August 2, 2010

This Is Why The American Dream Is Out Of Reach

american dream.PNGThat's 90% of the answer right there

Scott, a 24 year old dean's list college grad, is smart but unemployed. According to the New York Times, in five months, only one job has given him an offer: $40k as an insurance claims adjuster. 

Scott said no, because

Rather than waste early years in dead-end work, he reasoned, he would hold out for a corporate position that would draw on his college training and put him, as he sees it, on the bottom rungs of a career ladder.
Now, the easy way to go here would be to call Scott an idiot for giving up a $40k/yr job in the midst of a recession.  However, a) the recession ended last year; b) 1487 NYT commenters did the heavy lifting.  No, I'm going this way:

"The conversation I'm going to have with my parents now that I've turned down this job is more of a concern to me than turning down the job," he said.

He was braced for the conversation with his father in particular. While Scott Nicholson viewed the Hanover job as likely to stunt his career, David Nicholson, 57, accustomed to better times and easier mobility, viewed it as an opportunity.

A long time ago, before psychiatry and rum, I seriously considered a job in intelligence.  Among other things I had some Russian, and I knew another guy who was fluent in Russian and was actively being recruited by the CIA.    He decided not to do it because... his Dad wouldn't let him.  At that time it struck me as curious that you'd be more worried about your dad than the Russians, but I have since understood: we were living in a time where there was no right and wrong, no objective truths, all things were relative except the inviolable Law of Growing Up American:  go to college, then get a job.  Your dad's sole purpose was to make sure you followed that rule.   If you raped a murder victim then your Dad would get you a good lawyer, but if you showed any proclivity towards anything other than a future 9 to 5 in a field he understood, it was your ass.

I'll grant you up front that Scott probably suffers from a mixture of ennui and myopia and absolutely no chance of STDs, who apparently feels neither shame in nor fear about sabotaging his job prospects by appearing in these photographs, to the fury of every other American who sees them:

scott in his house.jpg
scott checking his dry cleaning.jpg
scott enjoying a nice iced tea on his day off.jpg

This is a guy whose entire job search is conducted online in the mornings.  Anybody want to hire this go-getter? 

But for me, you have to start at what's known to be a fact: this is the New York Times. 
You almost have to wonder why they would photograph him in this way if they weren't trying to sabotage him, trying to make him look like a privileged (white) out of touch jerk, just to bring out the populist backlinks.  This is the NYT after all, where playing to the lowest common populist denominator is the next best thing to running a Page 3 Girls.  "Do you mind pouring a Gatorade?  We're trying to show how the millennials won't let their unemployment stand in the way of their thirst.  Sigh, iced tea will do."
So I'll grant you that Scott is responsible for his own plight in the way that everyone carries the burden of their own choices, but Scott wasn't born in a vacuum, he was born to parents, parents who think this:

"I view what is happening to Scott with dismay," said the grandfather, who has concluded, in part from reading The Economist, that Europe has surpassed America in offering opportunity for an ambitious young man.

Huh?  He read The Economist, or an economist?  There is absolutely no way that anyone who reads The Economist can have concluded that Europe has surpassed America in anything not involving riots, in the way that no one who reads Maxim can conclude that acne is in vogue.  Unless he meant China, but that's not in Europe yet, is it?


"I am beginning to realize that refusal [to take the insurance job] is going to have repercussions," [Scott] said.  "My parents are subtly pointing out that beyond room and board, they are also paying other expenses for me, like my cellphone charges and the premiums on a life insurance policy."

Shoot/fish/barrel that Scott's a retread, but in his defense he doesn't think about life insurance policies because he was never taught to think about life insurance policies.  That was going to be taken care of by the "salary plus bennies" pornography he was raised on since kindergarten.  For him to now learn that a life insurance policy could also be an investment would be like slapping him with some tranny porn and yelling, "this is how it's done in the real world!"

Not unusually, his parents themselves did not follow Scott's path: his grandfather came out of the war and went to work for his father-in-law who had started a brokerage; and his Dad went to work with a friend who had just opened a factory.  These men were right at the start of businesses, they didn't slide into middle management at Sterility Corp.  But after taking those chances that ultimately resulted in prosperity and blah blah blah, they taught their children to do the opposite: look for new parents.  Someone else to pay the life insurance policy.  I submit to you that any guy who doesn't know his life insurance premium is exactly the same guy you complained had a fear of commitment and never grew up. Well, now you know why; his parents told him not to bother.

"Scott has got to find somebody who knows someone," the grandfather said, "someone who can get him to the head of the line."

Is this Russia?  This is diabolically terrible advice, it betrays a paranoid, cynical vision of reality where everything is a network, exclusionary, no one is desirable for their talent and the only thing that prevents supersuccess is not being in the right clubs or friendly with the right people.  I get that those things give you an advantage, of course, but does not having them mean a career in holes?

