Talking ‘Bout My Generation: “We Are the 99 Percent”

Something important is happening in our national conversation right now.  A simple website that started as part of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests has become an outlet for people all across America who are struggling with severe debt (and lack of job opportunities) and who are now making their voices heard.

The website is called We Are the 99 Percent, and despite — or perhaps because of — its simplicity, it is extremely powerful.

Against a plain background, the site has hundreds of photos of people holding handmade signs describing the nature of their individual struggles.  Stories of being laid off, of graduating from college with mountains of debt but no career prospects, of avoiding necessary medical treatment due to lack of health insurance are told in straightforward terms.

Photos from wearethe99percent.tumblr.com

In a photo posted yesterday, a 28-year old former Physics major solemnly holds a white piece of paper on which he’s written:

“We are $80,000 in debt, plus our mortgage which we can barely pay.  I cannot afford new shoes and am missing several teeth from lack of affordable care.”

Farther down the page another 28-year old, a veteran of the U.S. military, shares his story:

“I am currently living with my mother, who is struggling to make ends meet.  I cannot afford my own home or apartment.  I do not even have a job because I do not fit the “specific criteria” needed for any jobs.  Barely anyone does here, and those who do are barely hanging on.”

It takes incredible courage to share these experiences publicly, and here at ReadyForZero we’ve been inspired and motivated after reading these stories.

What’s really surprising is not that these people are sharing their stories but that it’s taken so long for these perspectives to be given a place in the national dialogue.  Up to now, the political elites and the mainstream media have failed to understand and address this undeniable truth about American life in the 21st Century:  A whole lot of us are in dire shape financially, not because of poor decisions but because of fundamental problems in our economy and our political system.

While the people who make the decisions have been focused on “rescuing” the big financial institutions over the past few years, there have been no life preservers thrown out to those of us who don’t have our own army of lobbyists.

Not that life preservers is what anyone really wants — what we’d all really like is just a share of the economic growth that has taken place over the last 20 years.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case, as this quote from economist Lawrence Katz in the New York Times indicates:

“This is truly a lost decade,” Mr. Katz said. “We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.”

Over that time, frustrations of hard-working Americans who have seen prices rise but wages fall have been somewhat ignored.  But now the Internet and the rise of social media are allowing us to make our voices heard regardless of what the gatekeepers want.

While media pundits have questioned “the goals” of this movement, the people telling the stories know that there’s no one particular policy that will fix the situation.  What we need is a sustained effort toward creating economic opportunity and alleviating the debt that is holding so many people down — especially young people.

What’s becoming clear is how many of the stories of lost hope are in fact coming from young people — those in the so-called Millenial generation.

This generation, including mostly people born in the 1980’s and 1990’s, are at the point in their lives where they would traditionally be starting their careers, building equity in a first home (or saving up for one), and starting to raise a family.  But for many young people today, the traditional avenues toward these milestones are blocked off and unattainable.

The official unemployment rate stands at over 9%, and that doesn’t include the many people who are working part-time jobs or who have low-wage jobs that won’t ever blossom into a career.  Meanwhile, two-thirds of college graduates these days have student loan debt, and they owe more than $20,000 on average.

That’s just not sustainable — for individuals or for us as a society.

When you mix the lack of opportunity with the high prevalance of debt, people are bound to struggle.

Experts say that the economy needs more consumer spending to spark innovation, investment, and job creation.  The younger generations would be the ideal demographic to provide this spark, but our potential is going untapped, like an oil field trapped under a continent-sized sheet of ice.

In this case, the sheet of ice is actually two layers:  the crushing lack of jobs, and the equally crushing debt so many young people have incurred from student loans, underwater mortgages, credit cards, medical bills, etc.

Which is why many of us are now asking, “How can we be the spark this economy needs when we have so little opportunity to start a career?”

How do we go forward knowing that the rules have changed on us more abruptly than we could have imagined?  We have more obligations than ever, and fewer safety nets. Banks discovered they could finance the American dreams of housing and education, and have twisted government regulations to make it easier for them to reap great profits while risking very little.  If you’re not angry about it, you should be.

But what can you do about it?  Make yourself heard.  Write your Congressperson.  Register to Vote.  Do one thing now.

Don’t be a victim.  Educate yourself and understand the choices you have:  Don’t know how much you pay in credit card interest?  Find out.  Have a financial question?  Ask us at ask@readyforzero.com.  Beware easy outs.  Band together. There are many others out there in the same or worse situations.  Find them, know them, join them.  Help each other.

And if you want, drop us a note and tell us your story.  We promise a response.

Here at ReadyForZero, we are determined to stay focused on solving real problems for real people, and that means not being afraid to be on the side of those without the power or the connections, but who are nonetheless on the right side.

We’re not going to solve the debt crisis, but we’re proud to be here fighting the good fight.  We’ll continue to build tools to help people crush their debts (instead of the other way around), and hope that you’ll tell us where we can do better.

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  • Kris

    These stories are extremely disheartening. I’m sort of in the same situation but I’m sure there are those who are in much worse.

    I am extremely curious though because I keep seeing people being severely weighed down by their student loans. We all know education is important but I want to know the number of people who took a ride on the “I can’t get a better job so I’ll go back to school and get more student loans” wagon and end up not making any more than they previously did.

    God forbid someone took their Masters’ Degrees on Bolivian Literature or something. (joke) 

    • azra

      Hi Kris,

      Thanks for commenting. The reasons you bring up are precisely the reasons why we wanted to throw in our 2 cents here. Hang in there, we’re rooting for you to get out of your financial situation, whatever it may be.