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Under 30 in the Great Recession

See accompanying text here: Under 30 in the Great Recession

I spent the past few weeks interviewing 20-somethings around the country about their experiences in the “Great Recession.”

What began as a personal endeavor — a simple interest in the way the recession is affecting my generation — became a publishable project when I decided to use some of these interviews to create a video for Campus Progress.

My initial interviews left me feeling dissatisfied, however, because I didn’t think I was tapping into something that hasn’t already been reported by major news outlets. A friend told me she was tired the sob-story media framing — The Washington Post recently published an article about type-A kids moving home after college. A BusinessWeek article called us “The Lost Generation.” The New York Times published an entertaining but ultimately depressing piece about Katie and Kristy Barry, twins who can’t find work in New York City.

All of these stories are relevant — in my interviews, I met people swimming in debt, worried about the future and frustrated by their inability to translate hard work into real rewards. Many of them told me that they felt the recession had put their lives on hold. Eddie Smith, a Californian who studied criminal justice in various forms since he was 15, has spent the past two years working odd jobs — a Wal-Mart gig among them — because he can’t find employment in his field. Ben Kreider graduated from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in May but now finds himself overqualified for many jobs and more than $60,000 in debt. Stephanie Mueller, a University of Michigan grad who works in New York City, has entered the world of  “permalancing.” As she explains it, she does full-time work without receiving full-time benefits or any job security.

What I felt was lacking in my story, however, was a way to demonstrate that the recession has not stripped all young people of their agency and their power to act and control their futures.  Then I met Causten Wollerman and Sara Fatell, two twenty-somethings in Washington, D.C., who recently started a baking business. They waltzed into my office to deliver cookies one Wednesday. When I contacted them to ask about the role of the recession in their decision to start something new, Sara told me this: “I think definitely the economy had something to do with this – because if we’d had full-time jobs, we never would have talked about it.”

I decided to focus my video on the two of them. I loved the idea of creativity as the antidote for a depressing economic landscape.

The two launched Grassroots Gourmet, a dessert catering company that delivers to non-profits and political organizations, just a few weeks ago. Their story isn’t one of overnight success — they’ve taken just under 20 orders and are cautiously setting goals for 2010 — but in the video, the two make some excellent points about how the ragged economy can actually affect our generation in positive ways.

Take a moment to watch the video and listen to Sara and Causten ruminate on baking, living green and refocusing our lives as the economic rollercoaster takes us for a ride. It helps that the two are wonderfully charismatic.

And now — on to my next project! For the next two months I’ll be documenting the way the economy is affecting the lives of older individuals. The photographs and stories will be published by the National Council on Aging.


Health care and you …

A note from The Washington Post on the health care bill that just passed in the House:

The House bill

The complex package would affect virtually every American and fundamentally alter vast swaths of the health insurance industry. Starting next year, private insurers could no longer deny anyone coverage based on preexisting conditions, place lifetime limits on coverage or abandon people when they become ill. Insurers would be required to disclose and justify proposed premium increases to regulators, and could not remove adult children younger than 27 from their parents’ family policies.

How has the crisis affected you? A wrap up.

I spent Halloween weekend crowded around a fire with friends. The major topic(s) of discussion — besides the best way to eat burned marshmallows — Who are we? Where are we going? Why is Julie so damn introspective?

As we counseled each other and attempted to finish off Josh’s case of Coors (choice drink for a group of semi-employed post-grads), I decided it’s time to wrap up my “How has the crisis affected you?” series. A bunch of you have written to me (thank you!) and I haven’t responded to all your responses (I’m sorry!). I’m going to post a summary later of my “findings,” but it’s been really interesting to read your contributions.

Here are some additional contributions, a few have been edited for space.

I asked the following questions:

1. How has your life been affected by the economic crisis? What have you rethought, or what have you done differently because of it?

