How to Get a Whole Generation to Sell Out

April 11, 2014

Today's twenty-somethings aren't apathetic or opportunistic. They're just trying to survive an economic system that has saddled them with inescapable student debt.

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Astra Taylor

Occupy Wall Street protesters march from New York City’s Union Square to Wall Street protesting student loan debt reaching $1 trillion, April 25, 2012. Image © Scott Houston/Corbis.

No one cares about selling out anymore. It’s an argument I encounter almost weekly, in a trend piece or through an online acquaintance. Times have changed, these commentators insist. Young people—“millennials,” they call adults just younger than me—simply don’t see things the same way their predecessors do.

The concept of selling out is passé, we are told. These days, everyone is busy buying in.

And maybe it’s true. Consider a striking scene from the recent Frontline documentary co-produced by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, “Generation Like,” which features a montage of teenagers responding to a question about what it means to sell out:

Teenager 1: Selling out? Can you define that?

Teenager 2: Well, selling out means, like—it could mean different things.

Teenager 3: I guess, I don’t know, I think first about a concert that’s, like, totally sold out, no tickets left. That’s probably not what you meant, though.

Teenager 4: I don’t really know what that means.

There’s a dark humor to these confused answers. But Rushkoff’s aim is not to condemn kids or pass judgment on them as morally inferior to their elders. The scene actually illustrates something more profound—namely, the shifting cultural, economic and technological conditions under which “millennials” now live and learn.

Chief among these new circumstances, of course, is the intense commercialization of the new media platforms that young people use for socializing and sharing. Armies of adult marketers make comfortable livings encouraging kids to “friend” products, as though the products were people—and to “interact” with them around the clock.

In my new book, I make a similar argument about the commercialization of everyday life. Tech companies like Facebook and Google reserve the right to use our likeness to promote products without our explicit consent, which may have profound consequences for how we value ourselves.

Why worry about selling out when you’re already an ad—and when you’ve been one your whole life? Why fret over the ethics of promoting yourself when you’re already being used to promote something else?

This is why I’m skeptical when people over 40 complain about younger generations. Older folks came of age in a different world, one in which corporate forces were easier to identify and resist. In the 1970s, for example, the average city dweller saw only a fraction of the thousands and thousands of advertising messages to which we are exposed each day. The younger a person, the more likely it is she has been marinated in marketer’s paradise since birth. Today’s libraries, museums and other civic spaces are all awash in corporate sponsorship, as are our schools and universities.

No doubt art and culture have long been used to sell things—not just products, but also politics and religion. Scholar Simon Frith, for example, quotes a 1934 obituary for a composer of a wildly popular symphony, which notes that “enterprising commercialists” hired orchestras to play his hit piece in hopes of boosting “winter sales of underwear.” Yet I believe we have entered unprecedented territory. Data miners track our media consumption habits in ways that were impossible before the onset of digital convergence—before we communicated, read the news and watched movies on the same online devices.

Still, there’s another key to “millennial” life that’s not so in-our-face. And it has even more of an impact on “selling out” than the ubiquity of commercial new media platforms, or the alarming abundance of advertorial-dependent news outlets—even more than the decline of record labels and the corresponding rise of soda-supported rock music.

For young people education has become as commercialized as anything else in modern life. Over the course of a single generation, education has been transformed from a relatively affordable public good into a social necessity priced as though it were a luxury item.

Since 1980, the average price of a four-year college has shot up from $8,756 to $21,657, dramatically outpacing inflation. This means more and more people are borrowing money to pay for it. In 2013, the average student was almost $30,000 in the hole after graduation. Total student debt has nearly quadrupled in the last decade alone and recently surpassed $1 trillion in total, most of it held by individuals from low-income families. Combine these facts with dreadful employment options and stagnating wages, and it’s no wonder 20 percent of borrowers will be delinquent within their first five years of paybacks. Many more will barely tread water, covering only the accrued interest month after month, even as the years wear on.

Lest one imagine otherwise, there’s no way off the student-debt treadmill: thanks to the rewriting of bankruptcy law in 1998 and 2005, student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy proceedings, which sets them apart from most other kinds of debt. Charge your credit card to the max, and you can wiggle out of the consequences. But the fees from those language and math classes you took? They will follow you to the grave, and maybe beyond.

The rising price of education changes us at an existential level, forcing young people and their parents to apply a cost-benefit analysis to learning. The prospect of a lifetime of student loan remittances will turn anyone into homo economicus looking for a return on investment.

You might have a passion for philosophy or dream of being an investigative journalist. But computer science or public relations are more likely to pay the bills, so you change your major—indeed, your whole life—accordingly.

Is that selling out or just trying to survive?

