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Occupy Wall Street: Gen Y Finally Gets Angry?

With Mayor Bloomberg backing off on threats to clear Zuccotti park for cleaning and protests spreading as far as Tampa, London and suburban Walnut Creek, California, it looks like the Occupy Wall Street protests are set to continue for awhile. And according to Generation Debt author Anya Kamenetz, when it comes to young people's lives, that's a reason to celebrate.

In a HuffPost piece entitled "Generation Debt at the Barricades," Kamenetz argues that Occupy Wall Street is a manifestation of young people finally getting fed up with the unsustainable combination of huge student loan debt and shrinking job opportunities the system created by older generations has offered them:

Occupy Wall Street is Generation Debt at the barricades, on blogs, Twitter and Tumblr, expressing their deep sense of betrayal. At the heart of that betrayal, the one issue that comes up over and over again is student debt.

College is the centerpiece of the American dream. We tell our children that if you have both merit and gumption you'll be handed the chance to prove yourself on a level playing field, with both financial and personal rewards. And so it's our nation's college students -- the ones with an average age of 26, the ones who are burning through their youth with a cycle of part-time jobs and part-time classes -- who are now raising their voices to tell us that the dream has gone hollow.

Is she right that the protests mark a sea change in Gen Y's attitudes towards the reality they've been offered? After conducting extensive research on the question, innovative youth-focused marketing agency Mr Youth, has to agree with her. We spoke to Christian Borges, VP of marketing and Nick Fuller, senior director of marketing, who confirmed that their conversations with young people reveal that Gen Y is shifting from consensus-seeking, sheltered and less than rebellious, to more angry and engaged.
"I think there's wide support by Gen Y" for the protests, Borges said, and student loan debt (currently around $27,000 per graduate on average) and unemployment is at the heart of the shift. The company's research shows:
  • 70 percent of students say the economy has had a negative impact in some way on their job prospects after college.
  • 86 percent of graduates say a four-year degree is not giving them the leg up that they need in order to find a job in the current market
  • 62 percent of young people the agency spoke to believe that the overall financial system has created a mountain of debt for their generation to inherit.
  • Half believe that the U.S. financial system serves only the rich and has eroded the middle class.
  • When asked about their feelings about the protests, 20 percent of young people said that they're actually outraged, 37 percent said they're at least angry, and only 24 percent felt neutral about them.
Now, Borges and Fuller feel, these grievances are coming together to drive Gen Y sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street protests and to permanently shift the attitude of this cohort of young people towards political action. Borges explains:
I think in the past two election cycles we've seen a definitive uptick in youth participation and awareness with regards to politics. I think that's one of the reasons why you saw a lot of college students getting involved with the last election, and you can probably look to them as playing a large part in helping to spread the grassroots nature of the wave President Obama rode into the office.

I think these protests have really struck a chord for them. I don't see them necessarily giving up the fight until there is some kind of revision of the existing laws with regards to college tuition and reimbursement. I think there will be some kind of movement or traction that takes into account students' grievances and relieves the pressure, so to speak.

Fuller agrees that the experience of the Occupy Wall Street protests is sparking a new, more combative political stance among many young people:

This isn't a generation like a Gen X where we were very rebellious of authority and of our parents. Working together and listening to your parents and respecting that discipline is definitely part of who Gen Y are. So for them to be able to come out against authority, definitely is establishing them as wanting to take action.
Do you agree that adding the spark of the Occupy Wall Street protests to the tinder of sky-high student debt and youth unemployment is likely to create angrier, more politically engaged young people?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user _PaulS_, CC 2.0)
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