Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Well meant and freely given (mostly)

There's all out Generationenkonflikt in the science corners of the internet these days. And, as with many disagreements in life, it is couched in terms of money. Who has it, who wants it, and who deserves it. Nothing nice or pretty will come out of a conversation like that. I got very upset and frustrated. It is not a pleasant feeling to be judged and found wanting based on a collection of vague impressions about entitlement.
There have been many versions of this post playing around in my head. Initially, it was going to be all righteous anger, a Phillipique against the older generation. But I have long since learnt I am no Cicero. My righteousness sounds great in my head. On the page, it more often than not comes off as peevish. Yet the attacks felt too brutal to go for my usual spiel and try to synthesise the argument, take the measure of both sides and achieve some sort of resolution. When you've engaged in a multi day, multi post, hundred comment long bout of circular onanism on the stoic resilience of your generation and the myriad failures and frailties of mine, I am fucked if I am going to be reasonable. I had a couple more ideas, each more terrible than the last.
Finally, I said sod it. Life is too short to try to craft the perfect post for a bunch of internet curmudgeons.  Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts on the matter. Take them or leave them.
1) Life is hard. This is a truism. It is also mostly unhelpful. It gives neither advice on how to proceed with life, nor does it provide emotional support. "Suck it up, Buttercup" is not advice, it's a cop out.
2) No amount of being told something will be difficult can fully prepare you for the reality of that difficulty. Thus, people make choices with incomplete information and also, things like hope and self belief (stupid stupid people). Encountering full on quite how hard the reality of a situation will be will cause howls of anguish. It is unhelpful to raise your eyebrows and say "you didn't know?" I knew going into grad school that it would be difficult to hit my goal of a faculty position. I did not know quite how far away the goalpost would be, how small the opening would be, that I would be kicking against a strong wind and that the ball was made of concrete. Also, I managed, despite my best intentions, to turn up wearing ballet slippers instead of cleats (to continue this tortured metaphor). That was my bad mostly. It still sucked.
3) Most of my cohort are angry, they have taken to writing about this anger. Unlike previous generations that were limited to poetry slams and self printed 'zines, we have the internet. Thus, you are encountering a lot of this anger. Much of it comes across as whining. It is poorly written and badly argued. It is inadequate in its analysis of the problems. It is sarcastic. It is incendiary. It lobs verbal molotov cocktails that massively miss the mark. It attempts to lob verbal molotov cocktails and lobs verbal pina coladas instead. This results in a sticky mess. Then again, have you read any of the lyrics to Joan Baez songs? My point is, the arguments are uneven, there is dross. The anger is real, and you should probably pay attention to it. Or not, your choice.
4) Most of my cohort are terrified. This is more important than the anger. They are terrified daily that they may not have a job in a month, six months, a year, two years. They are terrified it will all be for naught anyway because they won't get a faculty career. They are terrified that they need a plan B. They are terrified that they will have to move again, sell their meager belongings on the stoop, end up somewhere they know no-one, without a car. living in student halls, through one of the worst winters in memory, at the age of thirty. They are terrified that one day, their partner whom they love and are engaged to and wish to spend the rest of their lives with, will say "seriously, we moved to Ohio for you, what are you going to for me?" This is getting oddly specific, but you get the gist.
5) Most of my cohort feel guilty all the time. We feel guilty for choosing a career that was interesting rather than safe. We feel guilty because we were in grad school during the 2008 financial crash and while all our non academic friends lives were collapsing around us we coasted through, We feel guilty because we left our families for five years. We feel guilty because our significant other chose a long distance transatlantic relationship when we went home. We feel guilty for accepting help from our parents when we didn't finish before our stipend ran out, and then again when we didn't get a postdoc. Again, the list goes on.
6) Most of my cohort take the postdocs they bloody well get. I had the choice between two, one that would have been career suicide, one that was great for my career, more than I deserved, but that involved leaving my family and heading to Ohio. Oh, and making my partner leave his and move to Ohio. The one that was career suicide was in Chicago, fyi. So I did all the right things and I don't grumble much. Can I get a fucking cookie please. And here's the dirty little secret (let's talk about choice, shall we?). I would have taken either of those postdocs rather than give up on a science career. Not because OMG science, but because that had been my job for five years by that point and I literally had no idea what else I could do.
8) A postdoc is a commuted sentence, no more. It is a reprieve from failure, but a distinctly temporary one, It does not instill you with confidence, nor calm, not a sense that you any sort of control over your life.
9) "entitled young people" are the kids I went to school with whose parents' had invested a fortune in the NASDAQ for them. They would ostentatiously point out to the teachers in class that they could afford not to pay attention because they already had more money than the teachers ever would have. Yes, I went to that sort of school. Reality check: these kids are correct to be entitled. Trust me, I know the grades they got at A-level and I know what universities they went to. Thirty somethings in precarious short term contracts working long hour for between thirty five and fifty grand a year, with no guarantee of benefits and no job security, are not entitled. No not even when they occasionally opine that they wish things could be better. At this point, we should all just agree to stop using the word entitled. It has merely come to mean "people who appear to want something I don't think they should have", and it's unhelpful. Also, please stop relying on anecdotes when characterising an entire generation. That would be a characteristic of the #allegedprofession, would it not?
10) Sometimes, people talk about money as a proxy for all these other things, because money is grown up, serious, quantifiable, and because our society is so fucked up we have decided money is only valid locus of political and social activism. So use your humanity.
11) It is not controversial to assert that an employer is responsible for informing an employee of their terms of employment. This is true for fast food workers. It is true for magical not-really-employee science trainees too.
12) My mother threw paving stones at cops and ran from tear gas. There were valid, important serious reasons for the May 1968 riots in France. But the main rallying slogan for the youth was a poster of De Gaulle' silhouette muzzling a French student with the tag line "soi jeune et tais toi". "be young and shut up".

My mother (who was an PhD student at the time) also tells the story of attending a symposium of the condition of funding for Early Career Researchers, asking a question about the provenance of funds, and receiving the answer "Ca n'a pas trente ans et ca dit 'je penses'". Translation " It isn't thirty years old and it says 'I think' ". Plus ca change, eh?
13) Yes, there are worse problems that being a postdoc, but it presents real problems none the less. To the three year old, failing to get up the slide is a real problem, and her frustration is understandable, justifiable, and worthy of our compassion.

I will leave you with two quotes about judgment and advice, because I'm pretentious that way:

Atticus: 'You never really understand a person [...] until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it' (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee)

Dream King: "And you, your actions have been rash and unconsidered. You will scarcely last another hundred years if you continue in this manner"
Thessaly: "I don't recall asking for your advice, Dream King"
Morpheus: "it was well meant, and freely given" (Sandman: A Game of You, Neil Gaiman).


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