Jeff is a bright, sophisticated intellectual.
Jeff wants to go into marketing, or PR or maybe get a law degree. Or maybe Jeff will go to Wall Street? If none of that works out Jeff has his sights set on occupational therapy.
If school is the plank you walk before plunging into the unknown, I’m at the end of it, teetering. I graduated from one of those elite East Coast universities in the summer of 2010 with a liberal-arts education to boot. I can analyze a Titian, explain Kant’s categorical imperative and recite the tenets of nuclear-deterrence theory. The only problem is, nobody seems to give a shit but me.
I remember a career fair where I was browsing for jobs a couple months before I would need one. It was like getting a tour of hell right after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. The gym was filled with row upon row of display tables, a swarming hive of hawkers who couldn’t wait to get you out of the library and into a cubicle. I’d go down the row: administrative, marketing, engineering, administrative, economics, administrative. Of the two hundred or so, there were two that had something to offer someone with an interest in things like art or history. One of them was Princeton Review; the other was Teach for America.
My parents’ friends had been pompously predicting this for years: “what are you going to do with that?” In other words, how will you commodify the knowledge you’ve acquired? But they were wrong; they had to be. I was poring over the foundations of Western culture and getting rewarded with top grades. Somebody somewhere had to think that was of some value, somebody outside academia. I saw a friend of mine on my way out of the fair, a bright, dedicated student of history. She was looking at me with a mixture of bewilderment and disgust: “They don’t want us here.” They didn’t. They wanted the engineers, preferably the ones who were good with Excel.
Without a job lined up, I moved back in with my parents. The high point was setting up my bookshelf; finally everything was in one place. All the canonical works I had conquered were admiring me from their perch. Would this be their last resting place, I wondered? After I finally did take one of those administrative positions, would I have time to slug it out with Heidegger on my lunch break? And even if I did, would there be any chance in hell I could make headway without an expert in my corner telling me what to focus on? If academia was the life of the mind, it seemed like my life was over.
There’s a deplorable dearth of opportunities out there for people looking to cultivate the faculties to which college has introduced them. You can get a job at a think tank, you can go into writing or you can do what your professors did– stay in education. But the Ivory Tower isn’t for everyone and neither is policing adolescents. Think tanks are an outlet, but they are more job opportunities than they are career choices. As for a writing job, well that’s damn hard to get.
Poking around online for one never amounted to much. Networking, it seemed, was the thing. The trick was finding someone who would offer you a job instead of offering you advice on how to get one. So far I had only come up with the latter. I was trying to break into screenwriting, an industry that prides itself on not having to advertise for employees.
Without a full-length script I felt comfortable shopping around, I was looking to be a reader, the guy who doles out the rejections I was afraid to receive. I got myself set up with a writer from LA. He graduated from an Ivy League school and had gone on to NYU, the pinnacle of screenwriting pedigree. His actual work made him out to be more of a mutt. He had written a couple of made-for-T.V. movies, paltry stuff. But after all, it couldn’t hurt to find out who he knew. That’s all you’re ever really after in what’s known as the informational interview, the guy your guy might know.
My guy was a slick son of a bitch, the kind of Hollywood caricature I didn’t believe existed. He started off by specifying what time it would be on the East Coast when he called since, as he pointed out, there was a three-hour time difference. I suppose it hadn’t occurred to him that this was something I was aware of, something he had already emphasized by affixing PST to the appointed hour. Never mind, I thought, at least he’s fastidious. But he was not. I waited by the phone for an hour with heart pounding (he was an honest-to-god screenwriter after all).
When he finally did call he blustered on about the importance of a spec script until I was able to inform him that it was a reading job I was after. “Oh you don’t need a script for that. All you have to do is brag about where you went to college,” This was nearly fifteen minutes into what was a thirty-minute conversation, with or without the time difference.
Then he spouted off a lot of portentous platitudes: to thine own self be true; don’t trust anybody (I’m not sure whether he meant to include himself in that latter one, but I figured I would, just to be safe). When we got to the meat of the conversation, the contact that could get me the job, he said, “Now I am finally ready to answer your question: the great, elusive, gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow position, the screenwriting job. You can listen to me or you can blow me off, but it will save you years of misery and pain to start where everyone starts: in the mailroom.” And that was it. I thanked him for his time (profusely), and hung up the phone.
It’s not that I think my parents’ friends were right; it’s that I haven’t yet been able to prove them wrong. College should be about bildung, not apprenticeship. Learning all there is to know about the self and its environment equips young people better than any trade could. But when you do go on to the latter, where do you turn?
There are opportunities I haven’t mentioned, ones that may not dead-end in administrative hell (working in something like an art gallery often does). But when you step back and survey the landscape, your prospects can look pretty bleak, even if you’ve been smart and dedicated your whole life.
It’s night now, as I’m writing this. Going to sleep was easier in college, where I was lucky if I was on more than six hours. Now I get eight, day in day out. I have nowhere to go and no one to see. Except a reflection of myself staring into that empty screen I’m writing on, desperately trying to fill it with some last shreds of what I think was once my dignity.
I want to end this piece with some hopeful valediction about dusting myself off and getting down to business. Instead, what comes to mind is “Almost Famous’” Stillwater, a band “struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.” Substitute adulthood for stardom and you have a pithy encapsulation of what so many hyper-educated college grads face after over twenty years of coddling. The bar for dean’s list is high; the bar for intellectually fulfilling employment is higher.
– D. Schwartz