Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Vocation and Self

It occurs to me I was pretty hard on William Deresiewicz last week-- somewhat unfairly so.  It's just that I always turn red and apoplectic when I read a certain type of self-criticism from Ivy Leaguers that is really, I take it, self-congratulation, and I suppose I found William D.'s essay a convenient shorthand for the whole phenomenon.  I think that now, however, having fully exorcised the specter of God and Man at Yale, I can turn back to the original essay in a kinder spirit-- and see what D. was actually trying to say.

I find on the second reading that D.'s tone of judgment toward the young and striving -- which I snarled at so much before -- is actually laced by a sincere note of compassion for its subjects that I didn't notice-- or didn't take seriously-- the first time around.  D. is, let it be known, admirably tuned in to the real misery from which a lot of hyper-ambitious college students suffer.  He is also substantially right, I think, about its causes.  These lie, according to D., in the expectations of academic and professional success that these kids have inherited, and the fact that the rigor of these expectations leaves them with little time or space to devote to the task of "developing a self," as D. puts it.

I would describe the problem in terms that are slightly different, but which preserve D.'s fundamental insight.  From my observation, the basic problem with this unhappy generation (Millennials or whatever you want to call us) is not quite that we have been taught to disregard the "self" for the sake of "vocation."  If anything, in fact, the "self" has been accorded an exceptional degree of esteem and cultural validation among us, even if we don't know what it is.  But we did imbibe the notion that our "vocation," once we had it, would somehow be our "self," or that it would provide us with a self.  This is where we went wrong.

The people who gave us this formula for turning vocation into self, meanwhile, were sincere when they did so.  The sort of alchemy the formula describes was possible, after all, during America's long mid-century -- or at least, it was close enough to possible for enough people; thus, it could be repeated for several decades without triggering a revolt in the young.

But now I think the revolt is brewing.  The young people D. describes are  slowly discovering that careers take these days a very long time to build, if they can be built at all; and that, likewise, no voice from the heavens or from within themselves is going to call them in any particular direction, without their bidding it to do so.  What they are finding, in short, is that they are going to need to develop a self, even in the absence of vocation.  They can't wait for the latter before gaining the former, because it may never come, or it may come too late.

In the meantime, it doesn't matter if you are smart or widely regarded as successful-- if you don't have a self, you will simply perish inside.  This, I take it, is what D. has in mind with his talk of "zombies."  It is the thought underlying such astute passages from his essay as this:
"The irony is that elite students are told that they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing to be one of a few very similar things. As of 2010, about a third of graduates went into financing or consulting at a number of top schools […]'What Wall Street figured out,' as Ezra Klein has put it, 'is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next.'"

Ok, but should we care?  "Poor little rich kids," you might say, while bowing some invisible and maudlin stringed instrument.  Why, you might ask, in a world as wracked with suffering as ours, should any compassionate thought be spared to the predestined winners of the game?

You might also wonder why a problem  that really only concerns a small portion of the 18-35 demographic should garner the lofty designation of being a "generational" problem.  Whose generation, exactly?  Why does our pop social analysis always refer to the overwrought dramas of a handful of the young and well-off in such implausibly universal terms?  (I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who ranted somewhere about the so-called "Beat Generation."  They weren't a generation, he points out-- they were five guys in an English department!)

I can only reply to the first point with the obvious rejoinder that misery is a subjective thing.  That doesn't mean it has nothing to do with the real conditions of one's life; it does mean there is no upward limit on how much pain an apparently "successful" person can feel. The recent death of Robin Williams should remind us, if we really needed reminding, that depression strikes people with very little regard for how their lives look from the outside.  I know that there are ways of living that are more and less conducive to happiness, so I don't think Schopenhauer was right when he said that each of us is given a set amount of unhappiness in life -- a quotient that will express itself in boredom if it doesn't express itself in pain.   But it is true that unhappiness can find ways to show its face amidst even the most enviable blessings.  Something you sincerely covet may, no less sincerely, seem a curse to the person who has it.  I am reminded of a passage in Zola's Germinal, in which one of the book's wealthy characters is faced with the sight of the miners in rebellion, shortly after learning that his wife has been unfaithful to him.  His thoughts in this passage manage, in Zola's hands, to seem both self-pitying and honest at once.  "These revolutionary dreamers might demolish society and re-build another society; they would not add one joy to humanity, they would not take away one pain[....]" the character thinks. Why bother, he asks, trading in the pain of hunger for the "unappeasable suffering of passion"? (Ellis trans.)

