Let us not be cooled

30 Nov

In recent weeks – perhaps spurred by a growing recognition of the unique challenges our present economic snafu poses to young workers – many of my friends have shared links to articles (like this one) listing the fields of study (or college majors) with the highest placement rates.

Aware of their deteriorating employment prospects, people my age in Canada (whom I wrote about here), the US and elsewhere are presented with three options, none of them ideal or mutually exclusive: we can stay whatever career course we’re on, hoping to rise above the rest and snag a coveted position, or we can be strategic in choosing a career, paying less attention to what we want to do for a living and what we’re good at, and more attention to who’ll be hiring. Most of us probably opt for a blend of those two approaches, finding something we can tolerate and do reasonably well in among the jobs with high (or not devastatingly low, at the very least) placement rates.

At the same time, consciously or not, we face another dilemma: do we accept the reality that underlies these limited choices, or do we raise hell about being put in such a position? These two options represent two sides in a debate that is simmering in the background of larger ones, over the Occupy protests, austerity measures, pension reforms, and student debt.

The side that resigns itself to “reality” tends to lay claim to practicality and wisdom, in contrast to youthful idealism and foolishness. Their message is that young people who find themselves with low or no employment prospects made poor initial career decisions and/or need to simply quit complaining, re-train and choose a new path.

Among those touting this message is the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente. In a recent column, Wente took on the issue of student and graduate unemployment using the “face reality” line described above. I propose that one critical reading of it illustrates why the self-described realists are far from practical or wise.

In her column from November 5th, Wente built on the vignettes of three struggling students or recent graduates of programs that aren’t business or engineering. By “built on,” I mean to say that she skewered them – for not realizing when they started their degrees that the economy was going to go tits up in every sector except oil and… well, whatever we’re calling the gambling that happens on Bay Street now.

Instead, these three people chose Sociology, Environmental Law, and International Human Rights – because, Wente explains, they wanted “self-fulfillment” (so weird!) and a “comfortable living” (who wants that?!) through “saving the planet” and – get this – “rescuing the poor.”

For Wente, what these fools didn’t realize is that “the demand” for people trained in the social sciences, law and human rights has “dried up.” And one of them even had the gall to have a couple of children without budgeting for their whole lives first.[1]

I want to argue here that Wente, aside from being characteristically insensitive and hateful, committed a generational fallacy. Judging from the high horse she wrote from in her column, Wente believes that back when she was young, she made the right choices.

I’ll tell her story facetiously and from her perspective, just for effect, showing how she deftly balanced the need to support herself with the human need for purposeful activity.

Dramatization of Wente's early years

First, Baby Wente managed to get herself born to some wealthy people – that’s Correct Choice number one – and in her infant wisdom she made sure it happened at The Right Time, thereby ensuring her entrance on the labour market when women’s opportunities were exploding and feminism won and everyone became equal.

Young Adult Wente went into the ever-practical field of English, which has always historically landed people jobs that pay excellent salaries, affording them and however many children they want to have allllllll of the splendors money can buy. It was a very practical choice – clearly the result of the sort of “critical thinking” Wente wishes the Sociologist Single Mom would have done.[2]

By now it should be clear that Wente’s “good choices” were only “good” by stroke of luck and favourable structural conditions, and only in hindsight can anyone recognize their goodness for sure. (If this isn’t the case, I want her crystal ball.)

The inherent unpredictability of the economy (at least, as Jim Stanford argues, the economy as we’ve allowed it to be organized, divorced from its simple basis in what we produce and consume, and how) means that humans choosing how to make a living do so with imperfect and partial information.

One need only look at how many seemingly practical and strategic plans were foiled by the dot-com bubble to confirm this point. And at present, even the jobs that we once thought we’d “always need” are increasingly difficult to get, if you’re a recent graduate. The fields of teaching, nursing and even law are, by some counts, facing an over-supply problem; moreover, there is a general consensus that my generation of twenty-somethings is caught up in a mismatch between education and jobs.

Higher education, in this context, has transformed into a double-edged sword, offering a hiding place for jobless individuals (not to mention jobless numbers), but also charging the most vulnerable when their earnings are lowest, all while portending to be the only path to a financially secure and occupationally successful future.

These conditions set the stage for what Erving Goffmann, writing in 1963, called “cooling the mark out” – the societal response to a situation where people are led to believe they are taking all of the steps necessary to obtain “the rights of a particular status”, only to find out that “they do not possess the qualification for the status” after all. (The full text is available here.) As Goffmann put it, using the metaphor of a con, societies (and I would say governments and elites in particular) are faced with a challenge:

[W]hat are the typical ways in which persons who find themselves in this difficult position can be cooled out; how can they be made to accept the great injury that has been done to their image of themselves, regroup their defenses, and carry on without raising a squawk?

Typically, apologists for the status quo – in this case, a serious misalignment between education and jobs, dire straits and little sympathy for those who can’t find work, and unfettered economic turmoil wreaking havoc on the early careers of young people – make every attempt to “cool the mark out”, inducing us to simply “adjust […] to an impossible situation.”

Young anti-conscription squawkers in 1939 - Montreal Gazette / Library and Archives Canada / PA-107910

This, I think, is what Wente would like us to do: adjust, regroup, and “carry on without raising a squawk.” In a reality where the future was certain to smooth out in a predictable fashion after our present, impossible wrinkle, such an approach might indeed be the most practical and efficacious one.

But in the real real world – the one us young squawkers have been in and of for a long time, thank-you-very-much – we understand that the very unpredictability of the economy is a human creation, albeit a creation of a very distinct echelon of humanity located on Wall Street and Bay Street and not an inherent quality of “the economy” as an ideal type. The “impossible situation” we confront is beyond our control, but only because we have allowed it to become that way.

The wisest, most realistic thing we can do is raise hell until the levers of power are put back in the hands of all of us, even if it means we’ll argue over which way to pull, and have to keep concentrations of power in check. It is also the most courageous and off-putting thing, for the Wentes of the world. But it is absolutely necessary.


[1] That one also later responded to Wente’s column, explaining (even though she really didn’t have to) that she was in a relationship with a man who was the primary earner, but she left him when he had an affair – evidently superfluous details to Wente.

[2] This doesn’t even touch on the numerous other twists of logic in the column – like how it wasn’t banks finding profit in predatory lending that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US – it was “socially progressive policy makers”. Or that all of our national financial woes could be traced to the wads of money being eaten up by public pensions, healthcare and public education, even though those unnecessary sociology-types tell us with their “statistics” and “government financial data” that the recession only set in once the Keynesian welfare state started coming undone.

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One Response to “Let us not be cooled”

  1. TK December 1, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    This is fantastic. I would love for Wente to read this. 🙂

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