You probably wouldn’t guess it if you are newcomer to my world, but I am, by nature, a rules follower. I was that girl in school – didn’t cut class, got straight A’s, studied all the time, did the readings, followed all the rules. Let’s put it this way: I was the one that the teacher got to do attendance on library day. I just watched a play with highschool kids cutting class, and I found myself thinking, “But why would you do that?” When I was that age, I lived in a world of “They Say,” believing that the clear path to success was demarcated by following the signs. “This way to a high-paying job, a house of your own, and stability.” More than anything else, I wanted somebody just to tell me what to do, let me do it, and give me the reward.
Clearly, I was delusional.
In my own defense, “They” were the adults (and especially the teachers) around me. It was a completely predictable outcome of the school “system”: I was institutionalized. Think critically (but not too much). You can be anything you want (as long as it is on The List of Approved Professions that come with Social Approbation). And then, there was always this: If you step outside the bounds, you will be replaced. Somebody else will be willing to follow these Rules, and you will Fail. No high-paying job, no approval, no stability. Certainly no tropical vacations, summer home, or fancy clothes.
I tried. I tried so hard to follow those rules. I studied engineering instead of science, because “everybody says” you can’t get a decent job with a science degree. You need to be more practical. Do engineering; it’s just like science anyway (it’s not). And there I stayed, even though my friends who were graduating weren’t getting jobs (it was the early 90’s). I stayed until the day that I asked a professor, “Why?” and he said, “You don’t need to know that.” I sat there, thinking, no longer listening to the lecture on my favourite subject of the term. And what I thought was, “Yes, actually. I do need to know that. And if I have to give that up to become an engineer, then I can’t be an engineer.” And I got up, and I left, and I walked over to the physics department, and applied to transfer. Because if I was going to have to give up asking “why?”, and there wasn’t going to be a job at the end of it all, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing it for.
Here was my mistake: I thought I had a contract with the mythic “They”. That somewhere out there, somebody knew what the rules were, and that the adults around me were being kind enough to show me the way. What I didn’t know was that “They” were guessing, and that They had no intention or ability to follow through.
What is worse, these days it seems that They say things and make policy based on what happened when They were young, and then turn to us and say things like, “I can’t believe you haven’t found steady employment when you’re nearly 40. Why haven’t you started saving for retirement? Your generation is so irresponsible.” (Because we are still paying off student loans that we took out because They assured us that an education would pay for itself and there was no risk. I happen to avoided that particular burden by falling through the funding cracks, so, thanks, They for that one.)
They also say things like, “Oh, there is no need for hybrid cars; look how people are still buying the gasoline ones.” Right. See above re: lack of stable jobs and outstanding student debt. Also, no stable access to childcare, astronomical housing prices, spiraling gas costs, food costs, everything else becoming more expensive… and the car costs $40,000. Taxes, freight, blah, blah, blah… $800 per month, even spread over the maximum loan period. And me with no permanent employment for… oh, wait. My entire adult life! Since all that graduate education.
Hey, They! Remember when you decided to outsource all those jobs to the other side of the planet? Remember all that downsizing you’ve been doing since I was about 12 years old? Remember when you decided to replace half your workforce with contractors, and then dump them at the end of each project? Remember all those decisions you made to treat your workers as a disposable expense, and left it up to somebody else to pay their workers enough to buy your products? Only all your friends were doing the same? I’m kind of mad about all that. I sort of don’t want to do your bidding any longer.
So, let me redirect this conversation, because the mythic They have already had quite enough of my life energy. Let me redirect it towards We. As in, We need a new social contract. We need better ways of making sure that people are fed, clothed, housed, and meaningfully employed. We need a voting system that allows us to actually cast a ballot in favour of something, rather than having to hold our noses and vote strategically. We need some form of story that allows for the possibility that the very way They suggested I define success was misguided. I’m not blaming Them. I don’t even know if They exist. But I’m pretty sure that We do. And I’d rather start working with that. What do We say?