This blog post is a response to the Op-Ed column of David Brooks entitled “How Adulthood Happens” which appeared in the New York Times on June 12, 2015. You can read that article here as a precursor to my response below…
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Mr. Brooks: you, sir, are a confabulator. Your latest opinion commentary, “How Adulthood Happens,” (New York Times, Op-Ed, June 12, 2015) is a wagonload of horse hookey. I can only admire the compunction and drive of people like Mr. Brooks, as it must get tiring consistently trying to mislead and misinform the public with such a special form of “authoritative” moralizing and sermonizing. (Though Mr. Brooks puts a humble spin on his placatory storytelling, he is anything but humble in his pedantry.) Let me pick apart some of the misinformation point-by-point, and try to unravel and untangle the knots Mr. Brooks has made in an effort to obfuscate things for the American public…
First of all, the authors of the book in question—Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates (University of Chicago Press, 2014)—appear to be as brainwashed by the American capitalist dictum, as pedantic, and sensationalist as Mr. Brooks himself. The title alone slyly implies American adults are ungrounded and leading pointless lives—it’s semantically and deceptively misleading and meant to incite and incense the public. From a review of the book: “As you can probably determine from the title, the authors do not paint a very good portrait. The college graduates followed in this study matriculated in the tumultuous year of 2009, only months removed from the worst economic downturn in American history since the Great Depression. According to this work, colleges are not preparing students for adult life that [according to the authors] includes fulfilling employment, owning or renting a residence, independence from parents, successful spousal relationships, and optimism towards the future. Their conclusion: ‘Large numbers of students pass through higher education experiencing few curricular demands, investing in academic endeavors, and demonstrating only limited learning.’”
I would argue that the authors—along with Brooks—are part of the problem. These critics and (really) pundits are criticizing a system that has been contrived by a false imagination of what the American landscape actually looks like. In other words, they’ve invented and set the bar of social acceptance upon a fictionalized perception of what they feel American culture should look like—a fictionalized culture that they promote as something more real than it actually is—and stress the fear of young adults who are socially and psychologically terrorized by not meeting the social goals defined by the authors (and American capitalist dictum).
Can you imagine a world where young people DIDN’T feel confident that they might eventually get what they hoped for out of life? Get real, dude… There’s no bite behind that sound bite…
Secondly, of course any poll conducted by a university is going to produce findings that a large majority of “emerging adults” is going to agree with a statement such as “I am confident that eventually I will get what I want out of life.” Um… If a majority of people didn’t feel that way IN THE PRESENT at any given time, the world would be in a much greater crisis of suicide rates and revolution. And of course a university is going to promote those statistics when it is trying to encourage minors to choose that particular university, or choose any university at all, spending thousands of dollars on an educational system that increasingly proves ineffective in preparing students for real-work complexities and increasingly adaptive and technology advances in the job market. Gotta entice the kiddies with some sort of data, right? Can you imagine a world where young people DIDN’T feel confident that they might eventually get what they hoped for out of life? Get real, dude… There’s no bite behind that sound bite. Further, I would imagine that the survey was conducted of students already in the academic programming or on campus. Gee, go figure: students who have just spent tens-of-thousands of dollars in anticipation of advancing their livelihoods, actually see the glass half-full. Huh.
Equation-based philosophy of the American dream is a sham…[that] is somehow based on an idealized and imaginary history of a "former time" when all was hunky-dory with the world, peace and justice reigned, and we all sang happy songs around the family piano and Lassie came home and dropped gold ingots at our feet which she presumably found somewhere in the magical forest…
Moreover, Brooks's equation-based philosophy of the American dream is a sham. He, not unlike many others in the media who imagine they are shaping the American mind, likes to make vast and sweeping generalizations about what he thinks the perception of Americans is when determining what a standard life, career, and livelihood should entail or look like. This is somehow based on an idealized and imaginary history of a "former time" when all was hunky-dory with the world, peace and justice reigned, and we all sang happy songs around the family piano and Lassie came home and dropped gold ingots at our feet which she presumably found somewhere in the magical forest… While I'm obviously being completely facetious in that example, this is the same imaginary rhetoric that the Christian Coalition and the Religious Right have always used to try to deceive the American people into projecting what the “traditional family” ought to look like. In both cases, the projected image is simply false.
One can’t look to the Cleaver family as a model of what America should or ought to look like. Families are more complex than that—divorce exists; foster children are often left to fend for themselves and develop senses of instability or insecurity after being shuttled around between countless families, and this can lead to a feeling of being unwanted by society—a feeling that many then try to ameliorate by joining gangs who provide a much more cohesive set of bonding and familial rules; sexual abuse and objectification of children and minors has psychological ramifications for healthy relationships when victims reach adulthood; drug and alcohol addiction take their toll on nuclear and extended families; the loss of pension-based salaried jobs puts burdens on adult children trying to take care of their parents; single mothers are not hidden in the woodwork anymore; women are allowed—yea, have to work a second job in order to support a family’s rent or mortgage or food budget or day care; multi-generational living situations are not a second- or third-world dynamic; the U.S. indisputably has the highest incarceration rate in the world—latest count, in 2013, was 710 person per 100,000 citizens, and about 1 in 35 adults (2.8%) in the United States was under some form of correctional supervision; the very same newspaper that prints Mr. Brooks's op-ed column published a graphic map survey that found that less than half of U.S. children live in a two-parent household; not to mention that GAY AND LESBIAN PEOPLE EXIST WHO WILL NEVER CONFORM TO BROOKS'S IDEALIZED CLEAVER-FAMILY DICTUM… Should I go on?
