5 Reasons the Yuppies On the Brown Line Look So Depressed

Well, there are a lot of reasons: the Great Speedup, job insecurity, student-loan debt, cynicism about public institutions, and stalled incomes. But in our depression is our salvation.

Chicago El

 

My former colleague Ben Joravsky found himself on the Brown Line the other day, and made an observation that I think many of you will find familiar:

The train takes me through the heart of Emanuel country — if Mayor Rahm has a fan base, this is it. Young professionals with iPods and other electronic gadgetry.

And here’s my great discovery….

They’re all miserable!

Never seen such a collection of glum-and-grim, don’t-talk-to-me, don’t-look-at-me, don’t-even-smile-at-me people in my life.

[snip]

And, remember, these are the lucky ones — they have jobs! At least, I presume they have jobs. Why else would people make this ride if they didn’t have to?

First, as someone with the sort of natural expression that, even in the best of times, causes strangers to actually inquire about my well-being, I have to maintain some skepticism. (No, really, it’s a thing. As Bill Hicks put it in Relentless: “I just have one of those faces. People come up to me and say, ‘What’s wrong?’ Nothing. ‘Well, it takes more energy to frown than it does to smile.’ Yeah, you know it takes more energy to point that out than it does to leave me alone?")

Second, I don’t think the ennui of the young, educated middle class is a contemporary phenomenon, having tried and failed to finish Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and other terminally bleak depictions of urban/suburban desperation:

And yet ‘’Revolutionary Road'’ stands at the beginning of the new computer age, and chronicles its early fascination with empty communication, which has led us to self-absorption, narcissism, megalomania and unwanted e-mail. ‘’It’s a completely new kind of job, and we’re going to have to develop a completely new kind of talent to do it,'’ brays the bulbous Bart Pollock to the feckless and fearful Frank after knocking back one more big gin. Frank Wheeler is that new man, the heir apparent, ‘’selling the electronic computer to the American businessman,'’ and thus heralding ‘’a whole new concept in business control.'’

Nor is the anomie of the reasonably well-compensated merely a white-collar phenomenon. One of the best parts of Jefferson Cowie’s excellent history of the labor movement in the 1970s, Stayin’ Alive, is his recounting of “Lordstown syndrome,” which took its name from a strike over working conditions at an Ohio GM plant. But the working conditions at issue are not what you’d expect. You can sample Cowie’s argument in an NYT op-ed (but I do recommend the book):

Most workers weren’t angry over wages, though, but rather the quality of their jobs. Pundits often called it “Lordstown syndrome,” after the General Motors plant in Ohio where a young, hip and interracial group of workers held a three-week strike in 1972. The workers weren’t concerned about better pay; instead, they wanted more control over what was then the fastest assembly line in the world.

Newsweek called the strike an “industrial Woodstock,” an upheaval in employment relations akin to the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. The “blue-collar blues” were so widespread that the Senate opened an investigation into worker “alienation.”

As for myself, I’m right in what Joravsky describes as Emanuel’s wheelhouse: a straphanging, headphone-wearing young professional with electronic gadgetry and a card-carrying “glum-and-grim, don’t-talk-to-me, don’t-look-at-me, don’t-even-smile-at-me” CTA denizen. A sociologist or historian might tell you different, but as an English major plenty versed in the bildungsroman genre, it’s my belief that glum young twerps like myself are a staple of urban life in the West.

Nonetheless, I can think of a few practical economic reasons why the lucky ones, while not denying their (and my) luck, are not entirely satisfied with mere employment.

1. We’re swimming in debt.

I was more fortunate than most; a combination of federal grants and subsidized loans means the college debt I have remaining is less than my age if you multiply it times one thousand. Then I married a law student, and I better appreciated a chart that’s been making the rounds recently, about the 511-percent increase in student-loan debt from 1999 through 2011. What’s remarkable about that statistic—besides its size, obviously—is how the growth in student-loan debt outpaced total household debt even during the inflation of the housing/credit bubble. This is why some people are worried that it’s, you know, also a bubble.

Why has college gotten so expensive? In the Washington Monthly, Benjamin Ginsberg makes a compelling argument: “Administrators Ate My Tuition”:

Between 1975 and 2005, total spending by American higher educational institutions, stated in constant dollars, tripled, to more than $325 billion per year. Over the same period, the faculty-to-student ratio has remained fairly constant, at approximately fifteen or sixteen students per instructor. One thing that has changed, dramatically, is the administrator-per-student ratio.

