College as lifestyle striving

This is one of those articles that, after reading it, you walk away from your computer in a dazed state of new perception.

The college cynics typically categorize college as a way of signaling either intelligence or work ethic, but to me there’s always been something lacking in that explanation. Why would colleges bother with, as the author notes, cafes in libraries, stupendous stadiums and sports teams, lavish dining hall menus, extensive gyms, etc?

None of these sweeping, ubiquitous changes to college life make any sense under the view that college is for getting a credential, leading to a good job, leading to good income, leading to higher consumption levels. They make perfect sense under the view that young people today expect to have no shot at the career competition and are opting instead for lifestyle competition, and that the college years are training them for that kind of striving.

As someone who dropped out of college after two years, it explains so much — why everything felt so dissonant. When I was a student, I liked to call CU-Boulder an educational day spa. Though I never could explain why that moniker felt so true, I think this article does. It is about the lifestyle, the image, your personal brand.

Lifestyle strivers become obsessed with increasingly arcane points about seemingly mundane leisure activities, and having to flit from one fad to the next in order to not appear to be taking a break but still vigorously invested in the competition. Who is cooking the most original and titillating variation on the mac-and-cheese dinner? Who has the latest style jogging shorts? Who has the most on-point living room decor? Whose playlist contains bands that no one else has ever heard of? Ad nauseam.

If all that is the long road ahead of adolescents, then they had better get a solid training in young adulthood. In fact their parents already model the adult lifestyle striver behavior while the children are still school-aged — bringing home bacon-and-avocado mac-and-cheese for dinner from Whole Foods, so their kids will know what to order when they’re on their own. The parents drag the kids along to IKEA so that they’ll learn what kinds of trendy furniture to pick out once they’re living away at a college dorm room, or their first apartment.

But the parents can only accomplish so much by modeling the behavior. The kids actually have to leave home and begin lifestyle striving in earnest on their own. Hence the current form that the college experience takes.

But why do those insufferable millenials continue to act like millenials, vociferating for free higher education schemes?

Well, it won’t do us any good to lecture them about how they can pay off their debt once they use their degree to get a decent job. They know their degree is worthless — they went to college for lifestyle striving, not to earn more money.

What they’re really asking for is state-subsidized training and apprenticeship in the domain that they’ll be competing for status in as adults — lifestyle contests. In their minds, it’s akin to state-subsidized high school classes in math, science, and technology for those who are planning to strive in the career domain. Fairness would seem to argue for subsidized training for the lifestyle strivers too.

Of course, one of those domains is productive for society, and the other only enriches the individual’s reputation. But the productive niche is already beyond saturated with incumbents and foreigners to whom the work could be outsourced. We can’t expect most young adults to focus on career-building when there are hardly any decent careers waiting to be filled. It’s only natural that they will mostly turn to lifestyle striving as their form of “bettering themselves,” while accepting a crummy job and crummy living circumstances.

The author continues expanding the commentary in the comments.

Perhaps I didn’t drop out of college so much as I opted out of college.

College as lifestyle striving