Monday, May 18, 2020

The Mind of an American Millennial

As the week opens up, we take the occasion to look into the mind of an American millennial. You know, the cohort that is going to represent America on the world stage in the clash of civilizations. In 2015 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development tested America’s millennials and compared their scores to those of their peers around the world. The PIAAC tests adult competence, not aptitude. PIAAC stands for the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competences.

How did our millennials do? Abysmally badly. Todd Frankel reported in the Washington Post in 2015:

There was this test. And it was daunting. It was like the SAT or ACT -- which many American millennials are no doubt familiar with, as they are on track to be the best educated generation in history -- except this test was not about getting into college. This exam, given in 23 countries, assessed the thinking abilities and workplace skills of adults. It focused on literacy, math and technological problem-solving. The goal was to figure out how prepared people are to work in a complex, modern society.

And U.S. millennials performed horribly.

That might even be an understatement, given the extent of the American shortcomings. No matter how you sliced the data – by class, by race, by education – young Americans were laggards compared to their international peers. In every subject, U.S. millennials ranked at the bottom or very close to it, according to a new study by testing company ETS.

You got it. Our millennials were last in the world. We might have the greatest educational system the world has ever known. We might have the best political system that has ever existed. We are going to bring American industry and manufacturing home. Yes, we are. And yet, when we ask whether America’s youth, the products of our educational system, can compete in areas involving adult competence, the answer is that they cannot.

As for the great STEM programs in American universities, their inhabitants are most often Asians. And these Asians, once they have finished their studies, have been tending to head home, to leave America. 

What brought this to mind was a letter to the Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax. What struck me first about it was that the letter writer is a functional illiterate. People who do not know how to use pronouns do not know how to think. Would you hire someone who can't think?

I dare you to figure out his or her gender. I dare you to figure out the gender of his or her “partner.” Apparently, gender is something to be ashamed of, so young people mask their gender, to the point that you have no idea of their relationship. In fact, it is so systematic that one is beginning to suspect that these letters are edited by the thought police at the Washington Post to erase any reference to maleness or femaleness.

For the record, here is the letter. It offers good insight into the mind of one American millennial. He or she or it is a whiner. He or she or it is self-absorbed and self-indulgent. He or she or it has high self-esteem, but the mirage of self-esteem has just hit a wall. However highly this individual thinks or his or her or its abilities, the marketplace has just offered a discouraging verdict. He or she or it is in despair over poor career prospects, over the misfit between her ability and the marketplace. Nothing in the letter defines the relationship, and makes it seem that the only thing that matters is career.

About 14 months ago I moved across the country with my long-term partner for their career. I left my first job, at the time excited and hopeful about the possibilities for me in our new city.

I was job-searching in an incredibly competitive field. Although I got several interviews and came close to getting a job many times, I ultimately gave myself a year to try to make it in this industry before realizing it was too competitive and ultimately incompatible with the way I saw my life going.

Being unemployed for over a year has killed my confidence and wreaked havoc on me emotionally, and it has been hard on my relationship. In January I started to switch gears and move in a new direction, but now with coronavirus, I feel like I'm staring down another year of unemployment and I'm full of self-loathing.

I look back on the year I spent "chasing my dreams" as foolish and a huge waste of time, even though it's what I wanted at the time. I compare myself to my partner, who is a rock star in their career and directly working to manage the virus. They're headed to law school in the fall as well (theoretically), so I always see them doing amazing things while I've been unemployed and directionless for so long.

How do I forgive myself for my past choices — leaving a job to move to a city with no job secured, devoting a year to breaking into a difficult industry, etc. — especially now that I don't know when or if I'm ever going to start a real career?

— Mid-Twenties, No Career

I would guess that this Careerless millennial is a female. Or better, a feminist. Is career the only thing that’s on her mind?

So, the illusions that college and the culture fed her have just hit a wall. She has just learned that they have all been lying to her, selling unreasonable expectations and puffing up her self-esteem with empty praise.

Obviously, any self-definition that she might gain from her relationship has become irrelevant. One does not understand why, but, then again, we do not know whether she is or is not a he or an it. And we do not know the gender of the partner. So we have two neutered individuals setting out in the adult world, dazed and confused. 

The letter writer is lost. The letter writer’s partner is starting law school. One recognizes that there may or may not be law school this coming fall. One also knows that law firms have been seriously cutting back on hiring plans, so one wonders how great a career path that will become.

As for Hax, she is equally lost. Naturally, she thinks that it’s all about shame. Because today’s thinkers believe that everything is all about shame, and all about overcoming shame by pretending that you have nothing to be ashamed about. Of course, this tells people that they ought to aspire to shamelessness. 

Here is Hax:

You did nothing wrong.

And you’re doing nothing wrong now, except in succumbing to the pull of shame.

Trying something new is not a good or bad idea based only on the outcome. Some fine ideas tank for any number of reasons. Or, I suspect more aptly in this case, some ideas take longer to work out than we intended. Even some bad ideas produce eventual good results if you learn from them.

