Denied a Future, Young Workers Have a World To Win
Maria Fernandes held down three jobs, working over 87 hours each week, split between three New Jersey Dunkin’ Donuts locations. “She worked so much, that landlady Amelia Resende sometimes went two weeks without seeing Fernandes…” NBC reported. “Five or six times in the past year,” Resende said, she came outside to find Fernandes asleep in the driver’s seat with the car running.” She even kept a gas can in the back in case she ran out of gas.
Maria worked hard to make ends meet for herself, but she was generous and believed in doing good for others. NBC recounted, “She bought a tent and explained that it was for a homeless man she saw near work. When Culhane’s [her boyfriend at the time] mother died, Fernandes bought him and his three sons suits for the funeral. … Friends recount a number of instances when she gave them cash or handed over a debit card to help pay for food or travel.”
On Sunday, August 24, 2014 she worked her usual triple-shift from 8 am-1 pm at the first shop, 2 pm – 9 pm at the second shop, and 10 pm-6 am overnight at the third. Monday morning she pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store to sleep before going to her next shift, and left the engine running. Maria would never wake up. Carbon monoxide from her engine leaked into the car, and her gas can tipped over, leaking gas; the fumes took Maria’s life as she slept. When Maria Fernandes died on the morning of August 25, 2014, while still in her work uniform, she was 32 years old.
The tragedy of Maria’s death is heartbreaking, but the circumstances she found herself in have become increasingly common for today’s young workers.
A Generation Faces Economic Decline
Today’s young generation of workers born, between the early 1980s and the mid- to late-1990s, are known as millennials. According to the Pew Research Center: “Millennials are the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations had at the same stage of their life cycles.”
This downward economic trend that millennials are experiencing is brought on by fundamental changes in the capitalist system. Every aspect of the economy is in the midst of a decades-long transition, from relying on wage-labor to labor-replacing technologies such as robotics, information technology, artificial intelligence, and mobile tech.
This is the first time in human history that there has been laborless production. This changes everything.
Labor-replacing technology, intended to maximize profits, is also shrinking and destabilizing the workforce. A new class of workers is emerging from within the working class, those forced to exist outside of the basic capitalist framework. This new class is unable to sell their labor, because new technologies are cheaper than their labor.
The new class is made up of workers from every generation, but young people are unique, in that they will never know a world without labor-replacing technology. Older generations have had economic security, jobs, and housing taken away from them. But many of today’s young adults will never have access into the economy the way previous generations did – they are denied a future.
Maria Fernandes was just one of many stressed young workers; 40 percent of millennials identify as “work martyrs,” consistently overworking, and “racked with guilt if they take time off.” According to a Bankrate study, 25 percent of 19-25 year olds don’t take any of their paid vacation or sick time. The work that most millennials can find is in the low-paid service sector. Millennials who have been able to get full-time salaried work earn salaries that equate to $13 an hour. Millennial wages can’t even keep up with the increasing costs of basic goods. Many millennials can’t find work, making up 40 percent of the unemployed.
These low earnings and unemployment lead to the net worth of millennials being about half that of previous generations at the same stage in life. One in three millennials lives with their parents to save money, and to help provide for their struggling families. The economy is taking a toll on millennial’s health: they are the first American generation in over 100 years to have a decrease of their average lifespan, and they have the highest rates of depression.
Reporting by USA Today shows new Federal Reserve data indicating that, “White millennials — who still earn much more than their Black and Latino peers – have seen their incomes plummet the most, relative to boomers,” falling by 21 percent when compared to Baby Boomers. Young white workers are being pushed toward the same economic deprivation in which the country’s history of racism has kept workers of color. Economic inequality is a central way that capitalists have been able to divide workers and block unity.
As traditional employment has become scarce, the “gig economy” has risen to prominence, where workers are independent contractors, temporary employees, on-call, or otherwise tenuously employed. According to the New York Times, “The number of Americans using these alternative work arrangements rose 9.4 million from 2005 to 2015. That was greater than the rise in overall employment, meaning there was a small net decline in the number of workers with conventional jobs… Employers have succeeded at shifting much of the burden of providing social insurance onto workers,” getting off the hook for providing healthcare, vacation, sick days, retirement, social security, workers’ compensation, and unemployment benefits. The “gig economy” is one more step toward destruction of work as we know it.