So if your college ROI is getting worse, it’s time to skip it, right? Not so fast:

education by employment

2. Sure, we’re employed now….

Let us assume that some of those young professionals are not, like me, in the troubled world of media, which I acknowledge is my own fault. Instead, let’s assume that they’re among society’s winners, employed in the field of high finance. In some ways—don’t laugh—they’re just as screwed.

One of the best, and to my mind most important, books about the current financial crisis is Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street by Karen Ho. Dr. Ho took a leave of absence from her studies in anthropology to follow her bright young peers into investment banking as part of her research. Among the many things she found was that what’s believed to be good for the goose is also considered good for the gander:

The shock of being a downsized anthropologist showed me directly that job insecurity lay at the heart of Wall Street’s self-conception. Through constant layoffs, the attendant outplacement and headhunting industries, and compensation schemes (more on this in the next chapter), insecurity is built into the very structures of investment banking organizations, and used as a character-building, formative experience to recommend for other workers. [p. 222]

What’s interesting about that: it’s not just that layoffs and general job insecurity are considered to be a necessary evil of high finance, and the mergers and aquisitions work that often causes them. Job insecurity is considered, on Wall Street, to be good in and of itself. That insecurity is then passed down as a business strategy, and has become an increasingly familiar part of white-collar business life.

3. Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but….

On one hand, getting a job during a recession is indeed lucky, because unemployment is high and business confidence is often low. On the other hand, it’s also unlucky:

There are three central findings in this study. First, luck matters, because graduating in a recession leads to large initial earnings losses. These losses, which amount to about 9 percent of annual earnings in the initial stage, eventually recede, but slowly – halving within five years but not disappearing until about ten years after graduation. Second, initial random shocks affect the entire career.

4. Even for those of us who have a job, and probably aren’t going to get fired, and actually get paid a lot, that job probably stinks more than it did a few years ago.

Now let us further assume that, during the economic crisis, these employed young straphangers have survived layoffs and still, somehow, aren’t fazed by survivor’s guilt, job insecurity, and reduced potential earnings. What’s eating them now? There’s a good chance they’re doing their fallen colleagues’ work.

[I]ncreasingly, US workers are also falling prey to what we’ll call offloading: cutting jobs and dumping the work onto the remaining staff. Consider a recent Wall Street Journal story about “superjobs,” a nifty euphemism for employees doing more than one job’s worth of work—more than half of all workers surveyed said their jobs had expanded, usually without a raise or bonus.

In all the chatter about our “jobless recovery,” how often does someone explain the simple feat by which this is actually accomplished? US productivity increased twice as fast in 2009 as it had in 2008, and twice as fast again in 2010: workforce down, output up….

Kevin Drum calls this the Great Speedup. Which brings us back around to Joravsky’s post:

Point is — how can folks care about the assault against teachers if they’re utterly miserable about their own existence?

In some ways, this is the central tension about the argument over a longer school day and the Chicago Teachers Union’s demand for more compensation than has been offered. People in all walks of life are being pushed to do more work without comparable salary hikes. That’s the nut of Mary Mitchell’s argument against the Chicago Teachers Union:

The world has changed dramatically. There probably isn’t a worker in America that isn’t being asked to do more for the same salary or less.

[snip]

Now reporters have to worry about photographs, videos, blogs, Facebook and Twitter. That means a day that used to start at a certain time and end when the story was passed on to an editor can last well after the evening news signs off, as reporters attempt to keep up with what’s being posted in never-ending blogs, e-mails and tweets.

You adjust.

I cannot say for myself that I have drawn a hard line about being asked to do more for the same salary in the past. And from personal experience, it can be hard to differentiate between “working hard for the sake of my work ethic” and “clinging desperately to employment.” Either way, high unemployment and what’s termed “the great speedup” makes the CTU’s stance less popular than it might be in other times.

5. Also we’re just in a bad mood.

Times is rough and tough like leather, as a wise man once said:

The NBER study examining the attitudes of people ages 18 to 25 who began their adulthood in economic downturns from 1972 onward found that they all tend to believe that success in life depends more on luck than on effort, and they have less trust in public institutions…. As Paola Giuliano, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and one of the authors of the study, notes, “People who buy into the idea of luck over effort tend to work less hard, and that lowers productivity, which of course can lower economic growth.” Indeed, this may go some way toward explaining the often mysterious growth edge that “can-do” Americans have long enjoyed over “yes, but” Europeans, who tend to mock such Type A behavior. Whether Americans will eventually follow them is an interesting question: the Conference Board recently released numbers showing that U.S. job satisfaction is at its lowest level in two decades.

