New Book from NYU Press: How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation By Marc Bousquet, Santa Clara University  

Excerpt from Chapter 4 of
How The University Works
by Marc Bousquet

The real "kid nation"

The reality of the undergraduate workforce is very different from the representation of teen partiers on a perpetual spring break, as popularized by television (“Girls Gone Wild”), UPS propaganda (“they're staying up until dawn anyway”), and Time Magazine: “Meet the 'twixters,' [twenty-somethings] who live off their parents, bounce from job to job and hop from mate to mate. They're not lazy--they just won't grow up.” [Grossman]

There are more than fifteen million students currently enrolled in higher ed (with an average age of around 26. Tens of millions of persons have recently left higher education, nearly as many without degrees as with them. 

Like graduate employees, undergraduates now work longer hours in school, spend more years in school, and can take several years to find stable employment after obtaining their degrees.

Undergraduates and recent school leavers, whether degree holders or not, now commonly live with their parents well beyond the age of legal adulthood, often into their late 20s.

Like graduate employees, undergraduates increasingly find that their period of “study” is in fact a period of employment as cheap labor.

The production of cheap workers is facilitated by an ever-expanding notion of “youth.”  A University of Chicago survey conducted in 2003 found that the majority of Americans now think that adulthood begins around 26, an age not coincidentally identical with the average age of the undergraduate student population.

The popular conception of  student life as “delayed adulthood” is reflected in such notions as “30 is the new 20” and “40 is the new 30” (Irvine). 

The fatuousness of these representations is confounded by looking at the other end of one's employment life.Few people are finding that in terms of employability after downsizing that “50 is the new 40.” Persons who lose their jobs in their 50s often find themselves unemployable.

What are the economic consequences for a person whose productive career can begin in their middle 30s or later, and end at 50 or sooner? 

This pattern presents real obstacles for both women and men wishing to raise a family. 

Yet mass media representations of extended schooling and the associated period of insecure employment are often cheery, suggesting that it's a stroke of good fortune, an extended youth free of such unwelcome responsibilities as home ownership, child-rearing, and visits to health-care providers.

In this idealistic media fantasy, more time in higher education means more time to party--construing an extended youth as a prolonged stretch of otherwise empty time unmarked by the accountabilities of adulthood.

 But concretely the apparently empty time of involuntarily extended youth associated with higher education is really quite full.

It's full of feelings--the feelings of desperation, betrayal, and anxiety, the sense that Cary Nelson has captured for graduate employees under the heading of Will Teach for Food.

Writers like Anya Kamenetz and Tamara Draut have captured the similar feelings of upper-middle class college graduates in books like Generation Debt and Strapped.

Most of the persons Draut and Kamenetz describe will have added graduate school to successful bachelor's degrees at first or second tier institutions.

But little attention has been paid to the role of higher education in organizing the vast majority of the lives it touches--those who don't graduate, or who graduate with community college, vocational, or technical degrees.



Get it from NYU Press
Paperback 22.00
Cloth 70.00

With a foreword by Cary Nelson

Excerpt: Who benefits from the tuition gold rush?

Excerpt: The real "kid nation."

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