2. How do you think U.S. culture will change because of the economic crisis?

Abby Metty, 23, graduated in May from UNC-Chapel Hill. When she wrote me, she was interning at the Oregonion in Portland. Besides traipsing through Thailand with me, she’s worked on a documentary in Haiti (where, if I am not mistaken, her parents met). Check her out here:

I heard a fellow journalist at the Oregonian say recently that the crisis is a cleansing, pruning circumstance. It helps us cut back, cut out what’s not useful, important, or necessary. There’s also a billboard on my commute home in Portland that looks like a sheet of notebook paper that says: “Recession 101: It’s a test, not a final.” Every time I ride past it, I’m encouraged. I know that however bad it is now, it’s not permanent and that my life and finances are being adjusted in a healthy way, creating healthier philosophies and habits to live by. That being said, I would really like to have a job soon to start paying off my student loans. 🙂

I think this period in our history is curtailing the massive materialism that has grown in American culture over the past decades, especially since the 80s. Technology has wooed us into believing that we can have whatever we want, whenever we want. And now the financial crisis has told us otherwise, has made us think twice and reconsider our purchases. Maybe keeping up with the Joneses isn’t as important as it used to be. Already you can see changes in advertising… all kinds of commercials advertise saving money, getting more for your money, staying closer to home instead of going far away on vacation, etc etc. Seems moderation is returning to American lives and homes. We’ll see if it lasts.

“Mike,” 24, is a self-described “middle class white dude trying not to spend an arm and a leg to live in the Chapel Hill area.” He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007 and works for the university, so he asked that I not identify him. Save to say, he has a cool beard and good taste in indy music.

I don’t think there’s going to be much of a change in American culture/culture in the U.S. Rather, I think the culture is going to continue the ways it’s been changing in recent years. For several years, we’ve seen people scaling back on spending on some of the fattier parts of their budgets and subsequent industries have suffered. The internet’s given us a lot of “free stuff.” Oeople expect that and with less money and jobs to be had, all that “free stuff” is necessity now. Generally, I think that’s caused us to be a bit  more conscious of what we pay for or what we’re willing to pay for.

Jonathan Ross quit his job in New York in the midst of the crisis, looking for a bit of life experience. At the time he wrote me this e-mail (last month) was working at a winery in Tupungato, Argentina. He’s a beer aficionado and a damn good listener.

Most people were against my idea of NOT going back to my job where it was “Secure” and I was making good money. But I figured this would probably be the best time to take advantage. I guess there isn’t much a I would have done differently. I mean yes it was a concern and I did wonder if I made a mistake, but at the same time I figured, if I failed, if it all went to crap, that I could and would find something to do (perhaps go back to school).

I think that somewhere people need to make a clear choice in what they want…because we can’t have it all (and based on the increased savings rate in the country, it would suggest that the majority of Americans understand this now…finally).  This basically may mean re-thinking how the Federal and State governments act. What services they provide, etc…  I am for health-care reform….big time. For me it should be a right, not a luxury. There are things that are rights…and there are things that are needs….and then there are nice to haves. Somewhere in there the US needs to fight our paranoia about war vs. creating better environments for education, health, and energy. I guess that is how I feel.

Ben Raznick, 24, is a piano player, lifeguard, occasional street singer, former magazine employee, screenwriter and all-around fantastic individual who hails from Colorado but now lives in Buenos Aires.

The Latino Newspaper I worked for in Madison, Wisconsin lost a lot of accounts in sales and advertisements, and I later had bouncing paychecks and the company no longer had enough money to keep me working there. But back in Boulder, the crisis has seemed minimal.

I think families will start reuniting and households will start having multiple generations, something more common in other countries. I don’t know if i came up with that or read it because it seems logical economically. I don’t think the crisis will stop people from eating out or fastfood etc., because those things seem ingrained into our culture. However, after seeing the movie Food Inc., I feel that in spite of our economic crisis, I personally specifically pay more attention to the food I buy and spend MORE money on food if it’s organic/locally produced. I do think that inspite of knowing we are in an economic crisis, many people choose to spend money still on things that benefit their health such as food/gyms/excercise.

I do do think the country will begin a gradual switch to green cars, but I feel as the economy gets better, the green efforts will lose momentum, unless obama continues some other campaign like the clunkers one.

Thank you all for your contributions. My musings to come …


P.S. Bit of shameless self-promotion: Check out Tracy Boyer’s list of “100 Notable Multimedia Professionals.” Obviously I am paying her off …

A diet or a lifestyle change?

Interesting letter in today’s Washington Post. I didn’t read the original article, but this caught my eye:

Time for a lifestyle, not a diet

Oct. 26, 2009

The Oct. 19 front-page article “Frugality falling out of fashion?” achieved little outside of furthering the already distorted mentality of an extravagant and naive America. This mentality is that we are experiencing just a short economic downturn, just a little “extra around the middle,” and all we need is to go on a diet to get rid of it.