And there, perhaps, is a glimmer of hope. Those depressed yuppie commuters are not a reason to despair, but the light at the end of the tunnel. If increased productivity helps maintain high unemployment, and cynicism reduces productivity, we should be confident in our lack of confidence, and do what we can to encourage it, though maybe “encourage” is the wrong word.

I envision a New Raw Deal, in which a Civilian Cynicism Corps funds sketch comedy troupes, shoegaze bands, and first novels about cubicle life. Workers of the world, unite glower quietly on the Brown Line! You have nothing to lose but your mood!

 

Photograph: -Tripp- (CC by 2.0)

 

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comments
3 years ago
Posted by cmoscinski

Great article!!! I say try to make someone smile - you may make their day :)

3 years ago
Posted by fatuglynerd

This has got to be the biggest load of malarkey I have read in a long time.

Maybe the author is concerned about the material world and profits, but to suggest that those who ride a line in Chicago "look" miserable because of the state of our countries economy is just a sweeping generalization that is based purely on speculation; and then backed up with some handy stats.

Yuppies? Right. Get a clue.

Miserable? Ha. I can see where someone who doesn't live here might think, 'woah, this reporter makes sense' ... but let me be the first to tell you that the Brown Line is no more miserable, or attached to their iPods than any other line. They all intersect, and people are coming and going from all corners of the city ... at all times of the day.

I ride the Brown/Purple/Red line daily ... and it's the same people ignoring everyone around them no matter which line you're on.

Brown Line? Right ... pfffft. This article is bunk.

3 years ago
Posted by MrJM

"We're swimming in debt."

Is it still "swimming" when one has gone under three times?

-- MrJM

3 years ago
Posted by MrJM

@FATUGLYNERD

Point = Missed

-- MrJM

3 years ago
Posted by Lansman

As a 20-something who rides the Brown Line every day to and from work and school, this article tends to be targeting people such as myself - at the risk of speaking for "everyone" on board the Brown Line, riding the Brown Line back after class, say, 9-11ish, you get a good combination of happy (done with class/work and about to go party/go home) and weary (long day I just want to get home and crash) people. Sure there are some glum looking people on the train, but overall, the nighttime crowd isn't 'miserable' in a general sense.

In the morning, the group is a fairly quiet bunch - we just woke up not too long ago (tired/hungover/not looking forward to a long day, etc.) and we will have to interact with one another more than enough when we get to work, so the mindset is to allow us at least a few more precious minutes of time before we have to trek up to our offices/jobs and start the day.

My $0.02, and sure, while our debt issues don't help, I don't think that issue in particular plays into the mindset of a yuppie going off on a Monday or Tuesday morning to start a long week at work...

3 years ago
Posted by MsWj

As one who isn't lucky enough to be able to work in the city that I live, it's good to know I'm not the only one feeling drab *driving* 40 miles each way to work! Increased fuel prices plus having to risk my life checking emails, to ensure I’m 24-7 connected job-secured, as I drive back to the city equals an even worse scenario. (and you thought it couldn’t get any worse!)

3 years ago
Posted by jefferson1971

Classic article and quite surprising to see in Chicago Magazine. I thought I was the only person using that word. Surely someone will be offended. Said “yuppie” once in a conversation with one of the guys in housekeeping at my health club. Not surprisingly, an eavesdropping yuppie, most likely a transplant from Ohio or Michigan and armed with a degree from a Big 10 school, had some comment to make.

You forgot Surplus Time. One of the reasons they look miserable is because outside of working "crazy busy" hours as an analyst or consultant at some office job, they have little in the way of responsibilities. Obviously, most are single (not married), don't have children and either rent an apartment or live in a condo. Their toy phones, Blueberries, Ppods, texting and other sundry devices/activities is their security blanket. Lift your head out of that electronic gizmo you are mesmerized with and instead greet a fellow “L” passenger with a "Good morning." You may be surprised by the outcome.

3 years ago
Posted by Tapp001

What is Whet smoking? I've taken most lines around Chicago, Blue stinks, it's loud and people are plain Ugly! Read smells like urine and south of some point is just too freaking scary to ride. Brown, I found has the newest cars, people are hot! Chatty, smiling, and you got great views of the city. Whet... take a ride on other lines and you will see.

