Sunday, April 13, 2014
I was born in 1984, and as an official Orwell baby, I’m going to take the liberty to call my cohorts and myself the “O” Generation.
This is in reference to the O-Horizon, the top layer of soil composition, which is made up mostly of decomposing organic matter and bits of debris in various stages of breakdown. This is often the liveliest, yet most vulnerable layer of the soil, packed full of billions of organisms ranging from fungi and single-celled bacteria, to thousand-legged insects and even small mammals like voles and mice.
Life in the O-Horizon is all about resilience through diversity and the ability to survive by drawing from a patchwork of resources that are available in an exposed and ever-changing environment. So how does this metaphor fit with the recent dubbing of myself and my peers as the “Me” Generation, with the idea that we are a bunch of over-spoiled narcissists living in our parents’ basements? Well, at 30 years old, and having not lived under a roof of a parent since I was 17, I’d like to attempt some perspective.
I currently work three different jobs, and none of them carry any sense of the words “job security.” I teach after-school programs at the local high school, work as a teacher’s assistant for an elite college that accepts only 13 percent of its applicants and hammer nails on the side as a self-employed carpenter. I work hard and push myself to go above and beyond at everything I’m doing, knowing there is a line of people wrapped around the block eager to take my jobs if I fall behind.
Regretfully, I have to utilize food stamps in order to buy most of my groceries, my monthly allotment of which was cut almost in half by Congress two months ago. On average, I work 70 to 80 hours per week and I honestly can’t remember the last time I didn’t have to use most of a Sunday to catch up on work. My access to health care is constantly at the whim of ever-changing bureaucracies and my one attempt to purchase dental care, the only dental coverage I’ve had since high school, cost me more money than my rent, utilities and car insurance combined. I have no 401k, or anything resembling a retirement plan and the outlook for Social Security for my generation is looking pretty grim.
What a sob story right? I would be way less likely to expose such personal vulnerability if it wasn’t for the fact that 9 out of 10 of my college educated peers are in an eerily similar situation. We are a generation living on the surface of a society in flux, an economy in decline and the resources available to us resemble more spoiled leftovers, than any sort of well-rounded meal. So, we figure out how to thrive regardless, and become the emergence life on the O-Horizon.
To highlight the difficulties of myself and my peers is not my point, however. Every generation experiences adversity in one form or another and I do not expect any exceptions for mine. What I feel called to represent is the growing capacity for resilience that the O Generation holds. Given the obvious downward trajectory of the environment and economy, we are forced to step up and create the livelihoods and lifestyles that help to build the communities we want to live and raise our families in.
The phrase “Right Livelihood” is one that seems to be thrown around a lot these days by the O Generation. We are unsatisfied with the options available to us through the failing systems, so we become default entrepreneurs in a new sense of the word. Many of our “incomes” are a patchwork of part-time jobs, back-room businesses, student loans and credit cards that we use to pay off our credit cards. The concept of Perpetual Debt is a reality that many of us in the O Generation are learning to cope with and even navigate in ways that allow us to invest in our lives with meaning and purpose. What once meant “unemployed” now has the potential to mean that we have the time and energy to create thriving backyard gardens, and callous our hands with as many do-it-ourselves projects as we can manage.
We use our time to make medicine with plants, keep backyard chickens, and invest deeply in friendships that become more like family because many of our real families don’t quite see the big picture. We get to know our neighbors as well as we can by hosting potlucks, and caring deeply for each other’s lives and burdens. We even learn how to bury our loved ones close to home, a timeless and beautiful community ritual I’m honored to have participated in twice in the past year alone.
It is relationships that mean so much to us in the O Generation, because as we look out at the O-Horizon of our lives, we can see that we truly need each other to survive whatever is ahead. What is ahead, we ask ourselves? Pensions? Economic stability? The American Dream? Well, none of us are really sure. The best we can do is base our efforts to what feels right in our hearts, and lucky for us, that seems to be making more sense than we could ever hope for.
Joshua Freund is a community organizer and after-school teacher at Greenfield High School He lives in Greenfield, where he studies Farm and Food Systems at GCC.