Columns

Friedman ’19: An Epicurean renaissance

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, April 8, 2016

The topic of post-college plans is, at least in my personal experience, one of the most difficult to broach in conversation with my freshman friends; many approach the topic with trepidation. This is understandable, as there are over a thousand articles online about how recent college graduates are entering a particularly terrible job market.

When I do get my friends to actually speak to me about life after college, the first thing they mention, rather than their dream career, is the “dream city” they would ideally like to call home. Unless we include thoroughbred East-Coasters in our discussion, top picks include Seattle, San Francisco, Portland and Denver: almost unanimously cities on the Pacific Coast and in the Mountain West. (I, as odd as it may seem, would like to move back home to Dallas when I graduate, but that is beside the point.) Regarding careers, many of my classmates in the class of 2019 have decided to put off a firm decision for the foreseeable future, which only confirms the stereotype that Brown students, compared to other Ivy League students (cough, cough … Penn), prioritize lifestyle goals over particular career goals. But the prevailing attitude at Brown is beginning to typify the entire U.S. job market.

According to a recent New York Times article, this emphasis on lifestyle and city choice over specific careers now represents a majority ideology among young people. This is especially true in Mountain West/Pacific Coast cities like Denver and Seattle in which influxes of smart, college-educated millennials are fueling local economic booms. The article suggests the reason for these cities’ success in the ongoing popularity contest is that “The lifestyles that 20- and 30-somethings often seek depend on a medley of urban living, public transit and lots of entertainment options.” Employers are also taking note of the millennial migration. According to the Colorado Office of Economic Development, people used to move to the state for “the lifestyle and hoped they could scrape a living together,” whereas now, “employers are chasing them.” College graduates appear to be moving to new cities for personal rather than pragmatic reasons, and employers are getting on board.

I would argue that this trend is a lasting side effect of the Great Recession, specifically of its temporary impact on the job market for college graduates. When the unemployment rate among 20- to 24-year-olds jumped to 15.5 percent in 2010, young people found themselves strapped to find any job, let alone one that paid well. Multiple frauds involving retirement funds (think Bernie Madoff) undermined the notion established by baby boomers that retirement funds and pensions are reliable financial institutions. Faced with a seemingly absurdist world in which job loyalty and responsible financial planning practically meant nothing and job and financial insecurity were found at every turn, young Americans in 2008 turned inward for solutions. I posit that, as a result, young Americans have developed a distrust of the economic system and have adjusted their values to place more emphasis on personal fulfillment than job choice. As the economy recovers from the recession, the reworked millennial mindset has already been set in stone, leading to the trends we observe in cities like Portland and Denver today.

To those who would characterize baby boomers as more hard-working and productive than the current generation, I would say that we just understand and prioritize our spiritual needs to a greater degree than the baby boomers. Whereas baby boomers are “committed, hard-working and career-focused” and often stick with one job throughout their entire careers, millennials are willing to give up career stability for a higher quality of life. One can view the shift to cities that offer urbanist living with lots of entertainment options as a return to classical philosophical ideas, rather than a return to laziness and egoism.

Epicurus, a Greek philosopher born in 341 B.C., posited that the pursuit of life should not be wealth, but rather happiness. According to Epicurus, happiness is achieved through friendship, freedom and meditative thought. Are these not exactly the expectations that college students have for their post-graduation dream cities? New urbanist living facilitates closer friendships by placing people within walking distance of each other. Cities attracting young people at record rates — Houston, Nashville, Denver, Austin, Seattle and Portland — are not only fun but are also incubators for startups, which collectively offer unprecedented freedom of job choice. These cities also offer urban park space for daily exercise and existential contemplation — take Austin’s Zilker Park or Seattle’s Green Lake Park. It seems as if Epicureanism is making a stealthy resurgence.

Brown students appear to have embraced this trend before it was cool. Just a look at The Herald’s article, “Brown alums have lowest median salaries in Ivy League,” is enough to prove that Brown graduates have often cared more about meaningful careers than profitable ones. Many Brown students choose to work for non-profit companies or pursue careers that are “doing something for the greater good,” according to CareerLAB Director Matthew Donato. Twelve percent more alums from the class of 2003 rated “helping others” as an “essential” career goal than rated “being well off financially” the same way. This choice of emotional well-being over high income has been proven a thoughtful one by contemporary research by economists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton. They claim that “High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being” and that “there is no further progress (of emotional well-being) beyond an annual income of (about) $75,000.” In order to be happy, it seems, one should aim to hit an income threshold rather than aim to maximize it. By choosing lower-paying, more meaningful careers over more lucrative ones, Brown students appear to be the vanguard for a thoughtful ideological shift in the American work-life balance paradigm.

Andrew Friedman ’19 can be reached at

andrew_friedman@brown.edu.

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