Privileged Post-College Grads: Selling Out to Stay Afloat?

Alexander Zaitchik has an excellent review of The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America in today’s SF Chronicle. The book is about “privileged post-college compromise,” the idea that well-intentioned middle-class kids are going to work for corporate law firms or investment banks not because they really want to, but because that’s what it takes to pay for rent and cappuccinos in pricey, coastal, yuppie cities.

“The Trap” practically bursts with sympathetic portraits of such “sellouts” — from an aspiring civil rights lawyer who joins a union-busting corporate law firm, to an aspiring queer documentary filmmaker (Yale ’03) who takes a job at Google before running back into the relative security of a doctoral program….

Citing rising home and education costs, he remarkably asserts that for educated young Americans, “the nation is fast becoming the land of compulsory yuppiedom.” These unfortunate middle-class kids never wanted to work for Goldman Sachs — society made them do it! Practically turned them into a bunch of Patrick Batemans!

Ha. The review continues:

How did once-aspiring labor lawyers and social workers become reluctant (but willing) whores for corporate America? Brook’s explanation starts with the conservative onslaught against the redistributive economic policies of the New Deal. As income tax rates were slashed and the rich became exponentially richer in the 1980s, the cost of housing and education skyrocketed, placing huge debt burdens on middle-class students and pricing young parents with public service salaries out of good school districts. Meanwhile, the growth of the finance sector created thousands of “high-pay/no-experience jobs” that flooded formerly bohemian neighborhoods with yuppies, squeezing out writers, painters, public defenders — basically everyone making a modest income doing something interesting that they loved.

An interesting theory — I myself know many post-college 20-somethings who have jumped at a “high-pay/no-experience” job in the finance industry, predictably hate it, but also predictably like having cash and living in a hip city and going out on the weekends.

As Zaitchik the reviewer says, though, the idea that young Americans are being “forced” into these kinds of jobs is laughable.

It is simply not true that anyone has ever been forced — or ever will be forced — to become a yuppie. While the size of the material sacrifice needed to stay true to one’s ideals is indisputably larger than ever, educated Americans still have life choices beyond living on food stamps or writing copy for Burson-Marsteller. Anyone who says otherwise either has no imagination or values material comforts and prestige ZIP codes more than they are willing to admit.

Indeed. The solution is not to replicate the European welfare state in America to bolster the middle class. Better to start more simply: college grads being imaginative about how to construct a life that embodies genuine interests and values, and being at peace with the potential material and status tradeoffs that such a life might entail. This might mean lowering one’s standard of living to something not as influenced by media depictions of the rich and successful.

If “staying afloat” means living in Manhattan proper and partying every Friday and Saturday night, we have a definitional problem. For example, you can’t graduate from college, take a job an entry-level job at a small, independent publisher in San Francisco, and pay $2,200 a month for a two-bedroom apt on Union Street (hot yuppie central). The solution to this dilemma shouldn’t be, “Well, I guess I have to go into i-banking.” How about, “Why do I need to live on Union Street?”

I will read the book, though, and find out more.

23 Responses to Privileged Post-College Grads: Selling Out to Stay Afloat?

  1. Krishna says:

    I am in broad agreement with Dan Brook except where he sounds judgmental – that *all* graduates hop on to corporate careers because of greed.

    Who wouldn’t like to be in a nation where financial security, healthcare coverage, home ownership, and a good education are available to its average citizen? Question is how practical will that be.

    Call it Reverse Reaganomics if you want. But “equality as a greater good than liberty” leans much closer to communism. Next in line could be the iron wall, censorship, ideological authoritarianism…..back to where it all started!

  2. Dan says:

    I disagree with some points. I graduated from a state college three years ago with 50k in debt. I only paid tuition, rent and any extra was for books and food – no fun stuff. I knew going into college that I had to either do business or engineering so that I could make at least 45-55k when I graduated just so I could pay my student loans and rent (like $800 a month). This is not even in a big expensive city.

    So if I would have studied what I was interested in (History and Music) I would have graduated 50k in the hole and have a 10-12 dollar an hour job at best, I probably would have had to go back into construction.

    Since I have graduated tuition at my school has risen over 25%! Overall the middle class is eroding. You have to either start with money now or you basically have to be an entreprenuer with a successfull exit to get ahead these days. I mean maybe it’s a good thing, there will be more innovation in the future and entreprenuership simply because that’s the only way to get ahead and/or just survive. Unless wages rise significantly in the coming years, wage slaves and “career” minded folks are in for a long painful debt ridden ride.

  3. Andrew Fife says:

    Ben:
    having only read your post and neither the review nor the book, it does seem like the original author is missing one major point… the vast majority of college grads do not work for investment banks or corporate law firms. My best guess is that this represents less than .o1% of recent college grads, so I can’t see how one can make societal observations about such a small and detached niche group.

    What do you think? Are the i-banks taking on larger entry-level classes these days? Even at Ivy League caliber schools, I doubt they represent more than 1% of any graduating class.
    -Andrew

  4. Joe says:

    When I graduated I threw my 14,000 in savings and 12,000 of my brother’s money into a business venture led by sex drive (yeah my business partner was smoking) so unfortunately (or fortunately) the daily comfort of being around sexiness led me to the lesson of learning of self control (and I am really hard to control). I then chose (or we could say due to my lack of funding I was somewhat forced) to get a corporate job with good ol’ Bloomberg LP to make ends meet, live in the financial district in San Fran where I took a lease on a two-bedroom apt and subletted the other room for 65% of the entire rent. This left me paying only $600/month to rent and $1000/month back to my bro. One year later I’ve moved out of the financial district, taken another route where I don’t feel like my values are being raped, and have paid my brother back. Ben is right, more college grads need to be “imaginative about how to construct a life that embodies genuine interests and values.” Easier said than done, though. Everyday I wonder if my imagination will take me down another rocky road.

  5. joe says:

    one should note that my brother was an investor (NOT my gorgeous business partner – I hope she never sees this post ;)

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