As for the second point, it is probably true that there is a particular version of the malaise I'm talking about that only afflicts the very privileged, and therefore can't be described as a truly "generational" affliction.  It is the plight, if we can use the term, of well-off kids who have been encouraged to do "whatever they like" with their lives.  The advice they have received is not entirely wrong; but it lends itself to a misunderstanding. (It is the cross our elders have to bear that even on those occasions when their advice is good, it will be misinterpreted by us, taken too literally, warped out of all recognition.) What happens in this case is that people eventually discover that the advice to do "whatever you like" with your career is not compatible, in its most literal form, with the fact that anything remotely worth doing in the world involves things that are fundamentally unlikeable-- things that are boring and painful, that lead us to attach ourselves to people we might later lose at great emotional cost, and so forth.

In the ancien régime, it was only the formal aristocracy that contended with this affliction and its resulting ennui-- in modern American society, it has been spread around a bit more democratically, but it is still recognizable as a version of the same type of pathology ("affluenza" as the recent coinage would term it).  In an essay on Alexander Herzen, Isaiah Berlin describes the dilemma of the 19th century Russian noble-- the "superfluous man" of literature-- and while this might sound at first like a subject far removed from the lives of America's suburban collegians, one almost forgets who and what century one is reading about when Berlin begins speaking of those:
"[I]dealistic young men who have been taught too much, are too rich, and are offered altogether too wide an opportunity of doing too many things, and who, consequently, begin, and are bored, and go back and start down a new path, and in the end lose their way and drift aimlessly and achieve nothing."
That sounds like a rather ridiculous (and indeed, enviable) problem to have, and it is.  But I contend it can be ridiculous and sad and genuinely a problem for people, all at the same time.


But even if the "superfluous man" syndrome is unique to the relatively privileged, there is a version of the deeper problem I have in mind-- of the confusion between self and vocation-- that is more truly "generational" in its scope, and that afflicts people in virtually all socio-economic categories.

I posit the following: most Americans, whatever their social origins may be, probably have grandparents and (to a lesser extent) parents who, due to the historical accident of America's midcentury prosperity and stability, were able to spend most of their careers in close association with particular companies, professional bodies, labor unions, or other institutions.  They were thus able to anchor a sense of "self" within a particular "vocation."  If we tried to do something similar today we would face enormous emotional perils.  But they did not, because the chances at the time were relatively small that they would eventually be deprived of their jobs, that they would lose union representation, that they would fail to gain tenure, etc.

My own grandfather on my dad's side, I know, spent his entire career in the engineering department of General Motors.  He worked his way up, but he also worked his way into the organization.  His career thus unfolded in a way that allowed him to develop a firm sense of professional identity-- one so strong that it became a part of his personal identity, his sense of self, as well.  According to my dad, he was a relentlessly loyal purchaser of GM products throughout his life.  From the sound of it, he was also a voluble-- and slightly volatile-- critic of all pretenders to GM's throne.

This devotion, meanwhile, was not one-sided.  The company's loyalty to him was demonstrated most obviously through his continued employment, but also through more personal gestures. I remember my dad telling me his family received from the company each holiday season a collection of Christmas carols, for instance, which strikes me now as a rather touching symbol of a lost cultural coherence (though non-Christian GM employees might feel quite differently about it).

Today, that world has basically vanished.  The professional maelstrom into which D.'s young people are heading-- with heads more confused than Torless and hearts more sorrowful than Werther, from the sound of it-- is almost completely different from the one my grandfather discovered, after being the first person in his family to graduate from college.  It is much less coherent, stable, and integrated now, to put it mildly.  Our modern workforce is no longer unionized, our service and maintenance jobs are now typically subcontracted out on a short-term basis, our warehouses are staffed by temp agencies, our college classes are taught by adjuncts, and so on.  Meanwhile, having brought with them into such a world the expectation that they need a vocation in order to have a self, many young people are understandably starting to panic-- no vocation for them seems to be forthcoming.

The trouble is that the self is exactly what one needs, both to survive such periods of uncertainty and, ultimately, to gain satisfaction from one's work.  You need a self to have a vocation, not the other way around! In the adult world we now inhabit, the channels of life are simply not dredged deeply enough that we can just fall into them, and allow them to carry us along toward our identities.  Sure, one can coast at least through high school and college under the steam of parental and societal expectation.  This is so because up to the time one graduates with a four-year degree (if one does so) there is still a widely agreed-upon standard of what one ought to be doing, and for how long.  But the consensus evaporates as soon as one throws the mortar board-- then one has to dig one's own channel, and that requires a self!  After all, whatever one does with one's career after college will have its detractors-- and there will be an opportunity cost associated with whichever choice one makes.  (This is a problem even for the very privileged, though it is much more of a problem for the rest of society.  A few examples: pursuing one advanced degree means delaying or never receiving a different one;  leaving school to "make money" may lead to the desired result, but only at the expense of a better and more thorough education.)  It is at this point that one discovers the need for a self that can subsist outside of other people's immediate appraisal of one's success.

