A enthusiastic young woman phoned me recently, reciting from a canned script that I knew would culminate in a request for money. An undergraduate at Stanford, her work-study job that helped pay her exorbitant tuition was phone solicitation of alumni. (I did my Ph.D. in Stanford's Biochemistry Department.) I used to end these calls quickly by telling the caller that my annual salary was an order of magnitude lower than that of the next person they would call, so I didn't want to waste their time, but now I talk to these kids. What changed was my own daughter doing the same job for her work-study; she told me that phone callers are evaluated primarily not how I would have expected on how much money they bring in but instead on the length of the conversation with the alumni. Okay, I talk to people all day with no better reason than I enjoy talking with people, so if I can help out a pleasant enough sounding young woman, why not?
But then we get to the stickler among the stock questions: how I viewed today the value of my Stanford education (or MIT, my undergraduate institution does the same thing, or the elite and excellent private college my daughter attends--they all play by the same playbook) not just for me but for my cohort. Well, yes, I do know people who have been phenomenally successful at virtually everything they have done, but I also know a lot of people who have struggled tremendously. And those that have struggled vastly outnumber those who fortune has favored.
The truth is that the America we expected to live in fell apart. The tech bubble burst in the late 90s. In the naughts, two disastrous wars; the Patriot Act clamping down on the internationalism of the American intelligentsia at the very time the stupid economic decisions of that president, most notably forgoing the opportunity to pursue green technology for use in China in collaboration with China, demoted the US from its status as a superpower; the increasing devotion of campus and corporation alike to the pursuits of the military; the destruction of American education by No Child Left Behind; the Bush recession of the Afghanistan war era; the abrogation by corporations right and left of all the policies that had valued high end workers since the post WWII economic expansion; the rise of the stupid--evolution denial, climate change denial, demonization of genetically modified organisms--and the consequent anti-intellectual denigration of the smart; the politicization of the TV talking head and their Internet echo chamber at the expense of in depth news reporting; the fall in the number of Americans who read; and myriad other negative developments all culminated in the foreclosure and collateralized debt obligation-led economic collapse near the end of the decade.
All this is old news. What hasn't been examined is how those who were supposed to lead this world reacted. Some pursued greed. The wealthy are now the obscenely wealthy, so serving their interests was a good strategy if your only goal in life was to claw a piece of that wealth at the expense of whomever got in your way. The majority of graduates from America's great institutions were going into the help the wealthy get wealthier careers like finance, greater than 50% of them at many Ivy League institutions.
The majority of those I knew kept going. Bouncing from job to job, project to project, place to place, trying to create something meaningful and worthwhile as America collapsed around them. They have a public narrative--their prime accomplishment from the last two decades--ready as a stock story for social occasions. The secret narrative--the years underemployed, the sacrifices their family made, the feeling of utter worthlessness of a database expert used to a six figure salary who hasn't worked in his field in a decade because a twenty-three year old can be hired more cheaply and then replaced three years later when their skill set is no longer new--you only hear by accident, when it comes up unintentionally. Then you hear about the years on anti-depressants, the broken marriages, the suicide attempts. The race to post something happy on Facebook to cover hide the negatives.
On the other end of the economic spectrum, students at public institutions were counseled to pursue survival. Major in what will get you your first job. No longer was college a place to freely question the mistakes our society was making, to learn about other options whether historical or in cultures/societies other than one's own, to develop a philosophy for life, to learn how to learn, to explore diverse pursuits. Nope. The college nearest my home has a major in golf course management: enough said. I was an Associate Professor there for two and a half years until they eliminated my program and fired everyone they could fire. I still see students I taught in first-year biology. They say "hi" to me as they are ringing up my purchases at the department store. For most of them, "practical" in a major turned out to be "dime a dozen."
This "pragmatic" attitude has hit Stanford. The young woman on the phone told me she wanted to be a physical therapist. Not because she wanted to help people, not because she saw it as important, not because she wanted to apply the science she was studying, not because new developments in the field intrigued her, but because she thought she would be able to get a job. And most of her friends were thinking in similarly "practical" directions.
So what did I tell her? I gave her the total picture. I told her about my roommate from my first year at Stanford, a double major in electrical engineering and computer science, straight As all the way through bachelor's and master's, who bounced from place to place being fired every six to nine months for decades. The "gig" economy. While you are a useful widget, they will use you, then they throw you out, a bit reduced, a bit more dispirited, a bit more broken.
I also told her about re-inventing yourself. I did. Had you asked me twenty years ago if I would be teaching high school and writing science fiction, I would have laughed at you. There were other re-inventions along the way.
Then I told her about my (two decades younger) cousin who just graduated with a Ph.D. in physical therapy and did indeed go into a job that made her happy. But that's what she wanted from the get-go. That work does seem to make her fulfilled. It wasn't just to get a job. And I included numerous other examples of folks I knew in all of these categories.
The young woman thanked me, as they all do these days, seemingly earnest in her feeling that nobody had ever spoken about these issues with her before. I hope she went back to her dorm room and talked about it with friends. I hope she went back to what she'd learned of philosophy and history and economics and science and history and tried to synthesize it all into a picture of the world that made sense and helped her go forward. Because if she doesn't, when she hits a road bump, which virtually every kid from this generation will, as the world is even tougher than we had it, she'll break.
I'd like to think there will still be at least some of this generation out there, still fighting.