Diets don’t work, and neither do “spending diets.” Lifestyle changes and shifts in how we think and behave — that works. And that is what needs to happen to get out of a mess that has been slowly building up for much longer than any of us have been alive.

To the music agent who wants to reward himself for working all the time: try putting in just a few less hours (and, yes, forfeit some financial gain) and use that time to spend with your family and friends, some of the free things in life.

Our happiness needs to begin coming from within our communities and ourselves, instead of from the brand labels of material objects and the false sense of accomplishment that companies have manipulated us into feeling when we buy into their schemes.

Kelly Barrett, Washington


Going solar


As a producer for Campus Progress, I spent the beginning of this month following around a team of students from Virginia Tech, a group that has spent more than two years building our future: Solar-powered houses.

Twenty teams descended on the National Mall recently to participate in the Solar Decathlon, a competition held by the Department of Energy to encourage the development and use of solar energy. As the crazy girl with the camera, my job involved a midnight police escort to the foot of the Washington Monument, a speedy ride in the back of a pick up truck and a day spent wearing a hard hat. Not too shabby.

To hear from Chip Clark, a Virginia Tech student and three-time competition participant, see my video here.

If you’re in D.C. and want to visit the Virginia Tech house (and 19 other homes on display) head downtown to see the homes on the Mall until Oct. 18.



Where’s your trash going?

If you read just one item this evening it should be this article:

“Smuggling Europe’s Waste to Poorer Countries.” The New York Times.

European governments increasingly mandate that companies recycle their waste or dispose of it in an environmentally friendly way. But green disposal of thousands of tons of waste is expensive, so several corporations have found a cheaper way to get rid of their trash: send it to the global south.

In some European countries this is illegal, and inspectors chase down those who ship their waste to countries like China and Brazil. But in the U.S., where disposal laws are much more lax, sending our broken refrigerators, cracked ipods and beat up televisions to Brazilian backyards is quite alright.

The article points out some of the major obstacles to creating a greener, more sustainable world system.

Read the article. Let me know what you think.


A life, online.

I’m working for a think tank at the moment, and today I attended a two-hour info session on the use of twitter to promote progressive ideas.

As I fidgeted in my seat and watched the panelists attempt the ridiculous task of tweeting while talking about tweeting, I thought a lot about how our lives have moved online. As a writer and a photographer, the computer is my best friend and my worst enemy; it feeds my creativity while it eats it, and the more the internet allows me to feel connected to people around the world, the more it makes me feel isolated and alone. The more time I spend in front of the screen, the more I feel that the computer controls me, and not the other way around.

Anyone else relate?


News roundup

Some reading material …

High Five Nation, The New York Times, David Brooks

An excerpt: “When you look from today back to 1945, you are looking into a different cultural epoch, across a sort of narcissism line. Humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else, was a large part of the culture then.”

Young Adults Likely to Pay Big Share of Reform’s Cost, The Washington Post, Shailagh Murray

An excerpt: “A 2008 study by the Urban Institute found that more than 10 million young adults ages 19 to 26 lack health insurance coverage. For many of those people, health-care reform would offer the promise of relatively inexpensive individual policies, which do not exist in many states today. The trade-off is that young people would no longer be permitted to bet on their good health: All the reform legislation before Congress would require individuals to buy at least minimal coverage.”


Individuality — a defining characteristic?

Today the debate reopens on health care reform.

This is what intrigues me:

Many U.S. citizens have characterized change to the current system as requiring a shift in fundamental American ideals. Specifically, many see change as a threat to that red-white-and-blue strain of American individuality.

This debate segways into a great question —  Is individualism the defining characteristic of U.S. culture, and does changing our health coverage system threaten it?

Bill Robinson, a doctor in Bozeman, Mont., whose quote is featured on the back page of today’s New York Times, explains why health care reform is so contentious in the U.S.

American culture simply has never been based on caring about what happened to your neighbor. It’s been based on individual freedom and the spirit of, if I work hard I’ll get what I need and I don’t have to worry about [the] fellow that maybe can’t work hard. It’s a pretty cynical view of America.

But I honestly think that drives an awful lot of this debate — the notion that I’ve done my job, I’ve worked hard, I’ve gotten what I’m supposed to get. I have what I need and if the other people don’t, then that’s sort of their problem. And unfortunately the big picture — that our nation can’t thrive with such a disparity between the rich and the poor, the access people and the disenfranchised — that hasn’t seemed to really strike a chord with Americans.

