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She points out that the notion of the United States being a meritocracy is no longer valid.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.

Outside the Ivory Tower

ivory towerWhat follows are some seemingly disconnected paragraphs related to a range of First World problems (things that people who work in coalmines or steel mills don’t have the time, energy or resources to pontificate about). Bear with me and you will see that some overarching themes will emerge – perhaps along the lines of: tangible vs. intangible, concrete vs. abstract, limitations vs. opportunities, relevance vs. obscurity, expectations vs. reality, thinking vs. acting.

It was quite by accident that I recently stumbled upon the amazing work of compatriot Priv Bradoo. Although very young (I think in her early 30’s), she has accomplished incredible things in the arenas of science, business, entrepreneurship and environmentalism, like discovering a new gene for brain repair and founding a start-up dedicated to recycling e-waste. Of course, she no longer works from little ol’ New Zealand, but is based in the U.S. where there is actually money and markets for things such as tangibly changing the world.

In a public talk she gave recently, she said that she used to aspire to being a neuroscience professor but serendipity intervened and she soon realized that she would need to work outside of academia and delve into the worlds of business and entrepreneurship to create the kind of large scale impact she desired. In order to do this, she had to let go of the notion that business people were ‘losers,’ and that she was going to the dark side. She urges people to consider empowerment (based on the tenets of entrepreneurship, such as innovation, creativity, action, proactivity, failure) over employment, citing the latter as paid servitude.

Enter Sarah Kendzior, a recovering academic in the United States who holds a PhD in anthropology. Despite the dismal job prospects for people in that field, she has managed to carve out a living for herself outside of academia through journalism, consulting, speaking, and researching. She empowered herself by giving up on an academic career (she didn’t have the financial resources to support herself when, and if, she found a tenure-track position) and realized that she can have much more relevance, influence and impact outside of the walls of the ivory tower. She writes about the sad state of affairs in her homeland for having or seeking paid servitude:

When you continually board sinking ships, you stop having hope. In a collapsed economy, this is an advantage. The most unnerving thing I see in the job market nowadays—academic or otherwise—is people working in terrible conditions in the hope of a future that never comes. Hope is something you should have for other people, not for yourself. Hope holds you down and blinds you to possibilities.

transitionRealize that nowadays, everyone is in transition—even if they think they are secure. Ignore people who say that things will “work out eventually,” especially baby boomers who have no idea of the grim prospects for people in their 20s and 30s. Things often do not work out and there is no reason for you to suffer on false promises. I see so many graduate students and recent PhDs sacrificing things they want—having a family, pursuing outside interests, expressing their beliefs—in order to meet other people’s expectations. They base personal decisions on others’ empty assurances. This is a terrible way to live.

Does Molly Wizenberg care about other people’s expectations? I came across her food blog, Orangette one day when I was procrastinating and discovered that she gave up a PhD program in anthropology: she couldn’t see where she was going with it or how it would lead to gainful employment. The two most important things to her were food and writing, so she combined the two into soft-core food porn for the Internet to which I have a mild addiction (the food writing, not the Internet itself). Because she is passionate about what she does, is a skillful writer, a clever marketer and of course an experienced and knowledgeable cook, she has attracted a large audience. Other bonuses include: two book deals, her husband (he emailed her because he liked her blog), and together they have opened two restaurants in Seattle and recently had a baby. She is making things and selling them (food and words, not the baby). They are tangible. They are commercial. They make money. There is a demand for these things. (Side note: Molly went to top tier universities, and her father was a doctor, so probably there was no potential homelessness or crippling student loans to worry about if no-one liked her work).

Finally, I have been reading a memoir about a glamorous former New York writer (Kristin Kimball) who falls in love with a dashing and charming farmer. Together, they founded and run a farm that feeds hundreds of people. In the following lines, she reflects on how her view of work has changed as she became an experienced farmer:

As I patched the barn with scrap lumber, pig-tight but ugly, I was forced to confront my own prejudice. I had come to the farm with the unarticulated belief that concrete things were for dumb people and abstract things were for smart people. I thought the physical world – the trades – was the place you ended up if you weren’t bright or ambitious enough to handle a white-collar job. Did I really think that a person with a genius for fixing engines, or for building, or for husbanding cows, was less brilliant than a person who writes ad copy or interprets the law? Apparently I did, though it amazes me now. I ordered books from the library about construction, plumbing, and electricity, and discovered that reading them was like trying to learn in a foreign language, the simplest things – the names of unknown tools or hardware, the names for parts of structures – creating dead ends that required answers, more research. There’s no better cure for snobbery than a good ass kicking.

So, there you have it. I guess that now I am at the end, all these words put together into sentences construct some kind of meaning – to which I now interpret broadly as being about thinking, acting, and working outside of the box; as exploring the road less travelled and flipping the bird to society’s and other people’s expectations.

“The most interesting safe country” An Afternoon with The Economist’s Daniel Tudor

TudorToday I attended 10 Magazine’s Book Club which featured an afternoon of Q&A with The Economist’s Korea correspondent Daniel Tudor. He has just written a book called Korea: The Impossible Country. I admit to not having read the book, but I was interested in what he had to say about the country and his experience here. Listening to him, I was validated in many of my own insights, opinions and experiences. We both like being here because of the warmth of the Korean people, and also because it is a dynamic and fascinating country that is continually changing (in his words, “the most interesting safe country”). Here I will summarize some of his most astute observations and opinions.

The Korean Wave: It was inevitable as other developed Asian countries have had their time in the limelight, but now it’s time to move on…

Working in a Korean Company: They are very hierarchical, aged-based and working in one made him feel like a little boy. As a white foreigner with a degree from Oxford, he felt that people were either too nice to him or unnecessarily obnoxious. He talked about the resentment of the other workers who had to stay until 11pm with nothing much to do while he went home at 7pm because he didn’t see a future there for him.

Compulsory Military Service: It is a kind of socialisation and prepares young men for the hierarchicalism that they will experience in company life and gets them used to being ordered around. It is also a very important bonding experience for the men who often stay in touch throughout their lives.

Freedom of Press: As a member of the foreign press, he has a lot of freedom but laments that national newspapers cannot overtly criticize large companies because 10-20% of the papers’ advertising budget comes from them. However, because the mainstream press is muzzled, people can go to the outskirts and express their views in smaller, online forums.

The Issue of North Korea: He believes that the country is essentially capitalist at its roots and also at the top, but the latter is riddled with corruption. He would like to see more foreign businesses operating in North Korea and raising the standard of living for its citizens. He is concerned that North Korea is being seen as increasingly foreign by the younger generation and that there is an apathy among many Koreans towards reunification.

Women’s Roles: He stated that it would be good for the economy for women to go back into the workforce after raising children and also that if they had a job outside of raising children, they wouldn’t be obsessed with ‘keeping up with the Kims’ in terms of pressuring their children to succeed and compete. They could break out of the Tiger Mum role.

The Economy: There won’t be another Asian Tiger phenomenon. Korea can’t compete with China and so should focus on competing with Switzerland and Germany. He predicts that unless some very savvy investing occurs, the national pension office will be empty by 2040.

Society: Korea has a certain open-mindedness and the ability to self-correct as it evolves, unlike Japan which, although aware of its social and economic problems, remains in denial, stagnant and doesn’t strive to change. Korea should now focus on fostering a wider definition of success and celebrate those interested in creative pursuits as well as entrepreneurs.