I grew up believing the American dream. I felt that if I studied hard, got good grades, and participated in extracurricular activities, I would have access to an affordable, high-quality college education. I believed that if I entered the workforce armed with an undergraduate degree & a good work ethic, I would find the kind of job that would lead to a well-paying career and financial prosperity. I believed that in America, anyone who worked hard enough could accomplish anything they set their mind to. Unfortunately for my generation, that dream is dead.
My parents instilled in me the importance of pursuing a good education to get a stable career, buy a house, have children, and complete all the other significant milestones in our culture. I wholeheartedly trusted my parents; I worked hard to obtain multiple degrees while simultaneously developing employment experience. Unfortunately, a big part of growing up was accepting the ideal I had been sold was a lie. The moment the COVID-19 pandemic struck, I lost everything in the blink of an eye. My full time job with health benefits, the additional musical freelancing, my long term professional plans all disappeared within days. I figured that I would be set back temporarily, but I trusted what I grew up with and believed I would quickly get back on track. Looking back, it all feels so foolish.
Young Americans today lack access to affordable education. Instead, we find ourselves straddled with massive amounts of student loan debt hanging over every decision we make. The undergraduate degree has become the new high school diploma, so young workers feel pressured to pursue graduate degrees, which only brings on more debt After obtaining the training they believe will land them jobs, young people can’t find stable careers. Instead of finding companies that will value their contributions, they find massive corporations that will exploit their time as “gig-workers” so corporations can line their pockets with more money while denying essential benefits like medical coverage.
I have a Master’s degree, but I can barely get an interview for an entry-level position or internship. The only jobs hiring would require me to put my health and family at risk. Young people should be able to obtain strong careers with benefits, not fear the exploitation of corporations. Our government needs to hold companies accountable to treat employees fairly, and not abused as “gig workers.”
We need to make a college degree financially obtainable for the average American family, while also funding apprenticeship opportunities. Before you even think to ask me how we will fund these programs, I call on our elected representatives to abolish the 2017 tax cuts for the 1% and corporations. I call on our electeds to establish a progressive & equal tax system that holds the rich accountable for their fair share. It is criminal that the average American worker contributes a higher percentage of their income in taxes to the government than massive companies like Amazon. A public health insurance option needs to be created so that individuals are not beholden to their current jobs in order to receive basic medical coverage. Entrepreneurship will strengthen and diversify our economy, unlike large corporate greed which cannibalizes our future for their stockholders. We need reparations such as baby bonds so that individuals can break free from the cycle of poverty caused by our country’s history of systemic racism. Without major legislation and relief from the federal and state government, we are doomed to stay on the current path of destruction. It’s time we brought back the American dream.
Kristen Ronning is a classically trained hornist currently residing in the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago. As a performer & educator, she is a champion of contemporary repertoire and fights for greater representation of female and BIPOC composers in programming.