Graduating in a recession

Post-graduate life may be uncertain, but a job entails more than work.

It is easy to forget in education-rich Minnesota that only 27 percent of Americans have college degrees. Those fortunate few are also most likely to be financially successful. In a global economy that is as merciless as it is indiscriminate, those with any less than university experience face uncertainty in the best of times. Educational disparities are one of the best explanations for income inequality. According to CNN, in the current economic mess about 4 percent of those with college degrees are unemployed. By contrast, nearly 9 percent of those without are out of work. Degrees are a boon even in the bad times. Yet the constant deluge of dire economic predictions does nothing to soothe young people on the brink of entering the vaunted real world. Parents and politicians often tout a college education as part of the American dream. Massive amounts of public money subsidize loans for students. But the little discussed result is that it is the middle classes that capture this money, not those less well off. The American Dream of hard work reaping deserved rewards thus becomes heavily contingent on the social capital bestowed at birth âÄî not to mention biological advantages such as intelligence. This state of the system can be disconcerting. Too many students are not given the opportunities they deserve. And too many college students treat higher education as an obstacle or an obligation in life. Not to condescend anyone who comes from a privileged background âÄî most work very hard. But college must be treated as a privilege too. The ways which popular culture romanticizes the more infantile aspects of âÄúcollege lifeâÄù at times is unbecoming of a supposedly civilized society. Next week, seniors graduate into a truly remarkable point in history. The mess on Wall Street has highlighted an ever-present tension in American political life. The inconceivable pay received by finance workers has been a source of public outrage. Along that same vein, bankers cannot understand that anger âÄî they work sometimes 110-hour weeks, so they deserve their salary. Many are disgusted that paper-shuffling bankers earn more than those who work to keep the American infrastructure running. This recession will not end soon and growth will be anemic. There will not be the same promise of high salaries there was before. Yet soon-to-be graduates must recognize that the American promise of financial reward for hard work is nonsense. You can work as hard as humanly possible and not earn anything. Not to be cliché, but life is not fair. There will always be exceptions, of course, and always those who treat money as a possession. Let them. They add nothing to life. Work can also be about something greater than self. Virtue can be its own reward. Not everyone will be famous âÄî but there is nothing less honorable than those who work hard to give their families the best life they can. Nor should post-college life be dreaded. As novelist Alain de Botton wrote, âÄúWork means an end to freedom, but also to doubt, intensity and wayward desires âĦ How satisfying it is to be held in check by the assumptions of colleagues, instead of being forced to contemplate, in the loneliness of the early hours, all that one might have been, and now never will be.âÄù So before we last lay our pen for the Daily, let us offer the wisdom of Albert Camus: âÄúYour successes and happiness are forgiven you only if you generously consent to share them.âÄù To all you graduates, we wish the very best of luck. St. JamesâÄô Street welcomes comments at [email protected].