A Harvard Degree Won’t Buy More than a Sandwich

The New York Times just published a short piece entitled “Generation Limbo: Waiting it Out” by Jennifer S. Lee.  The subject material will be familiar to many cultural observers, but the article underscores the difficulties many twentysomethings are having today in advancing into adulthood.

Lee introduces the group:

Meet the members of what might be called Generation Limbo: highly educated 20-somethings, whose careers are stuck in neutral, coping with dead-end jobs and listless prospects.

And so they wait: for the economy to turn, for good jobs to materialize, for their lucky break. Some do so bitterly, frustrated that their well-mapped careers have gone astray. Others do so anxiously, wondering how they are going to pay their rent, their school loans, their living expenses — sometimes resorting to once-unthinkable government handouts.

One interesting aspect of the article is that many of the college grads profiled are from exceptional schools.  The Ivy League and its colleagues seem to catapult less of their graduates into the Center of the Universe these days:

For Geo Wyeth, 27, who graduated from Yale in 2007, that means adopting a do-it-yourself approach to his career. After college, he worked at an Apple Store in New York as a salesclerk and trainer, while furthering his music career in an experimental rock band. He has observed, he said, a shift among his peers away from the corporate track and toward a more artistic mentality.

“You have to make opportunities happen for yourself, and I think a lot of my classmates weren’t thinking in that way,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of setting up your own lemonade stand.”

There’s much to be said about an insightful, if brief, piece like this.  The cultural ground has shifted beneath our feet.  This is true for at least a segment of the young adult population.  Of course, there are plenty of young overachievers out there who are working hard and advancing fast.  In addition, there have always been folks who, for whatever reason, went to a pressure-cooker school, only to choose a simpler, slower way of life.  I grew up among some of these types in coastal Maine.  In my relatively underpopulated region, there were grads from Dartmouth, MIT, Swarthmore, Bowdoin and many other schools who chose not to work in major city centers.  They wanted a quieter life surrounded by natural beauty, and they got it.

There are some new pieces to the puzzle sketched for us in Lee’s piece, however.  The twentysomething population that fits into the “Generation Limbo” profile is not merely choosing a quieter life, but seems unaware of the personal challenges and societal costs of their aimlessness.  Money is not everything, least of all for a Christian, but it is hugely helpful in providing stability to oneself and one’s family.  Of course, beyond some mere instinct to start a family (which is good!), Christians believe that we fulfill the dominion mandate of Genesis 1 by pursuing procreation.  God designed the natural family and gave this model to us for our growth and flourishing.  Many of the college grads profiled in the piece have little sense or concern for such realities.  What’s more, the social costs of listlessness will be significant over time.  The struggling American economy must bear the weight of able-bodied citizens who are not, for whatever reason, “producing” at a historically adult level.  The money for food stamps, of course, comes from someone, right (or is it created out of thin air)?

We shouldn’t miss, though, that a fair number of these recent grads have come of age in a new world order.  They were not prepared for the adult world by their parents; they were given a promise of complete fulfillment in work and maturity; they jumped through many hoops to achieve, only to find themselves exhausted by the end of their schooling.  The reality of Generation Limbo owes first in my view to moral and spiritual teaching (or the lack thereof), but this phenomenon has emerged with the help of other factors as well.

Pieces like Lee’s remind Christians and churches of the need to invigorate our youth with the biblical vision of Christ-fueled labor aimed at theocentric glory.  The dominion mandate extends into today.  Other visions of maturity and adulthood will falter, eventually, but the biblical depiction of labor as intrinsically good and maturity as God-glorifying are truths far more exciting and purposive than the pursuit of such ends as money, success, or personal fulfillment, none of which can sustain us as an ultimate end.


HT: Ben Domenech’s excellent Transom email list

(Image: Matt Roth for the NYT)

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