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D uring its limited years on Earth, the Class of ’09 has endured more than its share of insults from the older generation—condemned as MySpace narcissists and entitled lazy-asses, not to mention hookup addicts and/or rainbow-party attendees. Worse, hav- ing come of age traumatized by 9/11 and the ugly war that followed, they are graduating just as the economic bubble pops. Who could blame these new graduates if they were, as a demo- graphic slice, feeling put-upon, even downright bitter? So we asked them. We asked col- lege graduates, grad-school matriculators, and a smattering of ifth-graders head- ing off to middle school. Among them were irst-generation immigrants and wealthy suburbanites, artists and entrepreneurs. We asked more than 200 students in all, following up questionnaires with phone interviews. This wasn’t a highly scientific survey: Among other things, the participants were largely self-selected—not to men- tion willing to be photographed and quoted. And as with any attempt to analyze across generational lines, the risk of misinterpretation is high. (I remember laughing out loud at Allan Bloom’s 1987 best seller, The Closing of the American Mind, which warned against my generation’s enslavement to the dread Sony Walkman.)

Ten schools, 200-plus grads, more than 100 questions. What follows is a sampling of snapshots of the students we surveyed, and a compilation of their answers.

oUtlooK on tHe fUtUre

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?*

7%

pessimist

81%

optimist

Nonetheless, the results of this imperfect survey were revealing. We were startled by the fact that, circumstances be damned, we found very little bitterness at all—cau- tion, yes; worry too—but judging from the responses to our questions, this is a re- flexively optimistic cadre of graduates, feeling, if anything, existentially freed up by this era of radical change. They’re nervous about the job market but igure it’ll sort itself out. They describe their parents with shocking regularity as their “best friends.” They’ve lived online for so long it’s a default setting, one they believe lends them a more global-minded perspective than that of their elders. Their tone overall was more bemused than outraged: “I’m a mixture of excited and nervous for the future,” says Forrest Petterson, a graduating senior at Friends Seminary. “But there’s no point in getting upset, because it’s not the end of the world.”

Will the country be better off or worse off in five years?

91%

3%

better

worse

It’s tempting to chalk this up to the Obama effect: Would these graduates be feeling so sanguine under McCain? While No-Drama Obama is from a different generation, his iconic personality reflects the mood of this survey, from that cool and upbeat pragmatism to his wry emotional middle ground, not to mention a notable unwilling- ness to dwell on blame. It’s an interesting mind-set to ind in the midst of what might seem, to older observers, a time of apocalyptic change, of institutional collapse and chickens coming home to roost.

And yet there may be heartening advantages to such realism, which amounts to a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy for the graduate’s soul: If you can’t change your circumstances, fix your thinking! Graduates tended to interpret in a positive light what might to earlier generations seem like worst-case scenarios (moving home, say) or terrifying environmental indicators (“This is a pivotal, transformational moment,” says Brooklyn College grad Noam Rubinstein). Rather than rage against the machine, they prefer to hack their own futures. “I was pretty set on getting a conventional job and the usual climbing up the ladder thing,” says Yale School of Architecture grad Dexter Ciprian. “Now I have to think about doing things on my own instead of wait- ing for things to come to me.”

“This crisis is forcing people to make difficult decisions about what they really want to do with their lives. But in ten years, my classmates will be doing incredible things.”

  • ann kim, 27, wharton

Will your life be better or worse in five years?

95%

2%

better

worse

Perhaps there are downsides to such an even-keeled outlook. (Without outrage, is it possible to keep history from repeating itself?) And yet there is something powerful about the faith these graduates feel, even in the swirl of radical events, that this is not the final wave, and that they have the skills to surf the tumultuous tide instead

“I’m excited about the future— I’ve got even less to lose in this economy.

  • aleksandra bookman, 21, nyu

of being sucked under.

emily nussbaum

48

new york | june 15–22, 2009

*Not all answers add up to 100 because not all respondents answered every question.

photograph by Jonatan Fernstrom/getty images

photographs: Chip somodevilla/getty images (bush); getty images ( toy soldier); h. armstrong roberts/getty images (house)

welCome to tHe reCession

Who’s most to blame for the economic downturn?

16% politicians

Do you blame the previous generation?

88%

no

10%

“No, they were just pursuing a false sense of well-being through possessions they didn’t actually need. It’s pathetic, but that’s how they were raised.”

36% bankers

yes

  • tommy fagin, 18,

friends seminary

17% irresponsible americans

31% everyone

Backup plans:

The Army

No plans. Just winging it.

Unpaid internships

Bartending

“Looking back, I think business schools deserve some blame for the economic downturn. Selling trash dressed up as gold is unethical, and they should be held accountable for stressing that we make money at the costs of others.”

Oce temp

—devin griffin, 28, wharton

Grad school

How long do you think the recession will last? Less than one year . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11% One to two years . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38% Two to three years . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23% More than three years . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26% “La la la I’m not listening!”

Teach English abroad

Move to New Hampshire and live o the land

Volunteer with disaster-relief programs

Mom’s house

“Both of my parents were well educated, but creative thought wasn’t cultivated. They do a much better job of delayed gratification, and they have longer attention spans. But our generation has redefined what it means to be a good worker.”

  • sam sanders, 24, kennedy school of government

72%

of graduates want to live in new york.

Do you have a job lined up?

58%

yes

42%

no “Two words: investment banking. The firm I interned with over the summer no longer exists.”

  • brenda taylor, 30,

wharton

If you have a job, what will your salary be?

less than $20,000 $20,000–$29,000 $30,000–$39,000 $40,000–$49,000 $50,000–$59,000 $60,000–$69,000 $70,000–$79,000 $80,000–$89,000 $90,000–$99,000 $100,000–$109,000 $110,000–$119,000 $120,000–$129,000 $130,000–$139,000 $140,000–$149,000 $150,000–$159,000 $160,000–$169,000 $200,000

Average starting salary:

Brooklyn College . . . . . $40,000

Columbia School of Journalism . . . . . . . . $40,000

Fordham Law School . . . . . . . . . $102,000

Kennedy School of Government . . . . . . . $88,000

NYU . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $32,000 Wharton . . . . . . . . . . . . $113,000

Yale School of Architecture . . . . . . . . . $44,000

NYPD Police Academy . . . . . . . . . . . . $42,000

june 15–22, 2009 | new york

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