Friday, July 29, 2011

The death of "The Career" in today's America?


As someone who works in "higher education," I'm increasingly struck by the ways in which the myths that have long surrounded our enterprise are being shattered.  Not that I celebrate these developments, mind you, but the evidence mounts that Toto has pulled away the curtain to reveal the Wizard of Oz frantically pulling levers connected to a vast smoke and mirror machine.  The chart above comes from a web site, Shareable: Life and Art, that covers this story closely.

One especially vivid description of the world that awaits those who have invested years of their young lives and assumed mountains of debt in the process is Sarah Idzik's article, "Unprepared: From Elite College to The Job Market."  A close friend, himself a denizen of this bizarre world, sent the piece to me and it's enough to make you cry, even if you're not a member of the education BIZ directly threatened as stories like this enter the stream of public awareness.  Ms Idzik writes:

"I was naïve about the real world much in the same way that I was naïve about academic life. I searched for jobs primarily on Craigslist. I didn’t know what to do with my resume. I only had enough money from my graduation gifts to last a couple of months unemployed in Chicago; after that, it would be back to suburban Pennsylvania. Looking at job postings, I realized I had no idea what I was even looking for. Jobs were scarce, let alone appealing gigs. Furthermore, I was totally unqualified, based on the advertised requirements, for anything but clerical administrative work. All that I had learned, all that I had overcome and accomplished, and here I was scanning dozens upon dozens of ads looking for the rare few with the words “administrative assistant” in them.
Not knowing what else to do, not having any clue or any direction, feeling the hot breath of unemployment breathing down my neck, I applied to all of them.

I managed to get lucky – and despite my degree, it does feel like luck. I had a job by July, one of the applications for which I had, by this point tired and getting lazy, attached my resume to an email and just dashed off a paragraph in the body about how great and bright I was. This is the same job I still have now, almost three years later—a gig at a small travel company typing and printing travel documents for unbelievably wealthy, entitled globetrotters who won’t read any of them. This was about as far from the highbrow literature of my undergraduate years as construction work. I was terrified to start an actual 9 to 5 job; it seemed like a myth, something surreal, something that couldn’t touch my life.

After starting, the disbelief soon gave way to misery. The day-to-day experience left me feeling utterly crushed. I wasn’t creating anything, I wasn’t even really doing anything of any consequence at all. I got on the bus every morning, exhausted, with all the other people who worked in offices downtown. I walked into the office every day, sat at the same desk, in the same chair, did the same things. I adopted the same bubbly, pleasant attitude as my coworkers, with whom I felt no connection at all. It made no sense to see them as real people I might connect with, since after all, I felt like this was not where I belonged: an office in an industry that had nothing to do with my life, in a job in which I had no real interest. I had nothing invested in my job or my employer, I did what I had to do: hammer out the work, play nice. But I felt all day long that I was inhabiting a strange bubble, separate from where I really lived my life, removed from anything that affected me or that I cared about."

  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
A close friend (who will remain nameless) who works at a very fine law school (that will also remain nameless), told me about some law school graduates who found that none of the great jobs they'd been promised were waiting for them at the end of the legal assembly line.  In response, they started a  blog or two to discuss the embarrassing situation, postings that angered university officials.  Especially worrisome for university brass was the fact that that the law school admissions pitch still sells the "Great Job Just Ahead!" idea to entice young debtors waiting in the cue.  When administrators from their alma mater approached, the students -- skilled negotiators, after all  --  offered a neat deal: We'll stop publishing these stories if you'll forgive our our law school debts.  

To my way of thinking, important, widespread realization in America right now is that the promise of a "career" made possible an education at an "elite university" is rapidly fading.  As news seeps out, what will happen?  What will happen to sky high tuitions along with the lavish salaries of university presidents and over-paid academic managers who never set foot in the classroom?

A booming voice proclaims: "PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN!!!"

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