The guys graduating from high school with me 38 years ago knew they had options, and many grabbed the quick and easy money affording them nice cars and good homes.
They crossed the street from high school in St. Louis and got hired at a can manufacturing company. Some went a few miles across town to work for a steel company. Still more went to the north part of town and signed on with the General Motors plant.
Like many of their dads, my classmates cashed in early on their share of the American dream. Women were just starting to enter the workforce in large numbers. Although factory jobs weren't as open to them, more traditional pink-collar positions were. Many walked into jobs with Ma Bell, the government or took secretarial or health care positions.
Going to college seemed silly. However, higher education was gaining more traction than it had when my dad graduated from a segregated high school in Lynchburg, Va., in 1934. The nation was caught in the grips of the Great Depression with little hope of the economic travesty letting go.
But dad's father worked for Norfolk and Western Railroad, and dad and his siblings were shoo-ins for jobs with the company. It was a who-you-know job market, not so much what one could do.
College was laughable. Yet, college was what dad's father, the son of a slave, insisted on for his nine kids -- daughters included.
The world has changed dramatically since dad finished high school. The doorway to most jobs without a higher education has mostly been bricked shut since I graduated, too. Many of the companies that had offered jobs to my classmates have closed. A lot of those traditional jobs have gone overseas.
They are relics of a muscular, sweat-dripping, blue-collar America. Much of it no longer exists.
Robotics and computerization have trimmed workforces. Personal computers and office consolidation have diminished once-stable secretarial work.
College had seemed a luxury for my dad's generation. For baby boomers and their offspring, higher education had been touted as a must-have. But the accompanying personal debt and job market uncertainty make college now seem like less of a sure thing for people pursuing the more elusive American dream.
I know many young people who've finished college feeling fortunate to get a job earning just above minimum wage. Other young adults, such as teachers, in jobs paying a decent wage, may not have seniority and face layoffs as the "last hired" in districts nationwide that are cutting back. It's why protests such as Occupy Wall Street in New York, Washington, D.C., Kansas City and other places have caught fire. People are angry, and they don't see a future for themselves or their families.
For dad, at age 94, it's hard to see. But in some respects, these times are harder than the in the Depression. Fortunately, Social Security, Medicare and extended unemployment benefits soften the economic blows hitting people.
But the job search for many has dragged on for months, keeping the unemployment rate stubbornly above 9 percent. America can't flip a switch and quickly work its way out of this economic doldrums.
Interest earnings don't encourage more savings, and banks are charging more just to hold individuals' money. Today's rock-hard times are what make President Barack Obama's efforts to create jobs and get America back to work incredibly important.
Congress' unwillingness to work with Obama is hurting everyone.
If Obama had a willing Congress, we might have a fighting chance. But politics and the looming election year block the nation's path to progress.
Forget about a war enabling the country to work its way out of the economic pit as World War II did for the United States. We have two wars now and a massive amount of debt.
The country needs jobs and some grand challenge -- in science or space exploration -- to energize the population with a new sense of optimism and confidence. It would be wondrous and wonderful.
We just have to mobilize the political will and do it.
Diuguid is a columnist for The Kansas City Star.