Sep 142011

Browsing back through posts at Gin and Tacos the other day I came across the following passage in this post, in which the writer is warning off young people — whom he or she admits are suffering in the present depressed economy — against self-pity and envy of their more economically secure elders.

Maybe it’s something that happened in the schools or maybe it’s TV or maybe it’s my fault, but at some point your generation got the impression that work is supposed to be fun and rewarding. It isn’t. It’s just fucking work, if I may. You’re jealous of the level of job security and benefits we had coming out of high school or college in the 60s, right? Your Uncle Joe retired at 60 with a nice pension. Do you know how he got it? He stood at a kick press for 8 hours per day, every day, for 40 years. Honey, if you had that job your head would explode from boredom and lack of stimulation in about a week. We’d never hear the end of how you feel unfulfilled and you’d probably quit to go “find yourself” or something before the pension vested.

Your Dad has one of those civil servant jobs that are disappearing these days. Twenty years at the Clerk’s office and another 20 behind a desk at Streets and Sanitation. How long would you be happy if you switched places with him? My point, kids, is not that you’re bad people or that you have no work ethic. My point is that we weren’t just handed good money and a pension. In most cases we had to spend the great majority of our lives doing incredibly mundane, repetitive, mindless, soul-crushing crap to get it. We did it because that’s where the money was. You know that silly show about the Office that you’re always watching on Netflix? Picture yourself as Stanley or one of the old people who sells paper over the phone. Imagine yourself on a phone all day, every day asking people to buy paper. For years. Decades. Those jobs don’t exist anymore. If they did, would you and your two Anthropology degrees do them?

“Fun and rewarding.”  Yes.  And as I reflect back it’s not exactly a mystery why anyone would get that idea in their heads.  It seems that something that was endlessly propagandized at me and most other middle-class-and-above children was a Big Lie of exactly that form:  work hard, play by the rules, find yourself a niche consistent with your talents (of which you have many, you bright, wonderful child!) and by adulthood you’ll find yourself with not a job but a career that will be a source of fulfillment for you.

It’s not hard to see why the lie gets propagated.  What is school?  Most of it is concentration on tasks of little intrinsic interest and following orders and routines set down for you by authorities of various kinds.  In short, good training to become a docile and obedient worker.  You need to hold a carrot out to people to get them to put up with that, and the promise of a bright future is certainly one such.  But the functions of the lie go beyond that: it continues to be serviceable once you get out into the world and find out that no one is interested in your own fulfillment, just your docility and obedience. Once you get there, out in the world of drudgery that is actual work, you can then turn the blame inward on yourself: the fact that your job sucks can be taken not as evidence that something is wrong with the world, but that something is wrong with you. You just didn’t work hard enough in school, or play by the rules right, or make the right choices.

One wonder what young people would do with themselves if only they knew what life beyond youth is really like. Rebel, I suspect.  Or live hard and hope to die before they got old.   They might at least have the decency not to make babies, a new generation to subject to the misery.

It leaves me to wonder if there’s any way to get young people to understand.  It would be very difficult, I suspect, as it would be swimming against a huge shit-stream of optimistic propaganda, to say nothing of the natural optimism of youth.

 Posted by at 09:48

  5 Responses to “If only they knew”

  1. Despite the curmudgeonly tendency for old people to tell kids to suck it up, there does seem to be a taboo against being honest with young people about the serious problems of life. If I were to walk up to a six year old and smile and inform her that God is imaginary and everyone dies eventually and doesn’t come back, I would be regarded as a scary, mean bitch. When I point out (as I often do) the physical harm reproduction does to a woman’s body, it is always with the feeling in the back of my mind that I’m being mean.

    Why is it mean to tell the truth, when the truth can be used to make better decisions?

  2. James, is the idea that people have children when they’re still in their “youth”, as defined for the purpose of this post, and so if young people had a more realistic view of human existence they’d be less sanguine about having children?

    Or is it about encouraging young people not to squander the period when they could really build up some positive utility?

    • Sorry about the slow response — had a busy week having my labor estranged.

      I had in mind something like the first interpretation (Karl in a subsequent comments notes difficulties with it); I hadn’t thought of the second, though I rather like it.

  3. It’s difficult to know if even a glimpse of their future would alter people’s behaviour, so strong is the conditioning. And besides, what are people supposed to do anyway even with foreknowledge? Life presents so few options that it’s difficult falling into one of the pre-arranged ruts.And we’re all guilty so let’s not get too smug. I imagine my old age and it fills me with horror, but yet I don’t have the guts to try avoiding it. Anyone who chooses to continue living is automatically guilty of self-deception of some kind.

  4. Should read “difficult to avoid falling” in the third line. Apologies.

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