On One Hand

July 1, 2014

Things I learned in my 20s

Filed under: opinion — ononehand @ 1:45 pm

Your 20s are your first decade as an “adult,” and most people in the U.S. are truly gaining financial and emotional independence somewhere around age 25. I still have close to a year to go before I’m 30, but it’s already amazing to think about how much I’ve changed in 9 years since I turned 20.

I started as an idealistic, ambitious college student working through hangups I developed in high school and earlier. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be or do, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let the world — or even my own personality — make choices for me. Most of the time my energy was geared towards doing and being the opposite of what I thought people had judged me for. I wanted to prove those things were wrong.

Some of my self-perceptions were accurate and some were way off; I was trying especially hard to be extroverted and conversational (not something I lacked in, but I thought I did) — I compensated with a lot of partying and drinking. It meant trying to be more masculine (definitely unnecessary), trying to be more involved in the community (a good thing) and trying to bring drama into my life because I hoped it disrupted the risk-averse way I had grown up (obviously not a healthy goal).

No matter what your teenage years or upbringing was like, I think we all pass through these struggles. By no means are any of us set for life by the time we turn 30 — but when hiccups do happen, we’ve become a lot better at dealing with them.

Here’s what I learned in my 20s:


People aren’t judging you as much as you worry they are. 

In your early 20s you still probably worry whether people “like” you — not just friends, coworkers and family members but also strangers who don’t play a significant role in your life. It’s your imaginary audience: you’ll think about being attractive or about avoiding anything goofy or embarrassing that you think a person might reject you for. In your 20s you learn that people aren’t paying such close attention. The truth is, most people are just worrying about how you’re perceiving them.

I can’t count how many times I kept my distance from someone assuming that she or he was “out of my league” or didn’t like me, only to run into that person in a more relaxed setting and find out that they only kept their distance because they thought the same about me! In other words, we were both being standoffish out of fear of what the other thought.

At the same time, this means that some words of welcome, encouragement or compliments go an incredibly long way with anybody.


October 30, 2009

Newsflash: Blue Collar People Work Just as Hard as Bankers

Filed under: opinion,social justice — ononehand @ 3:22 am

Obama’s message of “change” has swept America – Wall Street traders are now society’s welfare collectors, and for the first time in our lives it’s “uncool” to be a member of the investing class. Fivethirtyeight.com creator Nate Silver posted a defense of bankers describing a personal friend of his who worked on Wall Street, but used a pseudonym to save his friend embarrassment.

People used to be ashamed of working at 7-11 or Walgreens, but now its the AIG executives who blush to mention what they do. I admit I get a twisted pleasure out of the role reversal.

It’s not that rich people or their character offends me. I, like most Americans, grew up expecting that someday I’d be in the upper ten percent of earners. I’ve encouraged friends and family to seek better-paying jobs when they got the chance. I admire skyscrapers, symbols of accumulated power and corporatism. I don’t hold anything against successful people, say Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates, for creating things of value and profiting from that.

What embitters me – this is my biggest beef with the upper-classes and economic conservatives – lies in the presumptions their world makes about the rest of us. Or rather, the presumptions that all of us make about the stratification of society. The cultural mythology is that upper middle class and rich people got to where they are because they worked harder than everyone else, or that poor people are poor because they did not work as hard.

It’s more than a presumption – it’s a lie, because I know most people secretly know better.

I’ve had friends who are business majors, marketing majors, business-engineers and law school aspirants. As an undergraduate I had many, many peers who grew up wealthier than I could imagine being. I’ve lived with some as roommates, known some as boyfriends, met many as acquaintances and known others as close friends.

There’s a wink-wink nod-nod paradigm in upper-class youth culture, one that its members never even made secret – that the world is theirs if they want it. They know, and brag, about the power their parents have, and how they’re virtually guaranteed to get a good job unless they’re grossly incompetent. I’ve heard business majors talk about their internships, how they made $25 an hour in a position they didn’t even have to interview for, and all they have to do is type numbers into a spreadsheet a few hours a day and still be paid for full days when they left three hours early. They brag about how much they make for so little work or how easy their lives are. All because their dads knew somebody. All because of their trust funds. All because they grew up with private tutors who cultivated them for Ivy League graduate schools and taught them the language of power.

I know there are moneyed people who do work hard – who spend 14 hours a day in the office, who push themselves to the limit to get the promotion, who use cocaine or adderall just to stay awake and alert enough to get farther ahead in that world. But the fact is that it’s quite motivating to know that every extra mile you run is almost guaranteed to pay off with a truckload of money.

For a low-income person, taking the extra second job often means going from $300 a week to $450 a week in earnings. And when you can either make the lower sum, struggle and eventually have to collect welfare or declare bankruptcy, or alternately, work harder making $450, struggle and still be seen as a “low-class” person all your life, I’m sure you often find yourself wondering why bother avoiding food stamps or bankruptcy.

