Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Talking to Twenty Year-Olds

As much as I like to be topical and political, I need to start pointing this blog back in the direction of analytical commentary on things that I observe in ordinary life. That kind of thing really is my bread and butter. And I believe that the changes and breaking points that we can realize in personal behavior and social tendencies are ultimately more meaningful. The most significant changes are organic, not imposed, and intellectual, not legal.

I have plenty to say about education and labor policy, but I’m more concerned with and more frustrated by private citizens’ attitudes toward individual instances of education and jobs. My frustration is especially pronounced when I interact with people who are about twenty years old, and I’m beginning to realize that it’s more likely that I’ll reach a breaking point whereby I stop speaking to young people than it is that any of them will abandon naivety for anything short of purely personal experience.

I’m honestly not sure to what extent my frustration is focused on trying to reach others with information that they refuse to listen to, and to what extent it’s focused on defending myself against the implications of their obstinance. I’ve become fast friends with a few college students in the years since I graduated from school and into abject poverty. At the outset of any such relationship, I feel that the insight of my experience puts me in a unique position to be able to provide counsel to people younger than myself regarding what’s wrong with the world they’re growing up in and what they can do to either change it or safeguard themselves against it. Nobody listens.

At every turn since I finished with NYU and faced one dead-end job search after another, I’ve found myself stuck between a crowd of highly educated people with severely limited prospects and a crowd of bright-eyed youths who believe that they are on the fast track to success and who will entertain no statements to the contrary. Perhaps it’s the cynicism talking, but when I try to talk about real life with that latter group, I can actually see them go rigid and put up walls around their minds in order to defend against any early assault on their illusions. By contrast, the lawyers, teachers, and engineers with whom I’ve talked about betrayed promises recognize the subject matter with such casualness that we may as well be talking about the weather.

The cocksure attitude of twenty year-olds towards their future success boggles my mind, and it makes me wonder whether I was like that six years ago. I’m not sure how I would have responded to cautionary tales when I was twenty, about six or so years ago. But at twenty-one, I was experiencing a series of personal setbacks and existential crises, so I don’t think I could have been characterized as cocksure about anything. I’d been forced out of school because I was too far ahead on my education to continue it before graduation, so I had a pretty disillusioned perspective on things working the way they’re supposed to. Nonetheless, I did believe that my degree was going to lead me somewhere, and that once I worked one more menial job and then graduated from my “new ivy league” university, I would be starting a fulfilling career.

However, the question is not whether I believed in what I was doing; it’s whether I believed in it with such blind conviction that I wouldn’t have let evidence stand in the way. When I was in school, nobody questioned the outcome of investing in one’s education. It always paid off, and in indeed life couldn’t pay off if you didn’t make that investment. If someone had come to me when I was a sophomore or a junior in college and told me that he had gone to a school with a better reputation than mine, had excelled there, graduated, and proceeded to fruitlessly look for professional work for months or years afterward, I like to think I would have stopped and wonder, “well, hell, if that can happen, what am I doing here?” I didn’t enroll in college as a crapshoot; I thought I was enrolling in it as a certainty. And it’s clear from the commentary of twenty year-olds today that they are doing exactly the same.

I had a girl of that age say to me just last week, “I’m going to make a lot more money than most of the men I know.” She wasn’t expressing a plan or a dream; she clearly stated it as a fact. Meanwhile, my own failure comes as no surprise to her. Indeed, I am one of those men she knows, whom she expects to always outpace in earnings. Evidently, the reason in her mind is that I plainly made a mess of my life by studying philosophy and religion at NYU, whereas she is in the process of getting a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Buffalo State College, and is therefore destined for greatness.

Of course I can’t prove it, but I’m quite confident that if the situation were reversed and I was destitute after studying biology at Buffalo State while she was pursuing liberal arts at NYU, she would account for my failure by saying that I hadn’t gone to a good enough school. The very nature of this kind of self-delusion is that twenty year-olds contort logic in whatever direction they need in order to explain contrary evidence as anomaly. There’s never any doubt about the economic value of a college education, so every young person who hears my story chases down a series of explanations of what I must have done wrong to mess up that guarantee.

They accuse me of picking the wrong major and I explain that NYU was the top-ranked philosophy department in the English-speaking world, that I wrote more essays in one semester than some students do in their entire time in college, and that thinking analytically is kind of a useful skill in policy, publishing, journalism, advertising, and any office whatsoever. They ask whether I blew off the opportunity for internships and I explain that I worked full-time in a Manhattan office in lieu of a semester of school. They ask me if I even applied for jobs, and I restrain myself from slapping them.

I’ve been chided for my college majors and told that they made me deserving of my unemployment by someone who was majoring in communications at the time. She had the utmost confidence that when she finished her college education, she would go on to a lucrative career, but she didn’t know what it was yet. I’m not speculating about that. She stated that she didn’t know what kind of job she was going to have. But not knowing what she wanted to do with her life was no impediment to her certitude that life was going to work out as expected.

I think there’s actually a lot of breaking points that we need to get to with the way we talk to and teach our children. Many of them fall under one rubric: recognizing that we don’t do children and young adults any good by coddling them and insulating them from the facts of life. There are a lot of uncomfortable truths that people need to face up to as they grow, not the least of which is that there are absolutely no guarantees. Everything you do is, on some level, a gamble, and sometimes even the most rational, well-intentioned actions come to nothing, or worse, bring you to harm.

We tend to tell children the exact opposite. In fact, we tend to spread that delusion to adults who will listen, as well. We say that if you work hard, you will be repaid with wealth, opportunity, and respect. Bullshit. Most of us, as we age, encounter skeins of people who have worked themselves to the bone every day of their lives and still have nothing to show for it. We say that if you are good to others, you’ll get back what you give. Bullshit. Some of the most powerful, richest, most beloved people in the world are psychopaths for whom even generosity is about self-interest. By contrast, some of the most selfless people I have ever known have lived their lives having next to nothing to give, and have given it anyway.

We say that if you go to college you will be employed, and the better the school or the more technical the discipline the better your employment prospects will be. Bullshit. That’s just not always the case. I’m living proof of that, and I’ve met or otherwise heard of many others who are as well. It may be statistically more common for college-educated people to make much of life, but it’s not sufficient grounds for twenty year-old college students to say, “I’m in college, therefore I will never want for money or purpose.”

Yet we tell our children these things. Perhaps it is in hopes of encouraging them, and perhaps it is in hopes of insulating them from the existential pain of growing older. Likely we have both sentiments in mind. But in pursuing those ends, we fail to realize that insulating our children from hard truths that they will inevitably realize ultimately makes it more likely that that realization will damage them in the long run. Fostering ambition need not come at the expense of preparing a person for the possibility of disappointment. Neither should seal their minds off from alternative ways of observing the world.

I guess I can’t blame the twenty year-olds I speak to for dismissing my warning that things might still go badly despite the fact that they’ve followed all the rules so far. On the one hand, I did as well or better than they up to that stage in my life and then fell from my own perch of naivety, so my perspective ought to carry some weight. On the other hand, that weight is on the opposite side of the scale from the testament of virtually every adult a twenty year-old has encountered from childhood through adolescence.

Maybe, despite what I want to believe, I wouldn’t have listened to me either. That’s all the more reason why the chorus of mandated delusion needs to be silenced and we need to start providing our youth with a more balanced, rational way of looking at their lives and the world as a whole. By giving them nothing but optimistic visions until such time as they might come crumbling spectacularly down, we’re actively blinding them to some of the problems of the world, which, if they could recognize and anticipate them instead, they might be able to help fix while they’re still young.

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