My generation has always befuddled my grandfather.
He was a child of the depression, working on a failing farm in Iowa as far back as he could remember. Up at dawn to milk the cows, straight to bed after supper. His parents struggled to fill his dinner plate and stretched to buy a new pair of shoes when his were outgrown. He’d fall asleep to whispers in the next room, always about money, food, how to stretch those ends a little further to make them meet.
His senior year, he won a scholarship to go to college. After he got his degree, he settled down into a drafting job for something like 30 years. He never really loved his job. He never hated it either; it was just what he did to pay the bills. That’s what a job was for.
So you can imagine how odd he found it when all three of his grandchildren chose degrees in the humanities, studying poetry and theater with very little prospect of ever making money in those fields.
Around the time my siblings and I graduated high school, though, the economy looked darn near invincible, and we felt like we could do anything. College was for exploring our passions, trying new things. Choosing a major was not so much a move to secure a career (poetry and theater, remember?) as it was a construction of identity. I am poet, hear me roar.
In a way, I guess we felt pretty entitled. Yes, I knew I would never make as much money in the humanities as I would in say, engineering. There were a lot of jokes in my circle about how we’d all end up living in cardboard boxes. But in all those jokes, there was still the assumption that, inside that box, we’d still be writing poetry all day. It was an odd point of pride to claim the term “starving artist” as one’s planned career of choice. We all felt we deserved to have careers doing what we really loved.
To say that we were naïve idealists would be a huge understatement.
But now it’s looking like the economy might snap some of us out of our bordering-on-stupid brand of optimism. A Gallup poll earlier this year showed that fewer than half of people in our generation believe we’re going to have a better life than our parents.
With pessimism like that, you might do something like, well, not majoring in poetry. These days, students are picking majors that’ll help them get jobs, not explore a passion. Our time for passion has passed. Picking poetry is probably a one-way ticket back to our parents’ basement, saddled with $40,000 in debt. (This is a way less romantic-sounding situation than the cardboard-box-dwelling artist’s.)
For Grandpa, this was always obvious. When he was young, you didn’t choose or lose a job (as I’ve done many times) based on whether or not you “really loved it.” You’d choose or lose a job based on whether it paid enough for you and your family to get by. And then you stuck with what he calls “honest work,” because you needed the security a steady paycheck brings.
Let’s face it as honestly as we can: When times are tough, humanities are a luxury, usually better relegated to the realm of hobby than career path.
But to bring just a smidge of that optimism back in, I will say this: Grandpa still got to be an artist—just not from nine to five. But that still left evenings and weekends. Now that he’s retired, he shows his watercolor paintings in local galleries and art shows.
So what if he never loved his job? It paid for his paint.