On privilege and meritocracy (again)

the-american-dreamAnthropologist, writer and intellectual giantess Sarah Kendzior recently published an astute analysis of why those born in the 1970s or later are basically fucked as in a climate of widening inequality, winner takes all.

Although she is referring to the American context, the pattern also applies more generally to the western world. Broadly, she asserts that the baby boomers had it relatively easy and now getting a decent education and job are much more difficult for those of us under forty.

In her words: “In America, education has become a prize for people who have already won. Those with money, connections, and access to technology travel a path that starts with private preschools, continues through SAT tutors and exorbitant enrichment activities, and culminates in college that costs more than the national median income.”

She points out that the notion of the United States being a meritocracy is no longer valid. Back in the day when the boomers were coming of age, a good, affordable education was more accessible and decent jobs more plentiful. However, now  the springboard into a solid middle class existence comes with a much heftier price tag. According to Kendzior, “The fate of the next generation…relies on how heavily parents are able to invest in the expensive credentials now required to purchase a professional future.”

She terms this an “entrenched meritocracy” – “one structured on what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called ‘the social alchemy that turns class privilege into merit.’ In an entrenched meritocracy, advantages conferred by birth are marketed as achievements, but these achievements – a good education, a prestigious-but-unpaid or low-paying entry-level job – are only possible for those who have the means to afford them. The cycle repeats itself, with a wealthy and educated elite conferring their own advantages onto their children.”

Kendzior goes on to assert that, “opportunity hoarding has become the pastime of the elite, with education used as a proxy for rejection based on ‘merit,’ and ‘merit’ redefined as how many prestigious accolades one is able to purchase to gain access to education. This process begins at birth, where quality of school is determined by parental income bracket, but is shown most clearly in higher education, where the cost of tuition increased 1120 percent between 1982 and 2012.”

So where does this leave us? It’s clear that Gen Y and millennials, the offspring of the baby boomers are struggling. They struggle with paying for education, housing, finding suitable and well-paying work. While some of it is their own fault (let’s face it, they can be a bit entitled and narcissistic), economic immobility is spreading like a disease, education becoming more and more for the elite, like back in the old days, leaving a very uncertain future indeed. If things continue as they are, it will only get worse, and slowly but surely, the American dream is turning into a nightmare.

Why write?

woman-writingI am feeling inspired by something my friend Carly posted on her blog recently. A published and award-winning writer, in this beautiful and thoughtful piece she examines why and how she writes. Like many people with an artistic or creative streak, I sometimes feel that choosing to write isn’t actually a choice. It’s something that needs to happen, a force greater than oneself. It is something that can be denied, suppressed, and forgotten about….for a while. But it will never, ever disappear.

I suppose that for me the writing seed was planted at a young age – I am that cliched introverted, shy, sensitive child who was always observing, trying to figure things out. I read a lot and I wanted to copy what I was reading, so I wrote poems and short stories about my pets and toys. I have a very vivid imagination and think visually, so writing came easily to me. Add to that potent mix some teachers who praised my writing and told me I would be an author when I grew up. As I grew older, I wrote mostly academic things for school and university and the praise still came. I’ve had a few paid writing gigs over the years and the accolates and the money came. But by choice, I now write solely for myself and find my income elsewhere.

So why write? Because writing is a way of processing the world, of making sense of my experience. As the venerable Joan Didion once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” And it gives life meaning – it’s a method of making life’s lemons into lemonade. If art can come from tragedy, heartbreak, betrayal, hardship, death, then maybe that experience has more value. And through writing, one can also revel in the beauty of the world, to not only lament its sorrows, but celebrate its joys.

And then there’s the unpredictable, mysterious journey of writing. It’s one of the few things that puts me in a state of flow, in the zone where the conscious mind is seduced by the subconscious. Where you start at one place with no idea of where you’ll end up, but with a knowing that where you do end up is where you need to be. Things emerge that you couldn’t understand or figure out with your conscious mind. Answers are found. There is a sacredness in that experience. It is mystical and magical, and brings one back into one’s self, a kind of mental yoga.

