone else is crowding into increasingly unsustainable cities, competing for a piece of the shrinking pie.

12. Look for creative opportunities in the collapse. What critical products and services are no longer easily available? How could you provide them? Your special gifts, skills and enthusiasm are desperately needed as we embark on building a whole new sustainable society and retrofitting the remnants of the eco-destructive, industrial past.

13. Most importantly, don't let the mess we're in trap you in despair or rage, even if many of our current leaders richly deserve to be punished for their stupidity (and they do). The hope lies in solving our collective problems together and enjoying the everyday miracles of being alive in a challenging time.

"Are Millenials the Screwed Generation?" Joel Kotkin, Newsweek, July 16, 2012. l
Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy, by Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone.
Debtors Anonymous
Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines and The End of Growth by Richard Heinberg.
Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, by David Holmgren
Sustainable Careers class, Quail Springs
The Blue Economy 10 Years, 100 Innovations, 100 Million Jobs by Gunther Pauli
The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community by David Korten
"The Story of Change." Video by Annie Leonard ("The Story of Stuff")
Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich, 2nd edition by Duane Elgin
Yes! magazine.