The Kids Aren’t Alright – Part I: Life Lessons

I’d have never thought so at the time – but one of the best things that ever happened to me was getting fired from my first radio job when I was 17.

I’d have never thought so at the time.  My first radio job was – not to be overdramatic- the first great love of my life.  It gave me some things that I – a gawky, uncoordinated, athletically-inept, greasy-haired acne-ridden nerd – needed badly; an identity that I really liked, an area where I excelled, something that nobody else in my school did at all, much less did well.

After a year or so, the station was bought by a couple of slick twentysomethings who’d been knocking around the business for a while, including some time in the major markets. They wanted to make the station like a big-market station in a small town. High school kids working weekends weren’t part of the plan.  So I got whacked.

It was a kick in the teeth.  I was just another high school kid again.

And in that, there were some great lessons. I learned…:

  • Loyalty Is Earned – But Almost Never: My father, in almost forty years of teaching, taught for exactly two school districts.  After we moved to Jamestown, in 1964 or ’65 or so, I think he had exactly two classrooms, to say nothing of jobs.  Many of my generation’s fathers were similar; they worked in one career, usually one job for one or two employers.  I learned a good ten years before the rest of the economy that loyalty to an employer was a chump’s bargain; you, the employee, were an asset, not a person.  You needed to look out for yourself, because your employer wasn’t going to do it for you.
  • What Have You Done For Us Lately? I learned when I tried to get back into radio a year or so later that not only didn’t the world owe you a living, but in fact you owed it to yourself to know how to earn one.  Life wasn’t just about having a skill – it was about keeping it up to date, and making sure you could “sell” your skill to new employers (or clients), perhaps in new flavors of your career, or even in entirely new careers.  You had to be your own marketer.
  • Schooling Is Not Education: Not long after I got whacked, I went to Jamestown College.  And then four years later I went out into the world, where nobody had heard of Jamestown College.  And while I’d been under no illusions that I’d be able to wave a diploma in anyone’s face to open a door, I ran into plenty of kids who did – and I had to out-perform them in the great competition to actually get  a job.  And I usually did. Because while my diploma from an obscure little school didn’t open any doors, the things I learned – who I was, what I wanted, how I thought, and how to solve a problem – did.
  • Mobility Is Life: KQDJ wouldn’t be the first radio job I’d get fired from (never, ever for cause, by the way). Finally, 12 years later, in August of 1992 when K-63 went dark and no decent radio jobs awaited anywhere, I had to take my skills – knowing how to tell stories whose subjects I didn’t start out understanding, in ways that the listener could understand – and find a career that paid.  It led me to Technical Writing, and thence to User Experience.  Your job description and your paper credentials do not sum you or your capabilities up – indeed, if you let them, you can lose big.
A few weeks back, I heard a piece on NPR about the psychological impact of tough job markets on young people – especially college graduates.  And I thought back on that lesson – because, not to play “you think you got it tough”, but by the conventional wisdom of the piece, I had two strikes against me; I left college in a state that didn’t really feel the Reagan Recovery until the nineties, and did it with an English degree and no Education certificate, with experience in field that had low job stability and high unemployment even in the best of times.  I shelved my blog post because, honestly, who cared what I had to say?

Well, apparently the Atlantic, for starters. Yesterday they released this piece by Derek Thompson about the anger of “Millennial” graduates and their job-hunting travails.

And as a parent of a college kid and a son who’s still figuring it all out, and has had to re-figure it all out a few times in the past 20-odd years himself, part of me wants to give the kids a fatherly hug and a little encouragement…

…and part of me wants to slap them upside the head.

And so – partly for the benefit of any other kids who are feeling the same way, and partly for the benefit of my own kids, I’m going to do a little bit of both, and respond to the four “Millennials” who, as Thompson wrote…:

…responded with beautiful, heart-wrenching accounts of the job search that we have published in four parts: The Unemployed Speak and Advice from Employers, Longer Voices of the Jobless, and What It’s Like to Be Jobless in Your 20s.