I remember when I was fourteen, I rather suddenly emerged from a teenaged stupor I had been in for the previous two years, and which had led me to slack off in school.  I even remember the moment it happened-- I was on an airplane and we were coming in to land, and I just suddenly realized how much simpler and easier and more coherent life would be if I started working hard in school again and "got into a good college."  Everything fit-- it was what my parents and teachers wanted, it opened doors to the things I wanted to do with my life-- it just made so much sense.

After having done all that and finished college, it began to dawn on me that nothing was ever going to fit together so neatly again-- there was never again going to be quite that same alignment between what I most deeply wanted and what other people seemed to expect.

This can be a terrifying realization (and was so for me) -- especially if one is still trying, as I was, to rely for guidance on the expectations of others -- on the nods and subconscious cues one takes from one's elders.  But if one can face such a realization with a sense of self, it becomes exhilarating.  One discovers that it is precisely the virtue of the mature self that it does not fit with what everyone expects of it; the self's very places of non-alignment are what ultimately give it value.

I suspect, pace D., that young people will develop this sense of self at some point, even if they go to elite universities.  But the old expectation that their career path will be linear enough that they can simply rely on it to grant them a self does not hold true any more.

So how are young people supposed to get themselves a self if they don't have the big institutions to anchor them? What do they do if there are no Christmas bonuses or union cards from the company-- what if "the company" isn't really "the company" at all, but is a temp agency that has been subcontracted by a logistics provider who was subcontracted by a subsidiary who was hired by.... and so on?

I used to think that the solution was simply to return, as a society, to the more stable pattern of the last mid-century.  I was influenced a great deal in this view by Richard Sennett's The Corrosion of Character, and by the contrast it drew between our modern, fragmented capitalism and the older, more paternal variety epitomized by my grandfather's experience at GM.  I didn't really question, in reading Sennett, whether self and vocation ought to be the same thing-- I assumed they were, and that if we were to gain our selves again, we needed to return to professional arrangements that helped us cultivate a vocation.

I recently got into a discussion with a mentor and former professor of mine, however, who took exception to Sennett, and to this approach to the problem of vocation and self.  His stance surprised me at the time, as he had always seemed a more ruthless critic of modern, "flexible" capitalism than I was, and I had thought Richard Sennett would be exactly the sort of character he might endorse.

But instead, he made the unexpected move of suggesting that there was a curious and hidden advantage in the modern workplace's "precarity" (his word-- and possibly, I'm not sure, his coinage), and that we should not seek a return to the older paternalistic model.  This advantage, he thought, lay precisely in the things for which one might criticize it, in slightly different language-- in the fact that it compelled people not to identify themselves with faceless collective entities, that it forced them not to submerge their individual selves in giant corporations and bureaucracies-- for these are things with which an individual person cannot really have a mutual ("non-instrumental," as he put it) relationship.

At the time I was very irritated by this argument.  It seemed to me that it could be used as a rather round-about way of defending the direction our economy has taken, and the misery it has caused to so many people.  I insisted to him that making capitalism better and more humane was a worthy activity to engage in, even for people (such as himself) who basically rejected the system's premises. I suppose I felt I had a duty to argue with him. Partly this had to do with an infuriating quality he had of refusing to agree with me, even when I thought that a given subject (Sennett and flexible capitalism, for instance) would finally invite agreement between us. It also had to do with the fact that he does a very good-- and very frustrating -- impression of invincible certainty.

But having cooled off slightly from the argument, I am now better able to see the point he was trying to make.  I would put the insight into my own terms as follows:

The trouble with the old, mid-century route to selfhood that our grandparents knew, the one that relied on vocational stability and professional coherence as a means to forging identity, was that a self that is built and anchored in such a way, is only ever as safe as the institutions that created it. And large and faceless entities of various kinds are never really safe or stable, in spite of appearances, and most of what they do will be forever beyond our ken.  How much of a self, in the best sense of the word, can really be reared on such a basis?

None of this is to justify or excuse the fractured way in which we now live and in which our economy is structured.  The solution to the problem described above is to provide people with a more, rather than less, solid foundation on which to establish themselves.

All I wish to say is that our selves have to be grounded in something less transient than a particular career, a particular education, if we are to escape from the fate Deresiewicz describes.  We will be forced to seek such a grounding, moreover, because there are not a lot of careers waiting for us out there anymore that will have their own, inbuilt and seemingly permanent "coherence."  We will have to forge that coherence for ourselves.

What is that "something less transient"? It will vary for each of us, which is what makes it a basis for a unique self.  But I'm pretty sure it is not a corporation, or a university, or a bureaucracy.  It is the people and things in our lives that are really close to us, that we really understand.  It is those things, finally, that cannot be given or withheld from us on the basis of market demand.

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