The point is Brooks's projected visualization/aspiration of what the American adulthood timeline looks like is as much a false projection as is the Christian Coalition’s false projection of what a typical American family looks like.
I was lucky when I was young. I started on a path that somewhat mirrored that American capitalist ideal progression of what a young, fresh-faced university graduate should embark upon, though it wasn’t the original plan that I’d envisioned. After Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation of March 1992 excluded me from a life of service in the Catholic Church (due to my innate sexual orientation identification), I switched gears and got an unpaid internship with a publishing company in the town where my university was located. Then, moved on to a paid grunt-work copy-editing position at a national marketing publisher. From there a sympathetic employer at an international book publishing firm hired me as a marketing coordinator and copyediting specialist. Great. Did I make a living wage? Let’s call it a “living-enough wage” appropriate to the extremely rural locale where I resided.
Was it enough? Was I “confident that I would eventually get what I wanted out of life?” Well, whatever the hell that means, I wasn’t about to let Ward and June Cleaver identify my track in life. As an educated individual—one of the university elite by some of today’s class standards—I was ready to not only see the world, but make a difference in it. How does one do that? Sometimes you direct the selfish confluences of your life; and sometimes you let life lead you on a path of discovery about how the rest of humanity lives. I might suggest that if you really want to see where the edge of true humanity lives, a person can't always do both.
I decided to leave my “dream” publishing house job and move across country to help a friend to actualize his dream of opening a small franchise in the Pacific Northwest. The location happened to be conducive to my sensibilities, so I stayed there on the west coast, working a grueling catering-industry job while exploring my options. I decided not to extend my higher education degree opportunities because I refused to take on the debt it would entail—a decision of personal ethics for sure, but certainly not the capitalist advisement of its time. Eventually I got a job with an arts and human rights organization—two things that are close to my heart. I worked for that organization on a career projection for 18 years, migrated through positions, became a development professional, a database expert, a project manager, and a grant writer and manager (not as a progression of individual positions, but rather each of those tasks was successively added on top of my duties until I was doing all of them simultaneously—without an assistant to whom to delegate overflow work). At the end of eighteen years and undocumented and thankless service—at the age of 44—I never broke the $40-thousand dollar livable-wage barrier. Am I bitter? Am I sorry? Am I disillusioned that I might never eventually get what [the media and social-acceptance-dictums say] I ought to want to get out of life? (Whatever that ever was?)
…Or ought I to be proud of all the sweat and tears and trials and frustrations that resulted in my ending up actually taking a pay cut during the 2008 recession, almost defaulting on the mortgage of the 468-square-foot crappy condo I was socially-economically-pressured into buying? Ought I to be proud that I sacrificed any hope of being able to afford the luxury of a 401K account on the scrappy salary I was surviving on? Ought I to be proud of turning-down more lucrative positions with other non-profits out of a sense of duty and dedication to the humanitarian mission of the organization I worked with for eighteen years? Ought I to be proud of the advances for disadvantaged minorities that were made in that city and that state (and nationally) because of the efforts I and others at that organization pushed forward?
You see, Mr. Brooks, sometimes in order to choose that “moral, virtuous path” that you are so inclined to tout in your recent columns, those choices entail a lot of sacrifice. My personal account is maybe unusual—but it thrashes about in a sea populated by the American people’s unusual accounts. Truth be told, my account is as individuated and as “normal” as it gets in the American landscape. So sorry it didn’t conform to your 30-year strategic plan.
People are choosing to do moral and virtuous things and lead moral and virtuous lives to the best of their ability in the present. But sometimes that entails sacrificing climbing a social ladder of economic stability and corporate titles, or sacrificing the continued entrustment in American capitalist dogma, or discontinuing to exude the Cleaver family’s pot roast-perfect family drama.
People are choosing to do moral and virtuous things and lead moral and virtuous lives to the best of their ability in the present. But sometimes that entails sacrificing climbing a social ladder of economic stability and corporate titles, or sacrificing the continued entrustment in American capitalist dogma, or discontinuing to exude the Cleaver family’s pot roast-perfect family drama. I’ve been reading Brooks's “virtue” campaign columns of this year with interest, and coming to the conclusion that he doesn’t really understand what “virtue” is. If Brooks wants to put blame somewhere, he ought to stop placing it on the American citizen trying to survive the landscape, and start pointing at the core factors that have forced us to adjust and cope with the new dynamic: corporate greed; Wall Street gambling with Americans' investments; the unrestricted bacchanalia in which hedge fund managers engage; the busting of worker-advocate unions; the blockage of single-payer health insurance; de-regulation of everything; privatization… Um, yeah, sorry that all sounds like a socialist diatribe. Guess I’m letting my political colors eke through my own argument, too, eh?
Stop making sound bite generalizations, Mr. Brooks. Admit that there is messy drama in the American landscape, and in American families. Perhaps that messy drama is the new paradigm that Brooks is just too Cleaver-inclined to admit is the new, beautiful, moral and virtue-striven landscape of how we get to where we arrive at what we want out of life... or even how we get to an American landscape that values people over corporations. The revolution I’m talking about is already here; the revolution that David Brooks fears is heading down the rail lines on its inevitable track. I assure you, Mr. Brooks, it’s not a phase.