There was also no guarantee, by the way, that you’d have stayed just fine in your old job had you opted not to move.

This is ass-backwards. Obviously, the letter writer did do something wrong. She seriously overestimated her abilities. The fault must lie in part with the idiot professoriat that told her she was better than she is. But, shame is precisely the right emotion when you have failed, regardless of who led you down the wrong path.

Failure does produce shame. It ought to produce shame. It’s like the football player who drops the pass. He ought to feel ashamed of himself for dropping the pass. And he ought to work harder at learning how to catch the ball. Or some such. It might have been a great idea to try to catch it with one hand-- some wide receivers can do so-- but apparently it did not work out as expected. The marketplace or the arena casts the final vote on your dopey plans, not an advice columnist from the Washington Post.

Hax continues to say that the letter writer's journey is her own. That is also untrue. If she is part of a couple, the two of them are in it together. Feelings of shame make one feel alone and isolated. You do not cure feelings of rejection by pretending that you lack all human connections, that your paramour will suddenly find you less attractive because you do not have a high tech job.

So, the worst advice is to tell her that she should not work on the solution with her paramour, roommate.

And then, she might go out and get a job, though in the current historical juncture, jobs are not exactly easy to get. And she might consider applying to a graduate program herself. We do not know whether she or her paramour have trust funds or whether she needs to work to eat. If the letter writer is a woman, she might reconsider the notion that if she doesn’t have a career her life is worthless. Who told her that? Perhaps she is not suited for the corporate world or for high tech. She might try working in a non profit or for a government agency.

Anyway, Hax offers this not-so-bad advice:

If you’ve done this mining already, then drop the past entirely in favor of now and tomorrow. Crisis makes that simple, if not exactly appealing: You can skip the whole fuzzy part about what you want and cut straight to whatever is still possible.

Then, from these possibilities, build a plan. Such as: 1. How long can you afford to be unemployed? Financially and emotionally. 2. What can you do to buy yourself more time for your “new direction” to bring results? Is anyone hiring, are volunteers needed? 3. Break for exercise and stress-baking, and ask yourself 4. if you were to veer off your intended path entirely, where would you go? Blame the catastrophe and leave yourself room for wild what-ifs and wondering.

Make the room, I should say, by pushing shame out. We are in the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a mass rethinking of priorities and purpose; you just got your invitation early. There’s no dishonor in that.

For the record, the reference to stress baking tells me that Hax, at least, thinks she is addressing a woman. No man indulges in stress baking. If he does, that explains why he can’t get a job.

Hax is correct to tell the woman that she should get over the therapy culture nonsense about following your bliss or even doing what you want. She is also correct to recommend that the woman make a plan.

What will propel the woman forward? Simply, her shame. No one quite seems to understand that while shame can cripple, shame can also motivate. Just as fear motivates you to avoid threats, shame motivates people toward success, or at least toward hard work and toward a reassessment of one’s abilities and one’s goals.

One would like to imagine that the woman’s paramour is supporting her decisions, and perhaps even her lifestyle-- she does not say that she is facing starvation-- but one place she might start is by making a home, by spending more time on household chores. If you want to build back your sense of your own self-worth, the only way to do so is to accomplish something, even something small and seemingly trivial. It might begin, as Adm. William McRaven told the graduating class at the University of Texas, Austin several years ago, with making your bed.

It’s a thought you will never read in a newspaper advice column.  Thank God for the blogosphere.


whitney said...

Did you read about the guy that goes to those sites like onlyfans and buys naked, perfectly legal, pictures of 18 + women. Then he sends the pictures to her parents, her church, her job. That's a good use of Shame.

UbuMaccabee said...

I can hear the woman’s irritating vocal uptalk from here, droning, listless, too lazy to pronounce a word; she is like a malfunctioning oscilloscope stuck on the most grating setting ever known to the human nervous system. In the old Spanish castas paintings, Boomer marrying Boomer and having offspring produced the most undesirable results. They are not even good slaves because they cannot do even the simplest manual labor. Make an espresso is their highest function.

urbane legend said...

Stress baking? I understand the idea but isn't exercise, yoga, running, etc., supposed to accomplish the same purpose? Those things shouldn't cost much. Baking costs something. Do people who are diabetic or at least overweight need baked goods to aggravate those problems and increase their stress? But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and that can apply to food, can't it?

I bake. It has nothing to do with stress. I get the satisfaction of seeing people smile when they get to sample something I baked. Yes, you do have only my word for that. ;-)

Sam L. said...

"We might have the greatest educational system the world has ever known." BUT, we DON'T. The Left has taken it over.

"In fact, it is so systematic that one is beginning to suspect that these letters are edited by the thought police at the Washington Post to erase any reference to maleness or femaleness." Ahhhhh, the WaPoo's thought police! Getting their kicks on Route 66!

What is "stress baking" and how hot does one's oven need to be?