Student Debt-Fight the Normal

I recently read Mia Rabson’s Winnipeg Free Press article, “Who are you calling entitled? Today’s youth say they have it tougher—and the numbers back them up,” who writes how rising tuition fees and high unemployment rates for youth fuels larger student debt.   With fewer jobs for graduates and increased student debt, young people are more financially desperate than ever before. As Kathryn Blaze Carlson indicates in the National Post,

Youth unemployment in Canada is twice the national rate, these days hovering around a woeful 14%.

While the Canadian economy gained more jobs than expected last month, driving the overall unemployment rate down to 7.4% from 7.6% in April [2012], the unemployment rate among 15- to 24-year-olds was little changed.

It is only by exclusion, both from the planning process and from consideration that the high unemployment rate for young people can remain unchanged while the general unemployment rate falls. With rising tuition and less opportunity to work to pay these costs, overall student debt rises in a seemingly ‘natural’ response to this situation.

But unlike the snow melting in the summer, rising student debt is not natural.  It is the result of human-made choices when it comes to allocating (human-made) money.  As Rabson points out,

In 1989, [Manitoba] governments funded nearly 85 per cent of the costs of universities and colleges. In 2009, that had fallen to 57 per cent.

In the same time frame, tuition went from 14 per cent of post-secondary budgets to 34 per cent

Increased student debt is not natural. It is caused by governments choosing to reallocate public money. As governments spend less on post-secondary education, students are expected to pay more tuition.  As tuition goes up, students go further in debt.

The fact that students are mostly comprised of youth makes the normalization of student debt fortify the domination of capitalism.  As the Socialist Worker writes, this shift of university and college costs away from government (public money) and onto individual families and students is “part and parcel of the last three decades of neoliberalism.”   Three decades! As we slowly erode our public services,  the danger of our situation is hidden because each degree of change is insignificant on its own.

Graduating with increased debt into high unemployment nudges workers into an increasingly vulnerable position. It grants even more power to employers by creating competition amongst employees, who are motivated by the threat of unemployment to accept less. They will accept fewer benefits, longer hours, lower pay because as an individual, unemployment is a worse option.  Employers reap the benefits. They win more profit by giving workers less for the same amount of work. In this way they spend less on their operating costs and so they can lower their prices slightly and undersell their competitors, or increase output (for the same cost since workers are working more for less) and profit this way. This forces their competitors to match their efficient standards or risk being driven out of business.  And so, other employers must cut the wages, the pay, and the benefits of workers too, in order to stay competitive.  As long as workers have high unemployment and debt, they will be likely to bend to the profit-increasing needs of an employer because this is all an individual can do to resist unemployment.

Normalized student debt normalizes capitalism. It compels us youth to compete amongst ourselves; to work harder for less.  Our strength allows us to survive these subtractions, but, the fact that we can adjust our lives to work more for less, our very tolerance, works against us.  After we collectively downgrade our standard of living, one notch at a time, we grow accustomed to having less.  Why is this exploitative dynamic is tolerated? Why go forward in this direction? Even the most casual glance to the future shows this tendency only promises a worse life. If neoliberalism has been slashing public services for decades, the majority of today’s students were born into it.  For most, there isn’t a personal memory to counter this arrangement of debt and harder work. It appears to have always been this way.  So the concessions to these reductions in benefits, pay, and an increased cost of living seem to be inevitable.  Here we need to interrupt what our ‘common sense’ explains away as normal.  This history of public service erosions teaches that downgrading the quality of our lives promises the expectation for workers to downgrade again in the future. And, this is all in a relentless attempt for employers to win more profit.   This system does not softly approach this goal.  It moves brutally, like lava devouring everything on its way to the ocean.  We must freeze it.

Running from the devastation in the short term makes it difficult to ask questions that connect daily life to the future. If increased work for less is the new norm, how little are we supposed to value ourselves in order to rationalize spending large portions of our life working, in order to create wealth for the few?  Post-secondary education is a requirement for higher paying work so we are pressured to obtain it, and every other advantage we can win, to offset the rising cost of living and the decreased job security in the future.  Let’s recognize that this perspective is itself a concession to capitalism which contorts everything into investments and liabilities, monetary costs and monetary benefits.  Though the sentiment is often treated like the ideal of the entitled, rigorous academic education need not be tied to getting a job.  We are creative! Knowledge and learning is of supreme importance to us for its own sake!   In the face of the increased expectation for us to work more for less we must ask why we are in debt simply by being alive.

Capitalism expects us workers to exchange our time for someone else’s profit to obtain what we want and need in life.  It holds us in this dynamic more totally by giving workers an increased debt-load. Through normalization,  it wishes to cement-shoe us in the deepest ocean and sell us oxygen– but what we need is to join forces and get out of the water.   As more normalized this system appears, and as more hidden capitalism’s destruction is, the more we, as workers, are blocked from organizing against this system that drowns us. Rising costs of living, student debt and unemployment amongst workers today is cheap labour and profit for employers tomorrow and we ARE entitled to a better life than that.

Written by Teddy Zegeye-Gebrehiwot

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