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How History Can Save Millennials' Economic Futures

Millennials could learn a thing or two from the economies of previous decades.

In our weekly Hustlin' series, we go beyond the pitying articles about recession-era youth and illuminate ways our generation is coping. The last few years may have been a rude awakening, but we're surviving. Here's how.

Of my four grandparents, all of whom were born around the turn of the century, just one—my police lieutenant grandfather, Mel—needed a college degree in order to do his job. Grandpa Mel was part of the measly 5 percent of Americans who had gone to college in 1940, a statistic I found when The Census Bureau released a cluster of infographics comparing how Americans' lives have changed. In 2010, 28 percent of Americans were college-educated. That seems like a huge jump, yet when I thought a little harder, I realized today's statistic was more depressing than the one from 1940.

Here's why: You didn't need a college degree to make a decent wage in 1940. Working-class jobs in manufacturing required both skilled and unskilled workers, but none of them needed to be trained in a university setting. A strong union culture kept these jobs well-paid and secure. Meanwhile, the college and university system was for elites—white, mostly Christian men who were funneled into managerial positions or upper-class jobs. The admissions standards were sky-high.

In the next 20 years, everything changed. The G.I. bill, passed in 1944, sent 2.2 million veterans to college. In the '50s and '60s, the government made huge investments in public education, pouring money into the university system and expanding it enormously. The City University of New York, for example, had five colleges until the 1960s; by the middle of the 1970s, it had added a dozen more campuses. Social movements put equality and access at the top of the national agenda. Kids from working- and middle-class families had grants for college, not loans, and public universities were relatively inexpensive. It was no longer as difficult to get into college as it had been before the war. As manufacturing declined, the number of "information-age" jobs—primarily those in technical and administrative fields—kept pace with this new influx of college grads.

Then came the backlash. In reaction to the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the federal government allocated less and less money to the states, which in turn caused state legislatures to tighten up on appropriations for universities, which made tuition prices rise (sound familiar?). Since then, we've only backed further away from education investment. We have too few college graduates and too many at the same time. On one hand, our country requires an educated workforce to tap young people's potential and stay competitive with countries like China, which is making an incredible investment in its future—yet we're starving our public universities instead. On the other hand, our job market isn't supporting the growing number of college graduates. The lion's share of the jobs we've created in the last few years are low-wage, precarious positions—many that don't require an education at all. Even the jobs that do require college degrees—university professors, for example—are much lower-paid and precarious because of unions' decline.

Our education system is also being restructured just as the job marketplace is being transformed. The meaning of a college education is different than it was in 1940; for all its exclusivity and elitism back then, the standards were much higher. "Public colleges and community colleges have been suffering under austerity measures for a long time," says Michael Fabricant, director of the social welfare program at the CUNY Graduate Center. "And since universities are being judged and funded in terms of percentages of graduates, they have narrowed the curricula in order to move their students through more quickly." Considering our economy's needs, the degradation of education, and the fact that most Americans are uneducated and therefore consigned to low-wage jobs, that 28 percent statistic doesn't sound so impressive after all.

There's a serious need to invest in all kinds of public services, not just education. Yet politicians are increasingly reluctant to do so, even though many Americans are willing to pay their share. According to one study, says Gary Rhoades, professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, the majority of people in nine swing states are willing to pay $200 more in taxes in order to support colleges and universities. So what was different back in the '60s? Why was the government more willing to invest in education than they are now?

"What it comes down to is whether or not people are willing to invest in educating other people's kids," says Rhoades. "In the '60s, all this public money was largely being directed at populations that were not so different from the people paying taxes,"—white, working-class people. Now, "there's a tidal wave of demand" from the next generation, "but it's one who has color." Rhoades points out that this debate is similar to the one that took place 100 years ago about high school: whether the influx of immigrants were worthy of an education. He suggests there's an underlying xenophobia in the refusal to invest in the brownest generation in history.

In order to protect our economic futures, it's up to Millennials to start taking cues from past decades—the union culture in 1940 to strengthen the service sector, and the social movements and public investment of the 1960s to compete internationally. Our generation may be staring down a whole host of economic challenges, but luckily we have a few blueprints to follow.

Art by Harrison Freeman.

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