This conundrum, embodied in the heightened tension between vocation and avocation, is no accident. The attacks on education as a public good can be traced back to the 1960s, when Ronald Reagan, then-governor of California, entered a pitched battle with student protesters. Vowing to “clean up that mess in Berkeley,” he cut state funding for higher education and made tuition more central, paving the way for the current system of debt financing. Reagan wanted to discipline students, to keep them in line, and landing an enormous number of young people in arrears has proven to be a remarkably powerful tool for doing so.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is only continuing Reagan’s vindictive project, albeit with softer rhetoric. Student loans are already a cash cow for private lenders and the government, which raked in over $41 billion in profits from federal loans in 2013 alone, but student borrowers may soon take another hit. Though the latest proposals talk of forgiveness, the policies are hardly merciful.

Among other changes, the administration’s proposed 2015 budget puts forward significant reforms to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which currently grants a reprieve to those who work in “public service” after 10 years of payments. Under the revised plan, the total forgiveness for public-sector employees would be capped at $57,500—hardly enough to cover medical or law school. All those borrowers with debt loads above $57,500 will now have to make income-based payments for 25 years. And, just to make their lives a bit more difficult, their income will get tallied to include their spouse’s earnings.

Here’s how you get a whole generation to “sell out”: curb what student loan forgiveness exists for public service and—voilà—you’ll have fewer teachers and more corporate lawyers.

Let the price of higher education rise every year, and there will be fewer artists and activists—and more folks aiming for middle management.

Some will ignore these changing conditions, preferring instead to wag their fingers and lament that “millennials” just don’t care about the state of society. And while we’re preoccupied criticizing one another, the creditor class will be laughing all the way to the bank.

That’s a real shame. Too often conversations about selling out devolve into inquests focused on personal purity when it’s the larger, screwed-up economic system that we should be putting on trial—not individual choices. Selling out still matters, but only because more and more people are being forced to do it.

This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published by The Guardian.

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  • rtdrury

    A most relevant issue, as college tuition is merely the latest stalking path of predatory capitalism, the highly deceptive wolf in sheep’s clothes. We’re taught to feel warm/fuzzy about a criminal system, as we learn to associate who we love, i.e. our family members, with the system itself. So we are tempted to apologize for the wolves on our backs after exiting the cinema where a sentimental story of a rabid/capitalistic wolf was screened for our entertainment. We are privileged as wolf cubs of the carnivore’s empire. But fortunately, now, we are learning how to distance ourselves from that psychological trap, and soberly accept our mandate/responsibility to end predatory capitalism, end “economic growth”, and all the rest of the elites’ imperialist/militarist/capitalist ideas/myths, and replace them with our own vision, the people’s vision of universal wellbeing, economic stability instead of growth, cooperation instead of competition, humility instead of hubris, the reign of the human heart over the human ego.

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  • Sir Jorge

    Have people lost their common sense? YOU DO NOT HAVE TO GO TO AN EXPENSIVE COLLEGE! This constant droning on about how society is doomed, how students are victims, is stupid. You can easily work your way through a community college (with a part time job), then transfer to a state school, or you could take your AA degree and slowly get your B.S. or B.A. No one forces you to take on loans, no one puts a gun to your head. Yet when you make the decision, yes YOU MAKE THE DECISION, you get the debt. Society doesn’t do this type of thing with credit cards do they? Credit card debts aren’t painted as victims that just wanted to buy that nice pair of shoes, yet students are dumb victims too stupid to realize that they are taking on big debt? What a joke.

    • Brandy Bajalia

      So, it’s probably okay for those really nice and prestigious schools to cost that much money? I guess if your poor enough you should probably just take the opportunity that you can afford, right? Even if it’s a lesser opportunity. I get it now!

      • James

        So its ok that a Ferrari costs so much money. I guess if u r poor enough u should probably take the honda u can afford right? Even if it is a lesser car. Absolutely. But mention opportunity, and suddenly it is every one elses problem/responsibility.

        • brandy

          I wasn’t aware that purchasing a car and receiving an education were so similar.

          • Andrew

            They are both products that we purchase. The funny thing is they are insanely similar. A car is really what you make of it, just like an education. People are not successful because they went to a prestigious school. While some kids’ parents may buy him/her into a great ivy league institute, there are still those who had to work their asses off to get there in the first place. There are also plenty of kids who understand that it’s not necessarily the school that you go to, but the mindset and work ethic you have going away from that school. Smart and successful people know how to get the most out of their
            education. Others sit back and let the school educate them.