There were several bits from unemployed twentysomethings.  I’ll feature one of them today:

“I want to blame the universities and grown-ups who should have known better. Instead, like my me-first generation, I blame myself.”

Subject line: MAD AS HELL

I’m only 23 and it’s been barely over a year since I graduated from university. Yet already the work environment and the consequences of the “real world” have warped and degraded me.

Not to bag on the kid excessively, but dude – what did  you expect the adult world  to be, anyway?

All I have are feelings of disillusionment and betrayal.

“Betrayal” implies trust.  Who – outside of yourself – did you trust when setting out into the world?

 I work full-time at a temp position that under-utilizes me. I make sure not to finish work to quickly, for fear it doing so will only shorten my employment. Before that I worked in retail. Before long, I may end up back there.

Perhaps that’s one of the advantages of coming from a place – the rural Midwest – where nobody really expects much of you, or an unranked obscure little college that imparts no academic mythology on you to change your mind on the subject – but on the one hand, that’s life, and on the other, if you approach it right, none of it’s wasted.  In my various travails, I worked as a temp, and some awful temp jobs at that – but it was where I learned to use a PC, back before everyone learned it at birth.  Just saying – if you use that time at a miserable job to takeaway the parts you need, it’s not wasted.

Much of my rage is reserved for a predatory system of higher education and the failures of a generation that came before. I’m angry that a “state” university costs as much as it does. That many, if not most of the students who attend, treat the experience like a 4-year version of MTV’s Spring Break. Massive grade inflation means one less standard deviation between myself and those who don’t try. Lax entrance standards means that even in smaller classes, half of the students do as little as possible, have nothing to contribute, and see learning as a necessary evil, if even that.

And now we’re onto something.  The education bubble is a real thing, gobbling up immense capital, while spitting out a lot of students who have failed to learn the most important lesson one can learn from a degree (that’s not intended as a direct entree to a career, like engineering or nursing or computer science or whatever) – how to think, to analyze and solve a problem that one isn’t innately equipped to solve, and how to know what one is really about.

Then there’s the baby boomer generation. Guardians of the state, they have left it dysfunctional. Watchdogs of the economy, they have let it burn.

Well, yeah, but…no.  We’ll come back to that later in this series.

But most of my anger is reserved for myself. I pursued a “Liberal Arts Degree” in communications rather than a B.S. in engineering or computer science. I spent all four years at a state university rather than the first two at a community college. I worked in the summer instead of getting an internship. I worked harder at my classes than making contacts and networking with professionals. Not everyone is suffering in this economy, and if I were going to college for the first time this fall I’d know how to prepare. But I didn’t at the time and now I’m left to face the consequences.

And while the kid in question has picked up the odd bit of wisdom here, he missed out on something that, perhaps, only comes with experience; life is not a crap game where you cast your die at graduation.  It’s an endless (well, not endless, but you know what I mean) game of hold’em, where the terms and parameters of the game change, sometimes radically, in the middle of the game – and then you’re on to the next hand.  And if you’re smart, you don’t let a bad opening hand spook you.

That higher education today doesn’t make sure kids know that – and equip them to deal with it – is one of the great failures of our system.

More on Monday.

16 thoughts on “The Kids Aren’t Alright – Part I: Life Lessons

  1. As the only millenial who consistently comments on this blog I feel I need to put my two cents into this. I am currently on my 3rd different job this year since getting kicked out of the U for academic reasons (more like I was lazy and unmotivated). The classes did little to nothing for me and the only real thing I feel I learned between the U and Normandale is that the best learning (as Mitch points out in the post) comes from outside the classroom. My two internships taught me more than all of my poly sci classes in both places combined (not to say were bad, just that the internships were that good) and I have made a ton of connections that lay dormant for now but could become useful for me in the near future. I am about 30-40 credits short of a degree but I don’t know if I will ever go back. I see no real need to because unlike most CLA grads I can actually apply my knowledge to get jobs or at least more experience in the field of politics. I mean what the hell is a gender or queer studies (yes real major) major going to do with that degree? My generation is also lazy, I worked my ass of to get the jobs I’ve had in 2011, the jobs are out there if you look hard enough.

