24 September 2013

Chad from Wilmington, DE  


Chad is unemployed. Chad is 27, and unemployed.

He's not worried, though. He has an engineering degree from the University of Michigan and an MBA from the University of Maryland-College Park. But Chad is still unemployed.

It's not that he hasn't worked before; in the few months after college, he took a job as a waiter at a Cracker Barrel when he couldn't find engineering work in Michigan or back home in Delaware. He never complained but wasn't satisfied, so he went back to school for a Master's degree.

"My reasoning went something like this:  if I couldn't find opportunity on my own, maybe I could invest in it some by getting a Master's degree. I seriously thought it would be the silver bullet."

After graduating with honors and the mystical Master's he had sought, Chad worked for the next 3 years as a bartender, a personal trainer and as a yoga instructor. But he hasn't given up on his dream of building bridges, highways and superstructures.

"I've always known that I was going to have my own business and that I would build things--big things. It's my calling. It's frustrating not working right now, but I'd rather try to work my way in to a firm somehow than give up or fail spectacularly with no practical engineering experience."

When he's not helping some forty-something perfect the downward dog--there's a foreign phrase for this position he has tried to get me to remember, but I forget--Chad is sharing an apartment with two other guys after answering a Craigslist ad. The owner is a recent divorcee who is working as a doctor and the other occupant is studying for--ironically enough--his own Master's degree from the University of Delaware.

"They're good dudes," says Chad. "But I don't ever want to settle. I really hate falling into a routine here because I don't want this to feel like regular life. I'm trying to convince myself that this is all just transient."

Chad calls himself "independent...maybe mostly indifferent!" with an embarrassed laugh. But he does feel strongly about one particular issue:

"I find it incredibly corrupt that a CEO who is already making millions of dollars has the opportunity to write off his multi-million dollar tax bonus at the end of the year. This is supposedly because it will incentivize him to 'invest it' later on. What about my college tuition? Wasn't that an investment in the future? I busted my ass for 6 years trying to make myself a positive GDP mover and where has that gotten me? College education should be tax deductible."

How would he pay for such a venture? "That's easy. Close the loophole for those making over a million dollars. Those kids who come from families making over the same amount wouldn't be able to write off their education either. I don't actually know if that would work, but it seems closer to equitable than whatever we're not doing now."

Chad says he isn't ready for a wife and family--he's been seeing girls on-and-off for the past few years--but there's a wistful tone here. He feels embarrassed about his lack of career and job prospects.

"At the end of the day, you want a family. Guys my age, we start getting impatient that we won't ever make a mark on the world. There are two things that scare me the most:  that I'll die alone, and that I won't leave anything remarkable behind."

Chad is 27 years old. Chad is unemployed.

Chad's last line haunted me for a few days. I finally realized that it reminded me of a couple of paragraphs from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451:

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there.  
It doesn't matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
This is the sentiment that is buried deep beneath partisan debates about job growth and federal spending. This is the intangible, the subjective, the shifting sands of the hourglass. Does our politics really speak to the strength of our convictions? 

Do we care more about unemployment at 7.3%, or people like Chad, who have real, guttural fears and are doing the best that they can? Who speaks for people like Chad?

There are a whole slew of issues in front of our state and national legislatures today that are ripe for consensus. But you know what is said about political consensus: it puts politicians out of a job. We can come together as communities--and together as our communities form common governments--to embody the hopes and fears and dreams and drive of Americans like Chad.

When we have sold off all of our creative marketplace to the highest bidder, what will be left for people like Chad to do? Where will he go? Don't look now, but just as we have sold off our manufacturing base, we have put our creative and explorer classes on the mortgage block, too. When a society loses its ability to sustain the dreamers and the creators, it becomes insular and--I'm sad to say--all too Roman in its inevitable end.

But we can change these things by not being afraid of consensus, of progress--not unilaterally Democratic or Republican success--and of embracing solutions that work. Some of these solutions are government-based, some are community- and private-based, but none are taboo. In some instances, there are issues where consensus isn't possible--and that's OK. Likewise, there are some issues where the popular consensus may be wrong--where all the facts are not heard and bias rules. And you know what? That's OK too.

Our government should do better for people like Chad and all of the young men and women out there who head to college hoping beyond hope that their studies will turn into a better life for their future families.

You want to measure our progress as a country? Forget GDP and consumer spending. Find a way to measure the hopefulness of our children about their futures.

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