The Graduate: Why Should Everyone Else Pay for Other People's Dumb (and Hedonistic) Career Choices

I’ve recently made the acquaintance of a young man who has a problem. He is 28 years old; smart, of good moral character, and willing to work hard at part-time jobs. He does not expect anyone else, including the government, to support him.  Yet he is puzzled and increasingly bitter that he cannot make a good living.

What’s his difficulty? It’s not the economy (in this specific case) but the fact that he has a degree in linguistics and is now studying Oriental philosophy at a fine university. His case is not altogether typical, but is immensely revealing.

Here’s the secret: He cannot make a living because the market for people with degrees in linguistics and in Oriental philosophy is limited. He should have known that. Someone should have told him that. The calculation of practicality should have been made. It wasn’t.

As I said, this individual does not want handouts and he has not taken student loans. Many others have. A large proportion of the Occupy Wall Street-and-other-places movement seems to consist of those who have made similar “career” (or non-career) decisions but want others to pay for their pastimes and mistakes.

There are at least three important lessons here of the greatest importance.

First, young people should be taught, as the old saying goes, that the world doesn’t owe them a living. Nothing could seem more obvious, yet this has largely been forgotten. This is especially true in the United States, a country whose prosperity was built on understanding this point. Of course, telling them that the world does owe them a living can be rather popular and lead to one's election to public office.

Despite the rhetoric employed, the current dominant idea in the United States seems to be not so much that the “rich” (and, in practice, the middle class) have to pay “their fair share” to those who are starving to death in rat-infested squatter camps (of whom there aren’t many), but that they must subsidize upper middle class people who are non-productive yet living very nice lives, often better lives than those who are hard-working and subsidizing them. Those to be subsidized include those who want to work in cushy, unproductive, useless but prestigious jobs but cannot find them, or those who want to work in cushy, unproductive, useless but prestigious jobs and do find them working directly or indirectly for the government, supposedly doing good things.

Indeed, the siphoning off of potentially useful citizens who might possibly engage in some economically productive activity (insert lawyer jokes if you wish) into all sorts of made-up and useless jobs is bleeding society. The problem is not the economic elite's greed, but the oversized “intellectual” greed. Why do you think university tuitions have skyrocketed?

Know this for sure: a lot of these latter people (in contrast to the former group) do not work very hard and their work is of low quality, in large part because they don't have to meet serious oversight and their "products" don't bear any real value. In other words, their main achievement each day is to have good conversations over lunch.

Since when have Americans fallen for the idea that government bureaucrats are so useful and productive that the answer to their problems is to have more such people?

Terrorist attack? Create a giant Homeland Security office so people can write each other memos. Improve education or the environment? Raise the budget of the Department of Education or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Being unable to find a job is quite understandable in the current economy. Being unable to find a job because you have made decisions resulting in your having no qualification for a job and making no attempt to do so is something else entirely.

Glorifying the kinds of jobs that -- at this point in history -- make things worse, not better, is suicidal.

Second, the mistaken idea has taken root -- and been encouraged by the federal government by making loans even more available -- that everyone should go to college and even get money for doing so no matter what they want to study. I received a small scholarship to study Arabic at a time when that was deemed to be a strategic need of the United States (that was a wise decision), but I wouldn’t have received one to study "conflict management" or some other useless made-up subject.

All too often I see too many young people trying to get into my field when they lack not only the personal qualifications but the needed willingness to make an effort. The university education they have received gets in the way of their understanding reality just as the proliferation of jargon makes them incapable of writing clearly, or -- indeed -- of having anything useful to say. At one point, we took on ten interns after making it clear that hard work could lead to employment. Nine of them did almost nothing despite the opportunity offered.