We hear it again and again: The jobs of the future are going to take hustle. Job-seekers will have to be creative, generate buzz, be extraordinary. Make their own luck.
So why, in my Dorothea Lange vision of present conditions, do I visualize a young person with a cardboard sign that reads, “Too Tired to Hustle”?
As a community college professor, I’m proud that our institutions are open-admission. With very rare exceptions, there’s no qualifying exam. We don’t, for reasons of experience or ability, turn people away. But what are we turning them toward? What jobs lie ahead for my students? That question is increasingly troubling.
At my first community college gig 15 years ago, my students -- for better or for worse -- often met the then-stereotype of community college: the place you end up only because it is your first chance, or your last. Some of my students had parole officers, some had just become citizens, some had meandered through high school, and few had parents who had themselves gone to college.
My students today -- at a much nicer campus in a less disadvantaged part of the country -- meet those negative stereotypes less and less. That recent community college students are increasingly of traditional college age and qualifications is evident to me in my classroom and in their written work. More often than not, now, mine are “university” students simply priced out of the market for four-year education, or prudently looking for the first two years at a bargain.
But for all their improved preparation, they are anxious -- terribly anxious -- and I am anxious for them.
I am anxious not only for the same reasons they are -- the onset of a debilitating student loan burden, the desperate competition for unpaid internships, the concern that there might simply be not enough jobs to go around.
I am anxious, also, for a reason that many of them have not caught onto yet: the mismatch between the supposedly “good” jobs that popular wisdom seems to suggest will definitely continue to exist -- entrepreneurial, experimental, start-up jobs, jobs of risk, hustle, and verve -- and the jobs my students claim to want. Flipping through a semester’s worth of self-introductions is like an obituary pamphlet for Old Economy employment. Again and again, they express a desire for mostly public or public-ish, long-term, safe and stable, even unionized, positions: firefighting, criminal justice, firefighting, nursing, nursing, teaching, teaching, teaching, radiology, firefighting, criminal justice.
Although a few students write, vaguely, business, and a few more, computer science, few are writing, “I want to start my own company,” “I want to freelance myself as a consultant,” “I’m going to sell myself, I have a vision, and I’m going to hustle until I get there, on my own.” There’s little excitement, to tell you the truth. There’s just the longing for a job where you do one thing, easily described, for a long term, and get predictably and sufficiently paid for what you do.
My students don’t want to be astronauts. They want jobs with reasonable, set hours, job security and pensions.
And I don’t know how to break it to them. I don’t know how to sell the alternative -- the more realistic future of work, that sort of chance, the chanciest chance I’ve ever sold.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the competitive capacity of my students; if anything, they seem more experienced in cutthroat competition than ever before. What is exhausted -- just worn and jaded, from constant use, and such challenging odds of reward -- is their inner reserves. Their belief that hustle can actually, well, work. And their trust that a hustle-world -- a world of contingent, not permanent, labor; of setting your own path, not following the path of a established bureaucracy; and of preparing, always preparing, not for the present, but for the as-yet-unimagined-job-that’s-next -- will be a good one, an equitable one, a world they’ll want to join. Or that will include a place for them, even if they do.
The problem with making your own luck is that it requires so much previous luck. To be nimble, to be ready, to have the excess emotional capacity to take future self-driven employment by the balls -- you need to not already be tired, scared, in shelter-mode. To risk more, you have to have not lost too much already. Or at least: not having lost too much already really, really helps.
Many of my students are not the unluckiest, but neither have they been that lucky. They are willing to work, but too tired to hustle. And that used to be enough.
Nicole Matos is associate professor of English at the College of DuPage, in Illinois. Her writing credits include Salon, The Rumpus, berfrois and numerous other literary and academic journals.