3 years ago
Posted by Tapp001

and what kind of name is Whet, anyway? :-)
I love it!

3 years ago
Posted by ChicagoPJS

Yep, I'm "depressed" because I don't have kids and all I have to entertain me is my iPhone and iPod. You nailed it on the head there. Right...

Being "quiet" and "depressed" are two different things. Frankly, when I'm on the Brown Line twice a day I have either one of the following things on my mind 1) Can't wait to get home 2) That project at work needs to get sone 3) what's on tap this weekend? 4) is it the weekend yet? 5) what's for dinner? 6) Can [insert sports team here] play better? 7) can this L car get any more crowded 8) thank god I have a job, but how can I get a raise?

No offense, Ben or Jefferson1971, but not one of these thoughts has anything to do with you so I'm not going to involve you in my life. Sorry.

I have zero debt, was raised here and didn't attend a Big 10 school either. And finally, if by 'yuppie' you mean 'young urban professional' I would guess there's a LOT of us in the third biggest city in the country.

3 years ago
Posted by Chicagokok

Often you're being smushed up against strangers after waiting in the freezing cold, haven't had your coffee yet, and want to snag a few minutes to read/text/whatever before starting your work.

And more than once I've even made eye contact with the wrong person and ended up getting harassed by someone who is slightly off their rocker.

3 years ago
Posted by companionanimal

Through hipster practice, one inevitably acquires distinguished self-absorbing perception of oneself and knowingly expresses menacing glares at those deemed unworthy, essentially everyone outside one’s circle of hipster friends. Upon gaining this enlightened vision of thinking, one may enter a dive bar, drink some Pabst Blue Ribbon and have intercourse. Afterwards, one can discuss it over coffee before entering another dive bar and experience the Hipster cycle. Periods of time between drinking coffee and attending dive bars can be filled with listening to no-name Indie music, attending some liberal arts class, or getting high.

3 years ago
Posted by 10west

hmmm

3 years ago
Posted by 10west

Alright, I finally figured it out.

The above applies, but there is something far deeper that is affecting people and they can't even see it, it's progressive.

1. People can fool their consciousness but they cannot fool the layers beneath it, that generalized subconscious which is much more complex and brilliant than the conscious mind, it knows.

So we have in just ten years, the "Rain Man" inside doing the math, no conspiracy theory, these are statistically backed developments.

We just had a triad of military, financial and governmental anomalies which can only fool the most staunch ostrich of ignorance, but the shadow knows, LOL.

So there is no way a 911, total loss of freedom, total real bankruptcy glossed with monopoly money, and total systemic governmental collusion can simply all be coincidence. The outer shell of the man says, rubbish! Conspiracy theory! Your nuts!

But Rain Man within? He saw it from the getgo, and that leaves the outerworld's realities, and the inner world's clear recognition of them, compressing the delusion that everything is OK, into a suspended animation of inner anxiety, eg, a time bomb whose Nitro Glycerine must ooze out somewhere, it explodes here and there.

Now those are only 3 of the small hi-jackings some plainly see, but others deny though the Rain Man inside them sees it as well, because it's full of overt and latent evidence, as said, optimism on the outside cannot cover the spikes of doom on the inside, and this is tearing people up inside by all the holes of the spikes, which are added to daily by the obvious news that this is soon to be a global nightmare, so the systemic rot of the American greed machine, has spread.

An education debt bubble?

Brilliant! Rain man sees that link in the shot economy timeline is the perfect psychological square for those who want to increase their standard of living, but instead the colleges have merely also acquired more debt, or are props set up to sell loans, and obsolete technology of thought, and all three in many cases. Coincidence?

No, Rain Man sees that one thing would obviously lead to another, and the equal sign is less for you, and more for the voracious banking cancer's asset haul soon from dead in the water students and graduates, and from the e-diots of academia who built new libraries and racquet ball courts, who will soon be owned by the bank, lock, stock, and peril (and the alumni's house or credit score). So you had the 1, 2, 3 all in the American Dreamer's face, and the subconscious is the one who feels the blows, the exterior is numb with the import of what it all means.

This inner Rain Man is then wondering, when will these subconscious realities, mirroring outer world reality, sandwiching the propagandized carcass, erupt into the actual consciousness, rather than merely spike here and there with a glum stair, a rude care, a white noise electronic ware, the zombies everywhere.

When the walls are caving probably, but not certain. LOL

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