The parents and grandparents, like so many parents today, are disappointed in the boy  because he's not taking their advice, but in fact he is taking their advice all the way to its conclusion: he's holding out for the perfect corporate job.  What they meant to advise him was to improvise towards a career like hopping a creek; but what they taught him to do was wait for the package.

BTW, for any women still reading this after three porn jokes: that's exactly what he's waiting for in a relationship.  You're welcome.  Paypal is at the bottom.

"They are better educated than previous generations and they were raised by baby boomers who lavished a lot of attention on their children," said Andrew Kohut [the director of the Pew Research Center.]

WRONGALONGADINGDONG.  They're not better educated, they just have more degrees.  Were you smarter at 21 post college than your Dad was at 21?  And whatever the difference, was it worth the $50k-$200k he paid to get you it?   No, but every parent of a high school kid  I've talked to about this says the same thing: "I know, I know, but I just want her to get that piece of paper."   So work this out in your head: either this parent is a solitary genius who is the sole possessor of the knowledge that the college degree is merely a brand and not a mark of knowledge; or every employer in the world already knows this.    So if we all agree the degree doesn't mean anything close to what we are pretending it means, then what's the point of piling on?  Isn't this technically a Ponzi scheme?

There is no arguing with such parents, they're not going to sacrifice their kid's future by calling America's bluff, sure, I get it.   I am sympathetic.  But these are parents who never thought it was wrong to force their kid into violin lessons because it would help them get into college.  Did it work?  Of course it worked, but at what cost? 

Two generations of parents
have knowingly fed the Ponzi scheme while simultaneously crushing their kids' spirit.



Where Scott is going wrong is not that he is holding out for a "better" job that isn't there; he's holding out for a job that shouldn't be there.  We don't need more corporate management guys.  The 1980s business schools created a market for those ideas (and graduates) and America quickly became a "management" country, at the expense of everything else.  What we need are more businesses.

Scott and his friends at the Irish Pub are in the best position imaginable: young, smart, living debt free with their parents.  Four of these guys, each borrowing 10k personally (at 4% -- $400 a year to pursue your dreams?) they will have 40k startup capital to do anything they want.  If they're really serious, they could indeed do anything, from putting out a comic book to starting a high end tutoring/home schooling service (pays the bills at the Washington Post!) to integrating Flash with the iPad to inventing something to whatever etc, etc, what, you need me to hand you ideas as well?  If they are serious, they cannot fail, and if they do fail, we have the most liberal bankruptcy laws on the planet. The point of those laws is to encourage you to try.  All the pieces are in place for success at almost no risk.  And he'll be a better man just for trying.

However, what Scott is doing-- and what his grandfather is horrifyingly encouraging him to do-- is pursue these kind of dead end management jobs in another country.  If we don't need that crap here, why would they need it in Europe?

The problem with Scott and his generation-- and this is most decidedly not Scott's fault but is the fault of his dad and grandfather's generations-- is that Scott just can't imagine playing without a net.  "No, I'll just wait here, thank you, got myself an iced tea."  This is what happens when you go through four years of college and don't at least read On The Road, let alone try it.  "Start a business?  From nothing?   I don't know..."   For him, debt should only be for a house, a school, and Polo shirts.

Here's a little factoid about the medical school I work for:  very few graduates go into hang-a-shingle private practice.  They go to work for hospitals, clinics, etc-- established places where they get a salary plus benefits.  Even psychiatry grads-- no overhead, see people out of your house-- run to group practices. 

Here's why: never in med school or residency we were taught how to start a practice or the business side of medicine.  So we defaulted to what we've been taught in the first few decades of life: get a good job working for someone else.  "I don't want to deal with all that billing."  Of course you don't.

No one told them how to open an office, hire three therapists and three NPs, bill insurances.   But you know who owns all the private psych group practices?  Foreign medical graduates, i.e. people who were comfortable "playing without a net," improvising, seizing opportunity.  (Sigh.  Now I sound like my own father.)


"Well, we can't all become entrepreneurs.  What about all those guys in college who are smart, hard working, but are better suited to working for someone else?"  Then go do it! If you need a job and they're offering, take it!   But if they're not offering a job, what are you going to do instead?  XBox?

I'm not here offering a solution for the 45 year old guy with three kids.  I am offering encouragement to a crop of college kids infantilized by terrible advice from parents and TV  who have the freedom and opportunity to try something; while simultaneously describing the only long term solution to America's economic problems: more businesses.  Jobs programs and stimulus packages are debatably good or bad, but assuredly temporary.  Remember "the children are or future?"  How about encouraging them a little?  Maybe someday they'll pay for your social security.