If you’re a typical Stanford senior heading into your last year of college, things might look a little bit like this. You’re already getting nostalgic reminiscing about your Stanford experience, and thinking about the future gives you anxiety. It’s not that you don’t have options — you have wonderful and abundant ones, as friends and family have framed them to you in waves of congratulatory messages. You’re just not sure if any of them are quite right. Do you:
(a) Accept an offer at a top consulting firm? You would live with friends from Stanford, work with Ivy League grads and spend your twenties in New York. The starting salary is difficult to argue with. You’re still hazy on what consulting actually does for the world, but everyone seems to believe it will endow you with the skills you need to make a positive impact.
(b) Accept a position at Teach for America? Teaching fits well within your skillset, and you believe in the spirit of service. You’d also benefit from spending the summer in training with purpose-driven colleagues. But you have qualms about where you’ve been placed in Kentucky, out of the limelight and away from the hip urban areas your friends are flocking to. On top of that, you’ve heard murmurs about dysfunction within the organization.
(c) Take a gap year while researching graduate programs in literature? You’ve harbored this dream for a while now, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get funding for your graduate studies, let alone get into your program of choice. And despite a desire to pursue academia, you don’t want to lead a solitary, lonely life, which you’ve heard is common among graduate students.
In a banal sense, this is just an ordinary decision, one that can be elucidated through careful deliberation, a pros/cons list and a call with your mother. But that’s just it — it’s banal. Sure, graduation is on the horizon, but the spritely excitement that you once felt on the cusp of high school graduation for college is long gone, replaced now by dread.
Choices entail tradeoffs, and growing up teaches us the futility of pining after perfect, idealized lives. But each of the above options demands, at least temporarily, a sacrifice. We are made to choose between financial health, a personal pursuit or a part in (cited as Stanford’s founding purpose in Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s convocation remarks in June) promoting “the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity.” Consequently, although a Stanford degree serves as an icon of American success, it frequently shuffles its bearers into either a bourgeois life lacking in direction or purpose, or alternatively an ascetic lifestyle built around intellectualism or public service that pays so poorly it threatens joy. Upperclassmen should find it easy to sympathize with Trevor Levin, who recounted in The Harvard Crimson that while first-years philosophize “about how best to balance personal passions, altruistic motivations, and ‘practical things’ like money and resume-building … [upperclassmen] stare soberly at the search results on Crimson Careers and note how few of them meet even two of those criteria.”
While I certainly wouldn’t advocate that anyone listlessly wait for the stars to align, I want to propose that Stanford students, alongside their colleagues at peer institutions, have too readily surrendered ownership over forging our lives in the mold of excellence, whatever that may mean for each individual. Childhood dreams are just that — childhood dreams — but as they evaporate with maturity, we fail to replace them with workable templates for contentment, allowing adulthood to become a synonym of cynicism and ennui. We accept the necessity of deciding between practicality and pursuing our passions, social community and intellectual stimulation, adequate pay and meaning, as if these are unavoidable facts of life. We traffic in trading away certain forms of well-being for others, mangling the notion of happiness into one in which the best anyone can do is “optimize.” And all these attitudes begin to lock in right around the time of graduation.
But there is another way. In the classical view proposed by Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics, happiness — the chief human good — is not a compromised pleasure, but rather a fullness that accompanies a life led in harmony with virtue. A product of habitual practice, eudaimonia is a flourishing that at its finest form extends through every domain of our lives. Seen in this light, our global system is indeed “rigged.” Aristotle’s political theory dictates that “those who act [virtuously] win, and rightly win, the noble and good things in life,” but our political economy does the reverse, rewarding what is destructive and worthless while punishing that which does the most good for the world. Forget about saving the world — we need to save ourselves first. And to do so, we have to stop extricating politics from our plans for personal fulfillment. This framework should give us all a stake in rescuing our defunct politics and dismantling a morally bankrupt economic system.
The win-win mentality, a narrative propagated by corporate recruiters that young professionals can make money and do good while they’re at it, has recently received penetrating scrutiny from discerning commentators. But who are the agents winning in these scenarios? Let’s bracket for a moment the horror stories of exploitation and job dissatisfaction that we’ve all heard from our friends, whether it’s frequent verbal abuse or ungodly hours; these serve as only the most obvious testimonies of atrocity in the workplace. Even if finance, consulting and big tech firms have no negative impact on the world (which is not by any means given), they are crowding out more productive economic activity — that generated by the kind of innovative brilliance Stanford never tires of boasting about. This problem, of course, is not limited to our university: With the exception of the U.S. government, McKinsey is the top employer of Rhodes and Marshall scholars, in addition to STEM Ph.Ds from top programs. In sum, as Andrew Yang has written, “the financial services industry’s steady rise has had a cannibalizing effect on entrepreneurship in the U.S. economy.” As more graduating students are pumped into prestigious firms, fewer join small businesses, which account for two-thirds of all new job creation in America and generate 13 times more patents per employee. That a sociology major could be funneled into PowerPointing to no avail, or that a bioengineering graduate might end up number-crunching at a financial firm instead of proverbially “finding the cure to cancer,” should depress us all.
