Friday, September 2, 2011

Finding love in limbo and labor

And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man's ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.
                -Kahlil Gibran, in The Prophet

I read an article in the NewYork Times this past week that talked about how young people since the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession have struggled to find jobs that would start them out on the upwardly-mobile career of their dream. Business majors from various Ivy League schools found themselves working as bartenders, servers, cashiers and paralegals. While some relished the flexibility that their underemployment gave them, most complained bitterly with a refrain along the lines of “but we did everything we were supposed to do”.

This, of course comes as no surprise to most people, excluding those at the Hamptons and Capitol Hill. The Times article categorized my peers and I into “Generation Limbo” because the overachieving graduates of 2009 and later are more or less waiting for the jobs climate to improve before we try and start a career. I know that a large of number of my friends from Bucknell, a “sub”-Ivy League university, have gone to graduate school, done programs like Teach for America, Americorps and other similar relatively low-paying, temporary gigs to wait out the great, Siberian winter of employment. I can relate to this.

But gosh, does it reek of privilege and entitlement.

This coming Monday is Labor Day, a holiday which was established in 1894 after the bloody Pullman strike in what is now the South Side of Chicago. The federal government was careful to observe a holiday celebrating labor in early September, far away from May Day, the more radical International Workers Day. The United States has come a long way since the days when federal troops were regularly brought in to break strikes. Certainly all American workers owe an awful lot to folks like Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons, and A. Philip Randolph.

I have to admit that I’m tempted to go down a path of labor history—to talk about the Wobblies, Walter Reuther, Caesar Chavez—but the times don’t quite allow us to get too sentimental. The old factories have shut, leaving eerie industrial shells of former economic might. The new factories that are being built are either across the ocean or are rabidly anti-union. Wages are stagnant, and that college degree sure doesn’t get you as far as it used to. Ah, and yes, unemployment is holding at 9%.

In the face of all that, Kahlil Gibran’s words sound kinda hollow. We would love to work a job that is fulfilling, but we’ll settle a job that pays the rent. And our student loans.

But we are still celebrating something this weekend. Maybe it’s not necessarily the strength of the union movement, though there is still a lot power in it. I think we’ll be celebrating something more basic. It’s about sharing food and drink and sports and music and fun. It’s about community.

See, while things are tough, and we should be angry at how the government is acting, we ultimately depend on each other. While my college-educated brethren and I have a certain right to be disillusioned about careers right now, we still carry on with life just as past generations have. 

The real beauty in Gibran’s text is not really the self-help portion, but that it touches on the most basic of human needs: love. People will suffer all sorts of indignities and wrongs if it means that they can continue to act on the love they have for others. Of course, it is also my job to show how loving one’s children also means joining the picket line. 

So what does this mean for Generation Limbo? It can mean a few things. I’ve already mentioned that the six-figure salary will have to wait. However, this is also a wonderful opportunity for folks who are accustomed to the highest amount of privilege to truly understand solidarity with people who have been categorically denied it for generations. So the fine arts major waits tables with the undocumented immigrant who washes dishes. The dude with the 5-year-plan sweats with the H2-B visa worker. Nothing builds solidarity and—dare I say it?—love like suffering.

This Labor Day you can have the barbecue like you usually do. Eat a Polish sausage and watch the Cubs-Pirates baseball game. After all, one of them has to win, right? But keep the gate open and invite your neighbors over. Times are tough, but we get through it because we care about each other.

I promise you, community based on love is that one thing that does not sour.

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