Lets be honest: you and I who are middle class and above – not even rich, just middle class – we didn’t go to college in the “spirit of hard work.” We went to college to work less hard in life, to ensure that we’ll get a moderate, comfortable salary someday for a moderate, comfortable amount of effort. After that, the only direction we have to go is up. Having a degree guarantees us that we’re worth $25 an hour instead of $9.

Most of us who went to “good colleges” (myself included) got a lot of help from our parents. We knew we could get same degree from a less-expensive college but went to the one we did because, though the only main difference is that it costs more money, it is more reputable so will ultimately put is in a place of privilege. We knew our parents cover what we couldn’t pay for, help with groceries from time to time, buy our books, or if we couldn’t make rent, they’d float us a loan so we don’t have to pawn our stereos.

My parents were slightly stricter about what they’d help with than most at their income level. Their deal was, if you work part time, and get good grades at school, we’ll cover the rest. I worked an average of fifteen hours a week through college. I lived cheap – I always found the lowest rent in town and there were days I ate nothing but a jar of peanut butter – but I never needed any kind of loan. And I never feared eviction or needed the government’s help, because of my parents.

People of the middle class knew, from the time we were children, that all we had to do was make a decent effort to complete the schoolwork put in front of us, and we’d get into a respected school and coast comfortably into white-collar jobs that pay at least the same as what our parents made. We can even comfortably coast a higher income if we choose the right profession. We’ll rarely spend more than 8 hours a day at school or work. We’ll have weekends off. We can still get drunk on Friday and sleep in on Sunday. We’ll never be up till 4am working the night shift – unless that’s our choice. If we save wisely, we’ll live comfortably and have enough money to retire comfortably.

But we’ll still entertain the myth that we “worked hard” to be middle class.

The hardest work I’ve ever done in my life was canvassing door to door with the Service Employees Union, alongside low-income people who said it was the easiest job they’d ever had. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I was personally invested in being a part of history, and winning the election, but beyond that, it was thankless; people aren’t wowed by you saying you were a canvasser, it doesn’t set you up for a solid career, it’s temporary, and people I saw in the field cussed at me and slammed doors in my face.

The easiest work I’ve ever done was writing for a local newspaper with a circulation of 30,000 – a job I could be proud of. The internship was unpaid, and I spent a lot of hours and plowed through a lot of beginner’s anxiety, true. But it was easy because I knew that every word I typed was going to be read by thousands of people. Knowing your work is meaningful is a huge motivator. I didn’t have to apply for the internship – my school made a phone call and scooted me in just because I was a Journalism major there.

Flipping burgers at McDonals, being in doubt that you’ll ever move beyond that, is not so rewarding. I’ve worked in fast food before. It’s a lot harder to stay on task, and it’s a lot harder to live on such a meager wage. Your aspiration: become manager? Maybe, but there are seven people at your level and only one can get that job. You dread going to work each day, and never feel proud to be there. I can only imagine still doing that at the age of 23 – working 40 hours a week with no benefits and irregular shifts that absolutely suck, thinking, if I were more wealthy I’d be binge drinking on weekends – where did my youth go? Other people get to enjoy their 20s. The young white teenager who works at Wendys knows he’s moving on, but the unspoken knowledge is that his coworkers still working there at age 40 aren’t going anywhere.

I know that many low-income people work hard. Mearly showing up to work under such depressing circumstances is hard. The education system fails them – it’s all aimed at the college-bound student, but doesn’t always teach you simple things like the necessity of savings accounts and how to write a resume. It doesn’t teach you the language of power. It doesn’t feed you anti-depression pills when you get discouraged the way the rich kids get those things. It doesn’t teach you hope and the art of self-promotion.

In other ways poor people fail simply because they aren’t part of the networking chummy I-worked-with-your-father culture that lands you good jobs. We know there’s a such thing as class prejudice, we assume upper-class people are genetically more intelligent, we assume having money says good things about you (why do we expect people to wear nice clothes to an interview?) and knowing somebody comes from a wealthy background means they have to do just a little less to prove themselves.

That’s my beef with the “Country Club Republican,” full of people who genuinely believe their big homes or fancy cars are true status symbols; an attitude that is even harder for me to cope with than those of socially-conservative Evangelicals. I truly honor the capitalistic idea that if you have something people want, and they’re willing to pay it, you’re entitled to your earnings. And I’m open to pragmatic arguments about the impact of the corporate tax rates, or working the tax code so that the carrots and sticks are in the right place to make it run smoothly. Hell, I’m even open to corporate bailouts if they’re necessary to avoid major economic collapse.

But do I beleive the upper class is a bastion of brilliant talent? Are they born with outrageous IQs or gifts indispensible to our world? Do they glow like rising suns, successful because of outstanding character, sweat and tears? Do they really back up the sense of superiority and giftedness I sense coming from that direction?

Not in your life.

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