Thursday, February 9, 2012

Talking to Twenty-Six Year-Olds

This is something of an addendum to my post from the other day about talking to twenty year-olds about the future, particularly with regard to post-college expectations. I got to thinking more about my social interactions with youth after I wrote it, and I’ve come to realize that I have an adjacent set of frustrations to contend with when I talk to certain people who are not younger than me, but rather exactly my age.

In my previous post, I wondered whether I was as naïve when I was twenty as are people I know who are twenty now. As I suggested, it’s easy to be when you’ve had two solid decades of people painting an uncompromisingly optimistic picture about your trajectory in life. Maybe, then, the difference between them and me is simply the measure of how much one’s life and attitude change in the space of six years. Although, I was really much more cynical and morose in previous years than I am now, so maybe I should make that “in the space of two years once you’ve entered your twenties.”

When I put things into a larger context, though, I begin to doubt whether that’s the case. Disillusionment is only one possible outcome when you’ve started life with tremendous ambitions and had some of them dashed along the way. From what I’ve seen, maybe the response to disappointment that the naïve resort to is to pretend that things really did work out all along. That is the frustrating attitude that I encounter from my peers at times. Some of them are in objectively poor situations but have convinced themselves that they are happy there by pretending that what they have is what they were working towards all along.

My last job before I became self-employed was in a meat shop. (As an aside here, most people find that hilarious, because I have been a vegetarian for a long time; I take pride in the belief that I thus had the clearest example of a subsistence job.) The place is a small, privately-owned business. A husband and wife pair runs it, I worked in the back producing the merchandise, there were two or three part-time clerks in the front of the store, and one young man who worked there full-time and was considered the front-of-house manager.

That other full-time employee was exactly the same age as I, and I came to find out that he had gone to a local area college and studied business management. In conversation with this young man, he expressed to me the belief that his degree was the reason why he had been hired by this small-business retailer and entrusted with the position of management. But I know from conversation with the owner that that is bullshit. Education was not a relevant section of the application.

The owner hired my fellow graduate because he had claimed (falsely) that he had worked as a chef. Experience in food service was the only thing that was of value since he was going to be working in food service, regardless of managerial responsibilities. And anyone would guess this by observing what the responsibilities of the young man’s job are. He works with food. Any managerial tasks that he performs could have been taught to a reasonably bright young person in the space of a week, and nothing that he could have learned in a classroom could matter to what he does from day to day.

Nevertheless, my then-coworker had the utmost confidence that his four years of education had thoroughly paid off once he acquired a low-wage job with no benefits that carried the purely cosmetic title of manager. I, on the other hand, knew full-well that my own esteemed education did me no favors when I applied for that job so that I could keep a roof over my head. Quite the contrary, it served as a red flag; it made me a gamble, just as it would have done with any of the previous potential employers who had declined to hire me, or to interview me. As it happened, it was a gamble that paid off for my employer, as he would no doubt attest to. Still, I couldn’t avoid thinking every time I entered that place in the morning, and every time I walked into the other jobs I’d held in the same vein, that I could have more easily obtained that work had I simply proceeded to it after high school, and I wouldn’t have been four years older, and everything I earned would go towards my future and the enjoyment of my life in absence of debt and lost time.

I guess eschewing that kind of awareness helps to make one’s life far more manageable, but I just can’t submit to that kind of self-delusion. That’s all that it is, and it’s far worse than anything that I see in people who are still twenty years old and in college. Their self-delusion is forward-looking; it is grounded in limited interactions they have had with the full-fledged adults around them; it remains to be either gratified via good fortune or shattered by reality. Or, apparently, it may come to neither end, but be cushioned against reality by one’s persistently softened perceptions.

It is most certainly persistent, as it’s not just in twenty-six year olds that I witness this impulse, but it is in everyone. Particularly since I live in Buffalo, it is not difficult to find notable examples of it. A town like this is filled with people who claim that they live in it because they love it, because it’s home, because once you stop and peer through its cracked and fading surface, you’ll find some really great hidden gems of community and experience. But when you press many of those people for the stories of how they came to be where they are, it becomes clear that circumstances weighted them down, that they were compelled to return to a former home, or to reside where they had planned to simply pass through.

Over time, such people have to choose between resigning themselves to a situation that falls far short of what they’d wanted out of life, fighting against it even at the expense of happiness, comfort, and health, or convincing themselves that what they have really is what they want. I never intend to be that latter sort of person, who chooses the comfortable explanations over the correct ones, but I’m sure that many of the older men I’ve met who did so didn’t want to when they started out. I’m sure that the impulse towards such delusion becomes stronger the longer things remain difficult and frustrating and unfair, but based on much of what I’ve been seeing in my peers, it starts young, too.

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