Children in the Crosshairs
While young workers try to survive in this failing economy, capitalism is also failing today’s children and teens. One in five American children experience hunger each year. The Urban Institute held focus groups with teens facing hunger in ten diverse communities across the country. In their 2016 report “Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America,” they found that in all ten of the communities there were stories of girls selling their bodies in “sex for money” transactions, and boys shoplifting and selling drugs, all just to get food.
A young girl in San Diego, California, said: “Someone I knew dropped out of high school to make money for the family. She felt the need to step up. She started selling herself.” A girl in Chicago spoke of an 11-year-old girl who dropped out of sixth grade to do sex work. A girl in Portland, Oregon told researchers: “It’s really like selling yourself. Like you’ll do whatever you need to do to get money or eat.”
The findings show that this behavior is consistent across gender, race and geography. Susan Popkin, senior fellow at the Urban Institute and one of the authors of the report, said, “The extent to which we were hearing about food being related to this vulnerability was new and shocking to me, and the level of desperation that it implies was really shocking to me. It’s a situation I think is just getting worse over time.”
While most food-insecure children aren’t pushed into sex work, many take on the responsibility to help their families with food. They will eat at friends’ and relatives’ houses and save school lunches for their siblings, or to eat only on weekends.
The situation these young people face lays bare the truth, that capitalism is an immoral system, a system that is not only broken, but rotten to the core, and a system that becomes more desperate and despicable by the day. Our situation is getting worse because capitalism is incompatible with the rising laborless production.
Capitalism is in a death spiral, and it is imperative that we gather together to do something about it, to replace our failing economy with an economy that provides for all people, especially our children. The horrors we see today are nothing compared to what the future will hold if we do not get organized to change the world.
Young Workers – A Key Section of the Class
What would it look like to remake the world in a way, where Maria Fernandes would not be not worked to death?
Young people, full of energy and idealism, are often at the heart of social change. Youth played leading and decisive roles in the Civil Rights, women’s rights, and antiwar movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Youth stepped up again leading the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and NoDAPL movements. Even during the American Revolution, George Washington recounted in his diary that half his army was 15 years old. Indeed, the youth have always been at the front lines of social revolution, untethered to the past and full of imagination and energy to make the future into what it ought to be.
Just look at Maria Fernandes and her boundless energy, working extraordinary hours to make a living for herself and provide for her loved ones. We need to reclaim what we can from the capitalist system before it takes more lives, and put our energy into building a future that will let us live our lives free of exploitation and hunger. Labor-replacing technology is already creating material abundance. There is already enough food to eliminate hunger now, and enough homes to end homelessness now.
For young people there are no “good ole’ days” to fight back to, only a new world to fight for. Youthful imagination can envision the possibilities for a future that unleashes our world’s abundance to provide for everyone, and to forge a path to achieving that future. We see some young workers being pulled toward fascist solutions and a fascist vision of the future. The key role of revolutionaries today is to introduce the new ideas that can move millions to make the vision of a peaceful and cooperative society a reality.
Young workers, abandoned by late-stage capitalism, but eager to secure a future for themselves and society as a whole, are increasingly open to ideas of socialism and communism. Today, with capitalism in full naked decline, communism isn’t just a “good idea,” but communism—the basic concept that the goods and wealth produced by a society are used to meet the needs of all its people—is absolutely needed for survival.
We can remake our economy, where the labor-replacing technology is used to meet everyone’s needs. The production of everything we need to live healthy, happy lives can be owned publicly for the common good, rather than by the corporations. We can develop technologies to undo the damage we have done to our planet, restoring our ecosystems for future generations.
We have an entire world to win. We need to join together and organize for the political power to turn our vision into reality. Let us fight for a world where Maria Fernandes could still be with us, a world where she could pour her boundless energy into her loved ones and community.
September/October 2017 Vol27.Ed5
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011