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.

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