Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Beer For Breakfast

David "BoBo" Brooks is to thoughtful analysis what Charlie Sheen is to lucidity.
To-wit, in pondering the fate of college graduates:

College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.

Today’s graduates are also told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest. But, of course, very few people at age 22 or 24 can take an inward journey and come out having discovered a developed self.

Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.

Two observations immediately spring to mind. First, the ten most popular college majors seem to indicate that Brooks' concerns are ill-advised. You need to get down to number nine on the list, psychology, before you hit a soft, non-material target. College students today get it, David. The world requires money, it demands a genuflection to authority (note where criminal justice lands on the list), it inspires...conformity.

Second, as should be obvious from that list of popular college majors, students have taken that inner journey and decided that a good salary is the most important plan for their lives.

(An aside: number three on that list, communications, concerned me at first, until I realized they are also lumping in media like web-design, advertising and even marketing into the mix. But I digress...)

But soft, what is Brooks' issue with asking our young people to aspire to greatness? Life is about limitless possibilities, and while the vast majority of us will work forty, fifty, maybe sixty years making someone else richer, what's the problem with reminding people that there are alternatives? Or reinforcing in the minds of the small minority that they should have the courage to strike out on their own?

"Ah, a man's reach should exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for?"

Even if you do end up working as an office drone, a cubicle gopher, a desk jockey...and there will always be jobs for people willing to spend eternity in front of a computer screen monitoring someone else's wealth...what's wrong with applying that same advice to the rest of your life? What's wrong with running that extra mile, or painting a landscape, or collecting that stamp that you've always wanted to own? Is life our job? Is our job our life?

Brooks, being the quasifascistic little capitalist drone that he is, by his very nature has denied the existence of a morale value to life that cannot be measured in dollar terms. He hacks away at a keyboard, then presuambly goes off to cocktails and whatever pathetic little existence he squanders his precious time on planet earth with.

No one lives to work, except for those idiots who somehow believe that, with hard work and perserverance at a job, they can themselves become fabulously wealthy and make other people drone for them. To those who still believe THAT fantasy, buy lottery tickets because your odds are better. You might make a comfortable living, but you will never get that rich slowly, and you will never have a life.

Adults make compromises with life, even as they've decided that there are no compromises to be had. Ask any artist who has made it big on the back of their own work, and they will tell you of the countless friendships they've lost, the money they've forgone working in an office, the opportunities they've missed. In choice, there is always a compromise to be had. Sacrifices are made by both sides.

"Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, 'All right, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.' "

Brooks would rather that this small percentage of American adults, this 20% of college age Americans who actually graduate each year (scary thought, that), should be like the rest of us, as if giving them the tools to build the wings to fly their own lives as high as they want is a bad thing, that they might crash and burn. No, they should be like the vast majority of us, and hunker down for our next paycheck and live life as though we will always have a safety net under us, as pathetic as that net may be.

If the past thirty years in America have taught us anything it's that the social contract between a company and its employees is not sacred. My job can go away in the blink of an eye, through no fault of my own. So can yours. So can hers.

Now, I will say this in defense of Brooks' piece: in my experience, very few people at 20 or 25 know themselves well enough to know what they want, but here's the thing. It's not that they can't. It's that we've given them so many conflicting images and opinions about how to shape their own world that we've imposed expectations and "should haves" on the most fragile of beings. These fawns are barely standing on their hooves and we ask them to sprint and compete.

If that's so and if the contract with citizens and corporations is nulled, then perhaps counseling our graduates to caution is a bad idea. We should encourage them to exceed their expectations. We should demand that they take five years off and walk the world. (I've always had this fantasy of a draft for the Peace Corps, sorry.) We should tell them that it doesn't get any better than they have it right now, and they ought to enjoy it because most of them will fail and they will end up in the corporatocracy. But they should try first, so that when the alarm clock rings on the cold winter mornings that sees them get dressed and jump on a commuter train, bleary eyed, they can smile back on the effort and know they gave it their best shot and can move on now.

As opposed to people of Brooks' age who never even tried and now try to rationalize their failures by warning people behind them how scary the world is. I'm Brooks' age. I know of where I speak. For it is only now, as I turn the corner of my middle years and face the yawning descent that I see how much time I must make up and how little energy I have left to do it in.

Many of my readers are recent college graduates, certainly more recent than I, and are at cusps and cross-roads of their lives. I tip my hat to you, and offer this small consolation.
You can't have screwed things up that badly that you can't tear it all down and start from the beginning. It will be difficult, it will be fraught with psychic peril and yes, sometimes it might be painful, but there is no pain worse than looking back across decades and seeing yourself stagnate.
Do it. Just do it.