But more to the point — since the 1970s, America’s corporate sector has “staged one of the most remarkable campaigns in the pursuit of power in recent history.” Neoliberalism, which claims to champion free-market principles and encourage unbridled growth, has “broadly failed to stimulate worldwide growth,” as David Harvey concludes in his “Brief History of Neoliberalism.” What has instead resulted is a historically unprecedented accumulation of wealth among the rich through the privatization of common goods, financialization and the redistribution of wealth from the global South to the North, the dispossessed to the grossly rich. The stark figures of skyrocketing inequality that have resulted are thankfully now common knowledge. An Economist analysis in 2016 rang the alarm bells on “creeping consolidation” — the increasing concentration in ownership of American firms which has subsequently quashed any semblance of healthy competition.
Within this context, working for monopolistic corporations, which are more concerned with rewarding a small sliver of shareholders sitting at the top of our economic pyramid than making investments or rewarding workers, should demoralize any reasonable person. Meanwhile, the landscape for someone on the job hunt seeking employment at anything other than a colossal conglomerate feels ever more barren. At the very least, colleges like Stanford often invisibilize non-corporate pathways, whether that reveals itself by conspicuous absences at career fairs or in blind spots among career consultants hired by the university. The nihilism of a life condemned to serving these corporations has taken an unsurprising toll: According to the Harvard Business Review, “close to two-thirds of employees in the United States are bored, detached, or jaded and ready to sabotage plans, projects, and other people.” This quote, coming from a publication that could not be cozier to big business, should give us all pause. As the philosopher Alasdair Macintyre lists, free-market economies “forcibly deprive many workers of productive work… condemn parts of the labor force in metropolitan countries and whole societies in less developed areas to irremediable economic deprivation… [and] enlarge inequalities and divisions of wealth and income, so organizing societies into competing and antagonistic interests.”
On the other hand, non-corporate routes present an opposite set of problems. From the outset, staying true to an academic passion, “calling,” or the simple desire to say “I would prefer not to” to corporate recruitment is an upstream swim. As relevant now as ever, Marina Keegan noted in her widely-read article “Even Artichokes Have Doubts,” “It’s pretty hard to be proactive in finding your own alternative, meaningful experience when you’re running an organization and taking classes. These commercial systems are already in place. They have deadlines. They present themselves to you.” Students who manage to steer clear of the onslaught of recruitment events that take over campus face harsh penalties for rejecting the corporate paycheck upon leaving the Farm. The national housing affordability crisis, coupled with real wage stagnation, has meant that few professions except the most lucrative are sustainable in metropolitan areas. Even matriculating to graduate school, which may seem like the closest thing to extending the undergraduate experience, can prove financially challenging and isolating, as Daily coverage last year on a graduate student picking fruit off trees to survive illustrates. While in the Confucian tradition teachers are accorded the utmost respect, recent teacher strikes nationwide have shed light on just how dire it is for those who choose necessary and socially productive occupations. Despite its indisputable value, teaching is poorly paid and afforded low prestige. Sharon Liao, then a history major at Columbia, attested to “being scared out of teaching by teachers,” inducing her to ask herself, “Who wants to pursue a career in which they won’t be appropriately respected or compensated?”
The answer is nobody. My column this year will be an effort at imploring my peers to care, to recognize that we do have intensely personal stakes in forging a utopian politics. Despite our many privileges, our collective experience in this world — 99 percent and one percent alike — is made poorer by the corporate grip on our life and labor. Defined by unprecedented connectivity and global wealth, our age has the tools at its disposal to close physical distances and relate in new and exciting ways, as tech optimists have correctly recognized; but this potential is stunted by diverse but related maladies including loneliness, purposelessness and economic insecurity. Given multiple-choice answers to deep and profound questions concerning how to shape our lives, we need to start from scratch and insist on something more free-form and life-affirming. And to effectively do that, we need to stop retreating into our own insular lives, as if these choices are personal and not political. We deserve more colorful, happier, better lives. But first, we need to care.
Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.