So your average person actually has fairly good access. They’re happy with their physician and they’re really frightened that something’s going to happen to that, on behalf of people that maybe they don’t think it’s their job to take care of.

Does his definition of American culture line up with yours? His point is supported by other quotes featured in the same Op-Ed.

Adam, from Grand Junction, Colo.

Our founding fathers went to war to throw out tyranny, to overthrow a tyrannical government without proper representation. We are about at that point now. We’re here to say we want our country back. Health care … is socialism. And socialism is not an American value. … No, I do not have health insurance. I’ve never had insurance. [If I need medical care] I should pay for it. I’ve been to the doctor one time since I was 12 years old. I paid the full bill. … If I truly needed, had a medical need, I have a catastrophic plan that I bought. But it just covers something that’s truly catastrophic. Has a huge deductible. And if that came about I would pay that. You know, you don’t look for a handout.

Anonymous nurse, Western United States

When you come to the West, you have a different mentality. There’s an independence and an individuality here that you don’t get anyplace else, because when you’re in the city, you’re kind of like part of the hive … Here, people are really, really proud, and they cherish their independence. And they cherish the fact that we are all individuals. And that’s what we’re afraid of, is that we’re going to lose our individuality and we’re just going to be part of the hive. If you’re just part of the hive, then what are you going to do? You’re going to cull out the weak links. You’re going to cull out the lady that’s on crutches and got diabetes, because she may be a good grandmother and she may be a good person, she lives by herself, and her house is paid for, but you know, her medicines cost a lot.

So are changes to the system menaces to individuality? And in the pecking order of U.S. ideals, does individuality trump concerns for your neighbor? Why? Is health care reform a sign of encroaching socialism*? Are we all going to become part of the hive?

Food (ahem, medicine) for thought. Read the full article here: Obama’s Audience Speaks First.


*Why is this a dirty word in the U.S.? A topic for another post.

How’s the crisis affecting you? Pt. V

Photojournalist Traci White sent in her comments on the way the crisis has changed her life and the town where she lives. Traci speaks Dutch, spent a summer photographing gay and lesbian lifestyles in the Netherlands, and works for the Danville Register and Bee in Danville, Va. She’s 24.

How has your life been affected by the economic crisis?

A year out of college, I have already had to reapply for my job as a staff photographer when my newspaper’s media corporation decided to “reorganize”  my paper. Each employee who was lucky enough to make it through the layoffs has taken two weeks of furloughs throughout the year, has had mileage compensation decreased, has had approved work-related travel distance shrunken, and no overtime permitted at all. We have also decreased the number of printed editions by leaving newstands empty and had our deadlines cut back by an hour because our paper is now designed and printed in another city.

I am so grateful to have a job that I try not to dwell on how difficult it has become to be a good journalist in such a barren media landscape, but it’s difficult to ignore when you’re confronted with these constraints at every turn.

What have you rethought, or what have you done differently because of it?

I have rethought my future career in print journalism, much as that breaks my heart. Even though I still have a job, seeing how tentative that security is has definitely motivated me to seek out freelance and become an associate with a wedding photography business to make up for the lost income this year. I’ve never been a big spender, but the other young professionals in town and I are more likely to stay in for a game night than a night out for bar hopping.

How do you think American culture will change because of the economic crisis? Have you seen changes already?

Danville, the town where I’m working, has basically been kicked while it was down by this economic crisis. More than 20% of the people in the town worked either in the textile mills or the tobacco warehouses, and in the past 15 years those industries have completely disappeared. As such, the unemployment rate has remained in the teens for most of the past decade, but it has surged close to 20 percent in the past year. An enormous colony of strip mall stores was approved for the city a year ago, and half of its stores remain unfilled, and their promise to bring jobs has proven empty as well. However, new businesses are slowly refilling the deserted warehouse and mill district by the river, and signs of economic progress can be found if you look hard enough.

I welcome your insight …


What is this blog?

The "Unstatic Blog" documents the changes going on around you and me. It will ask and answer — and then ask again — how is your world changing? Read and participate in the conversation.


/ˈstætɪk/ –adjective 1. pertaining to or characterized by a fixed or stationary condition. 2. showing little or no change: a static concept; a static relationship. 3. lacking movement, development, or vitality