  2. I tell my kids: The World is bigger than you and it was here first. It’s not fair and it won’t change for you. The sooner you figure this out the happier you’ll be.

    I also tell them going to college without a solid plan is a waste of money. Take the Meyer Briggs and figure out what you’re into, then figure out if you need that degree to break in. If you’re not into the sciences or engineering there’s likely better and cheaper ways to succeed than do a 4 year degree. You can start a pretty nice business for even the $80K you’d drop at 4 year school.

  3. Ben, your assessment regarding a degree is probably more true than you know. I saw the light very early in my secondary indoctrination. Fortunately, I started college while I was in the military and continued off and on after I got out until my GI Bill ran out. I don’t have a degree and I have several other friends and colleagues that don’t either and we’re all doing well. We’re all IT Sales Geeks that know how to sell and there will always be a need for good sales people. No matter what the rest of the world does each day, for the most part, their paychecks and prosperity rely on the efforts of salespeople.

  4. Ideally my dream job would be something of a conservative version of James Carville, you dont need a degree to do that just a sharp wit and thick skin.

  5. My 17-year-old just landed her first job. Actually, it’s three jobs as she’s gone to work for a husband and wife with three small businesses and they shuttle her from one to the other over the course of the week (and even the course of a day). The pay is minimal, but the experience invaluable. Meanwhile she’s already earned 36 hours of college credit using the CLEP program and coaching from College Plus for about one-third the cost of tuition (avoiding a large part of that bubble) and is picking up more credits at a local community college through the PSEO program since she still qualifies. Overall, she’s getting an education and experiences that demonstrate that there’s more than one way to go after something and you don’t need to tie yourself to a single track for jobs and education. As the Millenials are learning, tieing yourself to the “track” is suicide.

  6. There is one aspect of carrying a big student loan that I haven’t heard much about.
    Suppose you really, really want to be a lawyer. You spend seven years in school and rack up $150k in student loans.
    Now you are out of school and you can’t find a lawyer job.
    The longer you are out of school the less likely you are to find lawyer work + it costs money to keep up that law license.
    A lot of people in that position would go back to school to learn something with a better career path (like engineering or medicine), but you can’t because you already owe $150k and you have to work full time just to keep up on the payments.
    Quit your job, default on the loan and no more financial aid or student loans.
    You are well and truly screwed.

  7. So, Angry Clown, you gotta job? I here that it is tough out there for you guys on the left side of the bell curve.

  8. Doing fine, thanks for asking, Terry! Angryclown just got promoted to clown car driver. And he’s got a nice little sideline in kid’s parties and bar mitzvahs. How’s things in your volcano lair? Betcha don’t get a lot of sun, what with avoiding drone strikes and all.

  9. Ben Dover wished on a star: “dont need a degree to do that just a sharp wit and thick skin.”

    You’re halfway there, Ben! Assuming you have a thick skin, that is.

  10. My mad scientist gig is finally paying off big time, Mr. Clown. I was going to use my skills to raise an army of obedient zombie criminals, but I found it was more lucrative just to rob graves. Gold teeth and wedding bands are worth a fortune these days!
    Entrepreneurship. I got it in spades! Har!

  11. yawn, Ben Dover AC? I am starting to think angryclown is in middle school because that was the last time someone who made fun of my name that way actually thought it was creative. Ever care to actually debate, angryclown? You know what grown ups do?

  12. Angry Clown has tried to debate a point or two here, Ben. His command of the facts is rather poor so in the end he resorts to calling people confederate sympathizers.
    Now we get the snark front loaded! It’s a poo-flinging primate stimulus!
    Angry Clown thought Obama and his posse were smart guys. What more do you need to know?

  13. AC is just pissed because his kids will be shining shoes for the rest of their lives.

    He was all Hopey that Bammy’s Changey might put value on the sheepskin he bought them from Burger U, but the Community Organizer in Chief squashed those dreams forever….pity.

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