Writing is also a way of recording one’s own development. Looking back at things I wrote in my journal 15 years ago, I laugh at the silly things I was upset or obsessed about. And I hope that the things I vomit-write into my journal now I can look back on in years to come and see how far I have come and how far I still have to go. Documenting this journey through words is a way to understand the peaks and the valleys, a way of connecting the dots.

Perhaps most importantly, writing is a way of learning (and practicing) that the destination is the journey, that the act of writing is its own reward. That, to borrow an Anne Lamott quote mentioned by Carly, writing is “like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.”

Part of a journey

337461_10150452988241853_755705957_oSeveral years ago I went on a little journey. I was visiting my uncle who lives in one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world near Queenstown, New Zealand. It was not far from the little village where I spent several happy summer holidays as a child. During one of those summers when I was about 12, my father decided to take me and my younger brother on a hike through the rivers and over the mountains to an old, abandoned settlement from the gold rush days. I remember the walk, under the hot central Otago sun, as being grueling but incredible. We were pushed beyond our physical limits to traverse the terrain, to wade through chest-deep freezing rivers and to walk for some eight hours almost vertically. I felt a great sense of accomplishment upon arriving at our destination, a few ramshackle buildings, piles of rocks really, hidden among the tall, dry grass.

I set out that bright and early morning in order to revisit this place. I was encouraged by the blue sky and calm breeze. I made my way by mountain bike to the entrance of the hike, stopping for an apricot and chicken pie on the way. I decided that I would do everything from memory so I didn’t do any prior research, I would just see where my intuition would take me. Things started off well enough but then I realized after about an hour, as the stony hills became progressively steeper and the sun started to beat down on my pasty skin, leaving a pink ting, that it was perhaps a bit ambitious to be walking all that way alone on such a hot day with minimal supplies. Still, I persevered and paddled through rivers and clambered over rocks. Marveling at the sheer beauty of it all. I eventually noticed that there was a kind of road, probably leading in the direction I was going. As if I had willed it, two minutes later a black SUV came roaring along and stopped next to me. A woman in her late 40’s or early 50’s appeared as her window in the passenger’s side slid down. We exchanged pleasantries and it turned out her and her husband, visiting from Australia, were heading to the same place. They offered me a ride. I thought twice – I had wanted to walk and feel that same sense of accomplishment I had felt all those years ago, knowing that the destination is not as important as the journey. But, I knew that I wouldn’t make it if I tried to walk so I jumped into the backseat and off we went. Mr. Australia skillfully navigated the rocky, narrow road and after a few minutes found a couple panting up the hill, weighed down by giant backpacks. We stopped and picked them up too. The man was from NZ and his wife was from England. They were tan and fit, having been hiking around all of New Zealand for the past few months.

We drove for at least thirty minutes and ended up in an open field with the long, yellow, dry grass that I remembered. Together we sat near the abandoned, restored structures that were once houses, a bakery, a schoolhouse. Things seemed smaller than I remembered. The older Australian couple had recently sold their environmental sustainability consulting firm for a lot of money and had been travelling around the world. The younger couple had also sold their artisan cottage industries and their house and were planning on backpacking around the world and then settling in the Caribbean to restart their businesses again. Both couples spoke of their dislike of children. Of how they never wanted them and will never have them. “I tell my friends ‘I’ll look after your dog, but I won’t look after your kids!'” said the Australian woman. There was too much of the world to explore.

They exchanged heart-wrenching stories of those near and dear to them who had passed away too young. They shared the same philosophy that you can’t delay things like travel until retirement. They’ve known too many people who have died from heart attacks, cancer and other illnesses before they’ve had the opportunity to explore the world.

And there I was, listening, observing, wondering. I was at a cross-roads in my life. Wondering where I would live next, what I would do, if I wanted to have children. At that time, everything was so up in the air. I wasn’t sure. Three years later, things are still confusing and unsure, but now I think the child piece has been put soundly to sleep. As for traveling, I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot while young. Still, I think there’s a long way to go.