Post-Apocalyptic Career Counseling, Part II

II. Life Beyond the Success Algorithm

“My whole life, I had been doing everything everybody told me. I went to the right school. I got really good grades. I got all the internships. Then, I couldn’t do anything.”

–Rebecca Chapman, Literary Editor, The New Inquiry, quoted in “New York’s Literary Cubs,” New York Times, 11/30/11

Fortunately for Generation Y, they aren’t sitting around waiting for Generation X to come up with career advice.

Moses H., a brilliant junior at Swarthmore, told me in a video letter from his semester abroad in Italy that “only the stupidest” among his cohort still expect the promised good job awaiting them at the end of their grueling academic ordeals in high school and college. “Anyone with a realistic expectation by junior year knows that there’s nothing out there for them,” Moses told me.“We have friends who have graduated, so we’re very well aware of the climate. We talk about it. And we’re angry. We’re very angry.”

Those still trying to apply what I call the success algorithm compete as strenuously for unpaid internships as they did for class rank in high school. Adding skills and experiences to a resume through internships and volunteer work remains the standard advice for the young and ambitious. (The pool of talented, well-educated, diligent young workers willing, even desperate, to work for free in order to build their resumes obviates the need for companies to hire entry-level employees who expect things like salary and benefits, but I digress.)  Those shut out of high status/no salary internship opportunities compete instead for low-wage, dead-end employment, a prospect depressing enough even for those who don’t have tens of thousands of dollars in college debt to pay off.  We’re lucky they’re only occupying cities and not burning them to the ground.

But some of them just refuse to play along anymore. Applying their advanced mathematical modeling skills, principles gleaned in micro and macro economics courses, and highly developed critical thinking abilities, they have calculated the odds against them and renounced the attempt to climb a career ladder that was kicked to splinters before they ever got a foot on the first rung. Self-employment is risky compared to a job with a steady paycheck, but when a stable entry-level position with salary and benefits seems as elusive and archaic as a unicorn, why not try it? What do you have to lose?

One group of high-achieving graduates from some of the nation’s best colleges started The New Inquiry, a sophisticated journal of literature and ideas. Their story of giving up on the dream of obtaining entry-level positions, or even unpaid internships, in a notoriously competitive and underpaid field and striking out on their own is equal parts terrifying and inspiring.

It’s terrifying to realize that in this economy, no level of intelligence, achievement and ambition can protect a young person from unemployment. I think a lot of driven high school students believe that they will somehow be immune from the youth unemployment crisis because they will be just a little bit smarter or a little more tenacious, that they will have some edge that will ensure their inclusion in whatever minority for whom the success algorithm still works. The founders of The New Inquiry hold Ivy League bachelor’s and master’s degrees. They graduated magna and summa cum laude. They didn’t forget to do something or do any of it halfway. They did everything their parents, teachers, professors and mentors ever required of them, and more, and it wasn’t enough to get an entry-level job or an unpaid internship in their field.

Their solution of banding together, pooling their extraordinary talents, utilizing their technological wizardry and creating the jobs they wanted, albeit positions no more remunerative than the unpaid internships they couldn’t get, is inspiring because it provides at least one model of what a happy future might look like beyond the success algorithm. Moses told me about a group of artist friends who, realizing that no individual artist can survive economically, plan to live, work, and market their art collectively, minimizing expenses and maximizing the reach of their combined networks. Instead of letting their talents go to waste waiting tables or sweeping the floor in movie theaters, young entrepreneurs challenge themselves, acquire new skills, and do what they love.

Their entrepreneurship is not the quest of rugged individuals, however, but of cooperative groups. Share or Die: Youth in Recession, a collection of essays written by twentysomethings, describes new forms of collective living and working to counter our environmental and economic catastrophes.  Starting a crowdfunded co-op may not have been what a Race to Nowhere high achiever had imagined when she was sleeping four hours a night, taking six AP courses, running the Student Council and leading the field hockey team to the county championship, but it’s more fun than working at Starbucks, and if she’s lucky, eventually pays better.  It may ultimately, as the economy recovers, provide a better foundation when corporations start hiring again than going back to grad school and acquiring more debt. Already, the founders of The New Inquiry have gotten attention and opportunities in the literary world from organizations that wouldn’t look at them this time last year.

