Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Graduating, Entering Life

Three things came together this morning to send my thoughts back to a familiar topic: the uneasy transition from adolescence to adulthood. The first was my eldest son's graduation from high school, to a future that is a complete mystery to both him and me. The second was a headline on this morning's Examiner: "Freeloading Kids Return to the Nest: Facing Tough Times, Grads Come Home." I suppose there must be parents who would feel that way, but my children are always welcome in my house. I like having them around.

The third was an interesting column by David Brooks, who weaves together this problematic transition with one of his own themes, our excessive individualism. The lives of this year's graduates, he writes,

have been perversely structured. This year’s graduates are members of the most supervised generation in American history. Through their childhoods and teenage years, they have been monitored, tutored, coached and honed to an unprecedented degree.

Yet upon graduation they will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured. Most of them will not quickly get married, buy a home and have kids, as previous generations did. Instead, they will confront amazingly diverse job markets, social landscapes and lifestyle niches. Most will spend a decade wandering from job to job and clique to clique, searching for a role.

I think this is a bit overblown. My children's lives have not been that much more structured than mine was, on the whole, and they have been navigating certain free-form environments for years; online life, for example, a Wild West sort of place for teenagers with few rules and many pitfalls. But I certainly agree that the world college graduates are entering now is less structured than that faced by most or maybe even all previous generations. Brooks goes on:

Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.

Yeah, the "follow your passion" thing. I recently read what purported to be a piece of job advice but went something like, "Find that place where your own dreams intersect with humanity's greatest needs." What percentage of human beings, do you suppose, ever find such a job? The anxiety to find this elusive, meaningful passion is real and painful for many young people, especially those with good resumes from good schools. I have had several friends who felt like failures because they weren't living up to this impossible expectation.

My model of career life is different. Of course people are diverse, and a few do find meaningful lives working to alleviate humanity's greatest needs, or build careers on the cutting edge of the coolest art, or make it to the center of the action in Washington or on Wall Street. For the rest of us, though, I suggest a different strategy: find a niche where you are comfortable. Your job should be something you like, much of the time anyway, and that pays enough to support your life. You should seek out compatible people, because those you work with will be a big part of your social circle, and pleasant interactions with your colleagues are the best part of many jobs. You should look for a level of stress that suits you; too much and you will be unhappily frantic, too little and you will be bored. You should seek an environment where you will be comfortable, outdoors or in, on the go or in place, constantly meeting new people or part of a small, consistent team. You should not do something that disgusts you, like selling what you think is a bad product. To work at something you think is wrong is the surest route to cynicism and heart disease. On the other hand, you should probably not expect too much of the world, which is a corrupt place where good deeds are routinely punished and vast amounts of effort are wasted. One of the great things about our crazy world is that there are millions of niches in the system, and with some effort and flexibility you can find one where you will fit in well enough.

Remember, too, that you are likely to have a long life and spend at least 45 years in the work force, which is plenty of time to change careers if the one you try first starts to bore or appall you.

It is also possible to pursue a passion outside work. If you find that your real passion is, say, idle curiosity, something that is hard to get paid for, you can start a blog and spend your spare time discovering interesting things and posting them. You can climb mountains, play bridge, rescue abused dogs, and any of a million other things, all of which are easy to arrange if you don't insist on being paid for them.

Work, after all, is only one part of adult life, and it need not be the most important. Friends, family and community matter. About these things I would preach some individualism. If you want to get married, have kids, and move to the suburbs, do it; I did, and I am quite happy this way. But this common denominator life is not for everyone. All the statistics show that having children does not make most people happier, and it makes some much less happy. Suburban life is safe and comfortable but a little dull. I have a nagging feeling that many American suburban parents should have chosen another path. Don't do the usual thing because you feel like it is expected, or because you don't know what else to do. Try to live the kind of life that feels best to you.

Here I am, giving out advice, which I really didn't set out to do. Advice is a kind of pressure, especially when the same advice comes from so many quarters. I think we should ratchet down the pressure and tell young people that while the transition to adult careers and lives will be long and may involve some pain, it works out reasonably well for most people in the end.

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