          • Ben Grismer

            Okay, but if we’re gonna use this car metaphor, lets take it to its logical extreme. What if you have a car that can only travel 10 miles before breaking down, and you want/need to go 60 miles? Not all educations are created equal, just like not all cars are created equal. I’ll agree that we don’t all need a prestigious school, I go to a junior college myself, and am transferring to a state school. I’m just saying, don’t we all deserve the ability to at least “get around” in our “cars”? Education is only a commodity to be bought and sold because we’ve made it that way, and it certainly isn’t benefiting the students or the professors. So if it isn’t helping the two groups of people who are most important to the process, why should it continue this way?

      • SamePartyDogNewProfile

        You realize that there are top notch state schools all over the country, right? Penn State, Texas, Michigan, Ohio State, University of California, etc, etc, etc.

        • Brandy

          Have you heard of a thing called out-of-state tuition? You are assuming that I live in a state which has a top notch state school. These are the facts: Higher education is extremely expensive for many, many people. Education should NOT be a luxury item. This is the point that I am attempting to get across. It’s not a car. It’s not a nice pair of shoes. It IS opportunity.

    • Steve

      Good point, Sir Jorge. Even 30 years ago this was the case. While I likely wouldn’t have appreciated the opportunity to attend an Ivy League school right out of high school, the point is moot. I wouldn’t have been able to pay for it anyway. So my choices would be:
      1 – take on massive student loan debt just to (hopefully) finish in 4 years with a piece of paper bearing the name of

      or
      2 – go somewhere else that I could actually afford without the additional pressure of being financially screwed once I graduate

      Not really a tough choice for most of the 99 percenters. While we’re at it, let’s talk about your choice of major. While I can respect people that want to obtain a major in something they are passionate about, 18th Century Literature isn’t all that likely to pay the bills. Obtaining said degree from an affordable school is foolish enough. Obtaining said degree from an expensive school is just plain stupid. So if you go down the path of obtaining a completely unmarketable degree from an expensive school, please don’t whine about how you can only find a job at Starbucks.

    • Adam

      While there are less expensive options than waste-of-money “prestigious colleges”, state school tuitions are constantly on the rise out-pacing inflation and the implications of not being able to support a society with students who want to do more than simply be trained for a job are disastrous. Of course “YOU MAKE THE DECISION”, Sir Jorge – let’s just be honest about the consequences of choosing NOT to get a decent education post-high school. I’m not implying everyone will be able to afford higher education, but limiting a quality 4-year college experience to families who are already very well-off is asking for total Plutocracy.

  • Rav

    I tend to agree with Sir Jorge. I went to a state college, even worked at a company during that time until my senior year. Never had to take on loans, I paid my own way through. Graduating in 2003, obviously the prices have gone up, which means that had I gone through it again – yes there would have been a student loan of about $5000. Then again, if the prices were higher I would have done 2 years of community college instead of 4 years at state.

    • Stephen Lemelin

      Rav I too went to a state school, worked through some of it, then had the military pay the rest. Did 2 Masters and some certifications by again military and working for the corporation that owned the schools. So it could be done 15 years ago, it can’t today.

      I checked my state school the cost of one class now is 3 times what I paid for a whole semester in 1996. So unless a person worked 1 full year at minimum wage it would be impossible to pay for 1 semester now working minimum wage. Never mind food or a place to stay or power, water, internet, etc. So state schools are now out of reach in most places.

      The military benefits I used now do not cover my old state school because it is so expensive they refuse to cover it. So military is out for full cost, but it could help you reduce the cost to something more reasonable.

      Also the corporate reimbursement I used for my 2 masters is gone because the IRS limited corporate reimbursement to $5250 per year without counting it as income so my old corporation just capped it at $5250 to avoid dealing with the IRS. Where I went to school that would cover ~2 courses per year.

      I worked a minimum of 2 jobs or job/school for the past 21 years to get where I am now with just a hair of student debt and a very small mortgage left. I have been blessed with good luck, great parents, great jobs, and have took advantage of a number of market turns and have not suffered any major medical problems. I have served overseas over 3 years in my military career and used every benefit earned to move ahead in life. So to say it was easy to get here is not true, but it was possible to graduate in the late 1990′s and be doing good today.

      The irony is I graduated high school 21 years ago next month and all the opportunities that were given me are gone even if a person worked equally hard and tried to take advantage of the smaller benefits given today.

      The sad part is the current student is boxed in by the IRS, overpriced education, shrinking wages and fewer opportunities. So I can understand they are mad, the problem is the trajectory of the world economy means they have little chance of seeing it get better in their life time. They are angry with the bitter pill they have to swallow compared to people just 20 years earlier. I believe what really pisses them off is when the people who did receive a much easier road try to tell them what is possible without seeing that the landscape for success has gotten much rockier in the last 10 years. Something will change in the next few years, the question is will it be done right to help people succeed or will it be done by the people who backlash against the old and middle aged because they are being screwed by the current system.

