September 18, 2017

BENITEZ | Dress-Rehearsing for the Future

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For those of us searching for careers in the private sector, the past couple of weeks have been defined by information sessions, networking events, interviews and the like. The accelerating perception of an undergraduate degree’s foremost purpose as a means to access skilled employment has affected the lives of our generation, evident in our corporately-dressed classmates at the start of each fall. The understandable nervousness felt by those shuffling between events structured to grant employers a more efficient means of recruiting the nation’s most intelligent laborers inevitably kicks up our collective anxiety. Regardless of whether you yourself are actively participating in on-campus recruitment, you can at least agree that there is an uneasiness, caused by our natural, human apprehensiveness toward the future, that comes with seeing some of your classmates preemptively don the literal attire of adulthood, like actors dress-rehearsing for our next performance.

While recruitment admittedly serves a useful labor market function by resolving the anxiety of summer or post-graduation employment far in advance, we must acknowledge some negative externalities. The other day, I was among a group of Cornell students at a Collegetown restaurant to eat dinner with alumni representing their employer. As I was farewelling one of the firm’s representatives — who, frankly, seemed tired and unexcited about the possibility of surrendering another business card — another Cornell student, with a well-rehearsed, toothy grin, asked said representative for a business card, justifying the interruption as an opportunity to thank them for their “incredible knowledge.” Considering how most questions directed toward the representative were novel re-phrasings of standard questions about “the firm’s culture,” and were inevitably met with novel re-phrasings of standard answers, it wasn’t difficult to spot the profound insincerity of such flattery.

While it’s easy to specify inauthenticity to certain schmoozers, we shouldn’t be so quick to ascribe moral blame to those practising what they perceive as necessary. That fellow student may have been raised by a single parent who struggled to juggle temporary, part-time service work at different employers to preserve the possibility of a better future for their child. The spectre of mirroring their parent’s struggle, even to the slightest extent, may understandably prompt an existential insecurity in my classmate far more severe in effect than my own discomfort.  Indeed, the escalating commoditization of education as an input for optimizing the labor force is moreover a consequence of the increasing indebtedness necessary for many to access higher education, which the undirected forces of capital promote as necessary to skilled employment.

If debt is a “foreclosure on the future,” then our generation’s growing indebtedness equates to a growing loss of future autonomy. The more debt we assume, the more pressing the need to earn not merely a living wage, but one that additionally covers both principal and interest. And with that increased necessity to promptly begin repaying the staggering debt many now assume to “become educated,” the ability to envision an alternate world, enjoy our disposable time and simply live fully and for ourselves diminishes. The increasing rarity of disposable time is among the most troubling phenomena of our time. The fact that the most common regret expressed by the dying is the desire to spend more time amongst their families demonstrates disposable time is among the most meaningful, and sadly, the most threatened luxuries of the 21st century. Even the most “bound-for-success” Cornellians — the ones headed for Silicon Valley or Wall Street — await a future of intensive hours, even if it’s as a worker in the services economy.

The material gains of technological progress have thrusted smartphones into our hands and an internet upon which we may find endless self-expression. However, even in the developed world, is our material reality truly improving? If we go by an increasingly-popular alternative indicator of societal progress, gross national happiness , we see developed nations like this one fall behind. This is unsurprising, in light of recent psychological findings that suggest a source of unhappiness to be the immediate inequality witnessed in one’s life — hence accounting for the happiness of the impoverished and “isolated,” relative to wealthier Westerners. Applying this to a broader level, the fact that the United States is the seventh-most unequal country in the world, alongside other startlingly-unequal societies like post-Soviet Russia and caste-system India, ought to deeply trouble advocates of this nation’s trajectory.

And so, as we continue to shuffle between employers, we must consider whether we harbor a preference for an improved material reality to that which we now experience or that we anticipate experiencing — already among the most fortunate of potential recruits as Ivy League students. Flattery is admittedly, to some extent, necessary and so the general dissatisfaction I overhear expressed at the obsequious practises instituted by on-campus recruiting ought to be informed by an acknowledgement that people ultimately behave in response to incentives established and nurtured by the institutional trajectory of higher education. Instead, the challenge that’ll separate those who find meaning in their subsequent productivity, the bedrock of daily existence in our society, from those who don’t will be whether one acts in concert with this fundamental intuition for a better reality, or chooses to abandon it.

 

Lorenzo Benitez is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at lbenitez@cornellsun.com. Not a Cop appears alternate Mondays this semester.