It’s no secret that the employment landscape of 20-somethings these days is a bleak one. With crushing student loans, entry-level positions evaporating, and rent somehow remaining just as absurd — times are tough. It’s probably a safe bet to say that if you’re in your 20s, you’re surrounded by a veritable smorgasbord of employment statuses. There are people who have made it into their dream fields, people settling in to well-paid “professional” strata jobs, people making ends meet at multiple service and retail gigs, and people pounding the pavement with their resumes while they sleep in their parents’ basement. And these people, just a few short years ago, were all equals. They were going through various kinds of education (whether in college, traveling the world, or gaining a technical skill), and had every option before them. There was no reason that we couldn’t all be friends — be equals — and socialize openly with anyone we’d meet. But now, things have changed. We are divided up into very firm cliques based on how well we’re doing — especially in big cities, where a discrepancy in income or access is as discreet as a huge blemish — and the people on top seem all too eager to feed into them.
Up until recently, I was working a second (and rather unglamorous) job to supplement my income while I worked on my career in writing. It was an awkward middle ground that many people my age experience, where you have what you consider to be your “real” job, but are still tied financially to the one that gets you through the month. What do you say when you meet people? How do you introduce yourself? What do you tell your friends, or worse, your parents’ friends, when they ask? It’s inevitably some long-winded justification of trying to make ends meet, working this job just for the time being, getting things off the ground, etc. But for many people you’ll meet, you are going to be defined by that “supplementary” job. You haven’t “made it,” and are thus not a real grown-up. You’re not the 20-something version of a cool kid. I cannot tell you the number of brunches or happy hours where people would ask what I do and then look at me with this strange mix of pity and confusion before roundly brushing me off the rest of the evening. Even amongst my “real” friends, the divide between people who landed a “good” job and those who were still finding their way was painfully obvious.
And now that I have quit my supplementary job and can say with confidence that I am, in fact, a “writer,” the game has changed. People who just a few short months ago would have dismissed my offer to get lunch or treated me awkwardly at a cocktail party are now more than happy to know who I am and even talk to me about the phenomenon. I’ve heard 24-year-olds, without the slightest trace of irony, tell me that they just “can’t relate” to their friends with “jobs” instead of “careers” because they have “nothing to talk about.” They even refer to what they do as a “real job,” as though busting your ass for 12 hours a day paying your bills while you look on the side for a fulfilling career is not work. And what utter bull, the idea that you would have nothing to talk about with someone just because they work in a different kind of job than you. If careers and the office are really the only things you have to talk about, you should throw yourself off a tall bridge for how insufferably boring you must be. There are limitless things to talk about, and having a cubicle job shouldn’t be a pre-requisite to entering into the conversation.
What these people aren’t saying, of course, is the simple truth of the matter: They think they’re better than people who don’t have a professional job. They have entered into a different social strata, and want to maintain that status and, if possible, be upwardly mobile. The pinched expressions and fleeting looks of pity they reserve for the acquaintances and former friends who are having a difficult time making things work are the symbols of 2012 young urban professional noblesse oblige. But could anything be more repugnant in an economic climate where breadwinners of families are losing jobs and pensions at companies to whom they’ve dedicated 20 years? Where many people don’t have the option of moving back in with their parents, and have to move into the street? How dare anyone judge someone for working a job to support themselves, even if it isn’t the ideal. The people who are often the quickest to judge are, it must be noted, those who would prefer living off their parents’ dime in their “grown-up” apartment while they look for a job, rather than make ends meet. They are the ones able to be “funemployed,” because they don’t feel the boot of necessity on the back of their necks. They have been lucky, and have fooled themselves into thinking it was entirely by sweat and merit that they achieved and others didn’t.
I must clarify, of course, that not all professionals are like this. And interestingly enough, I have found some of the most humble and open people can be very professionally successful at a young age — albeit often in fields like engineering, technology, development, and construction. Fields that, while well-paying and competitive, are rather “humble” and requiring of vast technical knowledge that demands a certain unglamorousness. Generally speaking, the better dressed the people are for their office job, the more insufferable they’ll be at any given brunch.
It’s a depressing state of affairs, to be sure. It’s pretentious, and arbitrary, and cementing a social hierarchy that will be unchangeable by the time we all have families and half of us have moved to Connecticut. But right now, while we’re young and untethered–when we could socialize with anyone — to cling so desperately to a sense of “I am not like you” is nothing short of bleak. It says that, on some level, you’ve always wanted to feel better than others; you’ve always wanted a special class to belong to. You wanted a club to be a part of. And now, society has given you a simple way to pretend like you can no longer “relate” to a huge amount of your peers, when really, you are just enormously judgmental and petty. If anything, I’d hope that your nonprofessional friends feel they can’t relate to you — I know that I can’t relate to self-righteous tools, no matter how nice their office is.