They can’t all do it, obviously, and a million start-ups won’t be a viable model for the American economy on a mass scale. Contrary to myth, small businesses are not the primary driver of  American growth, innovation and employment. Someone has to work for the Fortune 500 to pay for the boutique goods and services offered by micro-industries, although a few of today’s start-ups might be tomorrow’s behemoths.  Perhaps some of these little companies will rise to compete with the large corporations that passed on the opportunity to offer the young entrepreneurs their first job. Maybe delicious ironies await us ten years down the road.


So what do we tell the children? The teenagers, I mean, the ones who aren’t thinking very much about the future yet, whose notions of the future are still hazy or involve playing professional sports?  Should we tell them all to major in accounting and engineering and nursing?  Graduates in those fields stand a much better chance of employment than art history majors. What models of education best prepare young people to survive and thrive? Should they all learn Mandarin?  Does the bullet-proof credential or skill set exist?  Or has the time come for them to learn to grow their own food, build their own houses, weave their own cloth, brew their own beer, and perform each other’s home surgeries?

(Answers to those questions will, with any luck, appear in Part III of Post-Apocalyptic Career Counseling.)


Thanks to Moses for cross-Atlantic and intergenerational insights and to Neil Fein of Magnificent Nose for editorial acumen.

About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon and In the Meat Department: A Novel, one of which may even be published someday! She is a former candidate for New York State Senate and Rockland County Legislature, and would be only too happy to tell you all about it. You could at one time follow her on Twitter, but she's done with that all that now. Please connect with her on Mastodon instead: Mastodon
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11 Responses to Post-Apocalyptic Career Counseling, Part II

  1. Kae Fries says:

    I am greatly looking forward to your next post on this series, as what you’re describing is precisely what my husband is (and by extension, I am) going through. We were led to believe all through high school and college that a degree is actually a necessary commodity in the workforce. After 10 years of undergrad (6 for myself), an English Major and other arts courses later, my husband is unemployed, and stuck as to his next move, despite statistics claiming that here in Canada the employment situation is better. We are too much in student loan debt for more vocation-specific education, but he cannot get employment insurance because he was underemployed in low-paying retail for the past year and a half (on average 6-8 hours a week). The worst part is the debilitating bitterness and cynicism I feel towards the whole post-secondary system for cheerfully misleading us for so long. I’m sure years down the road either the formula for success or the economy will change, and students will have a better shot at a career, but for those of us right now, we are a lost generation whose slow start at a career will drag us behind for the rest of our lives.

    • I’m so sorry to hear that. So many people are suffering in this terrible economy. The frustration of doing exactly what everyone said a sensible person ought to do and finding nothing at the end of that process only exacerbates the pain. Here’s hoping things improve for your family, for all our families, very soon.

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  3. niat holder says:

    Thank you for this work. I have two adult children, one who was slung off from the teaching profession(Math, no less) and one in computer graphics. With all due respect for your insights, I think this is a bigger problem. Many that have recently (last 2-5 yrs.) graduated (RN)from nursing school have been unable to apply for LPN (hs required) jobs in upstate SC. They have been denied an interview. The cashier (RN Clemson) at the grocery commutes 45 minutes, the other classmate with a Master’s hasn’t a job.

  4. Here’s the thing that no one tells you: success in college does not equal success at work. In school you’re told exactly what to do, read this, write this, get this A, apply for that job and bam! You’ve got a life.

    But in the working world the people who succeed are self-managers, self-teachers, and networkers. They’re hustlers and don’t expect to have direction and guidance all of the time. They are likable and know how to leverage teams to get things done. I have met many a 3.8 GPA student that was smart, but didn’t have the social acumen to be part of a dynamic team

    The market is tough- that’s a fact – and a lot of people who are brilliant are out of work. But I also think that we need to stop expecting our degrees to give us the world – they do not. They are just one check box on that long syllabus called life.

    • I think you’re exactly right. I wonder how we can communicate this to students who are getting just the opposite message everywhere else. A high school junior told me recently that it doesn’t matter if you can get along with people, only how smart you are. I was unable to convince him that he was wrong about this because everyone else in his life had told him that his most important priority must be academic success, and that nothing else mattered. He’s not alone in believing the opposite of what is true.

      • I think it’s so important to work while you are in school, have your own side business. I tutored the SAT all through college. You start to learn things that you never would in a classroom, like, say, the fact that I had awesome relationships with students and their parents and THAT was really the reason why I got referrals and more business. My tutoring too, but relationships first.

        But maybe these lessons will all come with time and age. After all, you learn to do by doing 🙂

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