  • Jesse Jensen

    I’m with you on the debt trap, and generally with the spirit of ‘selling out,’ but…

    “You might have a passion for philosophy or dream of being an investigative journalist. But computer science or public relations are more likely to pay the bills, so you change your major—indeed, your whole life—accordingly.”

    … so what? the assumption here is that the rest of us need to structure ourselves around your pursuit of your passions, rather than you structuring your pursuit of passions around the rest of us.

  • Brandy Bajalia

    This is a great article, Astra.
    Thank you.

  • Ananya Sharma

    Waking up from the sleep kind of article, with you on the debt trap…
    http://sscdesk.in

  • thecrud

    Get your credit cards up to enough to pay off your student debt then file bankruptcy.

    • Stephen Lemelin

      Yes I have seen that done, or the Florida/TX method where you put everything into your home so you own it clean and clear, no school debt but 100k plus in CC. Then declare bankruptcy, which they can take everything but the house.

      Then once cleared of all CC debt, sell the house and pocket all the cash you stuck on the CC companies. Repeat every 7 years with a bigger house. :) . Retired in 30 years off CC companies. It’s evil, but it did work, I am sure they have changed the law by now.

  • Baby of the Echo Chamber

    Honestly I think that the media gets the idea of this generation totally wrong. The term “millennials” only exists in the bizarre echo-chamber universe of the media. We live in a time that’s radically diverse and complex. The economy is totally global and connections don’t neatly align along geography or demographics. Saying that there’s a sell out suggests that there’s some homogenous group to sell out. Can we please get a little more creative int he ways we thing about this awesome and amazing time? Start with a book called “No Generation” and think about it from there.

  • COBRACHOPPERGIRL

    College is a waste of time and money… all colleges are a clip joint. If you don’t know what a clip joint is, you better wiki it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clip_joint

  • Ben Grismer

    I might be taking this one point too seriously, because I really agree the rest of your points, but… A whole generation of sell outs? That’s not true. I really do love what your article has to say over all, don’t get me wrong, but our whole generation has not sold out. There are plenty of us who are aware that we have been branded since birth, and we refuse to embrace it. There are plenty of us who don’t go to big expensive schools just for their “prestige” and instead go to small cheap junior colleges and state colleges. There are lots of us who refuse to sell our dreams and our convictions. In the room with me as I type right now I’ve got a composition major/pianist, and an artist. I’m studying English dreaming of writing critical satire like Swift and Dostoevsky and so many other incredible authors. What I’m really getting at by saying all this is, every generation has it’s sellouts. The 60′s wasn’t exclusively populated by hippies, there were plenty of yuppies too, standing in the way of progress, selling out. I think you could probably prove that the vast majority of millennials are probably sellouts but, it’s not all of us.

  • Tyler Jonco

    what a load of rambling idiocy. Selling out has a simple definition “to compromise integrity for money” take a writing class.

    Also why anyone goes to college for a useless degree is beyond me. You want to learn philosophy? Go to amazon and get a book. I swear I feel dumber having read this crap.

  • Roger Loubert

    The Basic question boils down to what I was ONCE ASKED… : as per ..” are you working to buy the things you need and want , because you don’t have time to – even ask yourself what it is that would make you happy…, and also because you don’t have any time to MAKE THE THINGS YOU NEED AND WANT…., because YOU DON’T HAVE TIME!!!!! … because you’re too busy working to make the money to buy the things you need and want….. ( just like the dog chasing it’s tail… round and around…..)..

  • K. Payne

    I’m 26 with a Masters degree. And I sold out. I feel duped in some aspects. Like when a really good salesmen convinces you to buy something off the street then you get it home and it’s an iPhone 5 box full of rocks. The mistake? Buying the damn thing in the first place. As an African-American male, my parents always told me I would have to work harder than everyone else; so I did by completing a Bachelors and Master’s degree. Now I’m a contract (temporary) worker working contract-to-contract three months at a time hoping they will extend the contract yet again.

    Millennials have been labeled as lazy and lacking communication. I’ve even heard the term “entitled” paired with the Millennial generation countless times. Fucking right we are. After completing school and not being able to find a decent job you’d feel entitled too. So forgive us for believing we’re “entitled” to make a living and live the American dream (yet another sell) after paying extreme amounts of money to trudge through a gauntlet of pointless university classes and wait behind Mary Jo to retire so a more-experienced John Jo can come take her spot. I’ll gladly own the label of “entitled” and take my chances with what Asia has to offer. After all, that is where all the jobs are.

    http://www.seoulbound87.com/overworked-underpaid-in-debt-confessions-of-a-frustrated-millennial.html