Kevin Wolfman: Why Students are ‘Occupying’ Wall Street

Kevin Wolfman examines some interesting research that shows why college students have a keen interest in the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests.


Hundreds of people have been arrested over the past week due to involvement in the Occupy Wall Street protests. A movement with no clear leadership or financial backing, Occupy Wall Street is in large part made up of disaffected young adults—twenty-something men and women frustrated and disillusioned by the apparent slow disintegration of the American Dream.

Kevin Wolfman

Throughout their entire childhood, members of Generation Y were continually assured by the nation’s political and financial leaders that if they worked hard, stayed in school, and bought into the system, their efforts would earn them a solid job and the key to the front door of the middle class—or, at the very least, a fair shot at grabbing the key. Now, those same leaders appear to have rescinded their promise at the last minute, unwilling to sacrifice a small portion of their own wealth and power to help follow through on their assurances. As a result, many of America’s educated young adults feel like the victims of a historic bait-and-switch.

And many of them are very angry about it—angry enough to take to the streets and endure handcuffs and possible jail time. If nothing else, the young participants of Occupy Wall Street are making a lot of proud, ex-activist Baby Boomers—who have long lamented the younger generation’s social apathy and political indifference—eat a healthy portion of crow.

That said, why does this kind of event not happen more often? Why do people—especially young, college-educated people—step out and protest at some times, while staying inside during others? What is so appealing to them about Occupy Wall Street?

Way back in 1986, researchers Robert Hall, Mark Rodeghier, and Brett Useem co-authored a paper that helps answer these present-day questions. Published in the American Sociological Review, their study looked at how a person’s education level affected his or her attitude toward different kinds of protest movements.

First, the researchers found that educated people, in general, are more sympathetic than others toward protests and protesters. Statistically speaking, education is positively correlated with a commitment to civil liberties. As a group, therefore, educated people are more likely than others to view any given protest as legitimate, no matter what the exact subject of the protest is. They may strongly disagree with the protesters’ goals, but they will still embrace their right to protest in the first place.

Secondly, the researchers discovered that education decreases support for protest-related violence. This goes for violence perpetrated by both the protesters and the authorities monitoring and controlling them—police officers, military personnel, and other state-loyal entities. Even when they agree with the aims of the protesters, educated people are less tolerant of violence as a method of effecting political and social change. Likewise, they also are less approving of violence as a way to control or stop protests.

Now, here is where things get interesting.

Lastly, the researchers found that education has a socioeconomic “identification effect” on protest attitudes: Generally speaking, education increases support for “white-collar” protests and protesters, while at the same time decreasing support for blue-collar protests and protesters. In other words, people with a college education are more supportive of protests that concern middle- and upper-class issues, but less supportive of those that champion working- and lower-class causes.

Why? Simple self-interest. Education has historically been a vehicle that advances a person’s socioeconomic position, often from the working class to the middle or upper class. As a result, the person learns to identify more with white-collar grievances of his present than the blue-collar grievances of his past.

So, is Occupy Wall Street a blue-collar or a white-collar protest? Arguably, it is both. High unemployment and underemployment, a volatile stock market, and other economic ills have combined to effectively blur the lines between America’s working and middle classes. Nobody’s economic position is truly safe, regardless of how they dress for work. In the grand scheme of things, white-collar accountants and engineers ultimately have little more job security than blue-collar assembly line workers.

This eroding class distinction could be what makes Occupy Wall Street so attractive a movement to the young and educated. Due to the lack quality entry-level employment and the stress of skyrocketing student debt, they are generally poor and financially unstable, causing them to identify with traditional blue-collar grievances—the education “vehicle” has failed to drive them up the socioeconomic ladder. At the same time, they have spent years in college (and often graduate school), and therefore have high professional and financial ambitions—causing them to identify with white-collar grievances, too.

It is a perfect storm of dissatisfaction. And Occupy Wall Street—with its emphases ranging from capitalist greed and corruption, to environmental protection, to Afghanistan—sits right in the eye of the hurricane.

Movements that appeal to both “collars” are rare. The Baby Boomers had one: the Vietnam War. Unlike the current wars in the Middle East, Vietnam utilized the draft, making young people from across the socioeconomic spectrum vulnerable to the conflict. While those with money and connections could, and often did, squirm their way out of their service obligations (or into an Air National Guard unit, at the very least), the bottom line remained: anyone’s number could be up next. This widespread vulnerability energized young people of all economic stripes, and made campus protests a significant (if often misrepresented and over-dramatized) element of the anti-war movement. Since then, however, there has been little compelling reason for young, educated people from different economic backgrounds to come together and make a large impact through protest.

New and unproven, Occupy Wall Street may or may not have the potential to effect change on a significant scale. Unlike Vietnam, lives are not directly at stake. But livelihoods certainly are. And Occupy Wall Street does encompass many issues that large majorities of Generation Y identify with, including fear over the disappearance of the middle class, anger over high unemployment and endemic financial insecurity, frustration over America’s continued Middle East military presence, and concern over steady environmental degradation.

For now, the movement is growing. Time will tell if its idealistic voices become both loud and numerous enough to actually make the powers-that-be stop and listen.

Kevin Wolfman is a teacher and holds a Masters degree in political science from the University of California at Davis. He is currently writing a book about the relationship between higher education and political beliefs. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwolfman.

References

Hall, Robert; Rodeghier, Mark; Useem, Brett. 1986. “Effects of Education on Attitude to Protest.” American Sociological Review 51: 564-573.

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