By Mencken’s Ghost
May 9, 2012
It was Danielle’s big opportunity. She
was going to be featured in the April 18, 2012 edition of the Wall Street
Journal, in a front-page feature story on college graduates who are putting off
marriage and children because they are underemployed and mired in tuition debt.
Her story was that she had taken out
$74,000 in tuition loans (gasp!) to obtain a business-management degree (double
gasp!!) from Kent
instead of choosing a more difficult major with a higher payoff. Now working
as a bank teller and moonlighting as a waitress, she makes payments of $900 a
month (triple gasp!!!) on her loans. Her fiancé is in a similar boat.
A couple of million readers, including
thousands of business executives looking for good employees, were going to read
her story and see her picture.
So how did Danielle dress for her photo?
She wore blue jeans and a low-cut, short-sleeve, cheesy top--neither of which
did anything to hide her plumpness. Around her neck was a braided necklace
with a pendant that looked like a peace symbol from the 1960s. And on her
beefy upper arm was a tattoo.
In other words, she looked like so many
members of her lost, confused, indebted, and brainwashed generation. Her
appearance was the opposite of what successful people tend to look like in
industry, government and nonprofits throughout the industrialized world.
Regardless of race, nationality or
gender, most people who rise to positions of responsibility (and money) in most
organizations are well-groomed and coiffed, most are fit instead of fat, most
dress conservatively, most are not covered in grotesque tattoos, most exude an
air of quiet competence and self-confidence, and most understand that the way
to get hired and promoted is to dress and behave like the people making the
hiring and promoting decisions.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that this
is how the world works.
But Danielle doesn’t see it. Nor do many
of her generation.
Watch the popular culture and you’ll find
the answer. Movies, sit-coms, sports broadcasts, reality TV, and TV
commercials are full of rich and successful people who don’t look like William
Whyte’s “Organization Man” of 1956. Nor do they look like the characters in
“Father Knows Best,” or in “Leave It to Beaver,” or in “I Love Lucy,” or in
“The Dick Van Dyke Show,” or in the “Bill Cosby Show.” And they certainly
don’t look like sports stars of yesteryear, such as Jackie Robinson, Joe
DiMaggio and Stan Musial.
By contrast, what you see today are
sports stars covered in tattoos and behaving like thugs. You also see movie
and TV stars who are just as lacking in class and manners. At the same time,
commercials give the false impression that successful men have scruffy beards,
and successful women have silicone breasts and brains.
Then there is the special genre of
reality TV. Let’s look at some of the role models that can be found there.
“Pawn Stars” follows the tattooed and
overweight family that owns a pawn shop in Las Vegas. “Man v. Food” follows a guy (Adam
Richman) with a paunch, tattoo, scruffy beard, and atrocious table manners as
he gorges himself around the nation. “American Pickers” follows two likable
and interesting guys with tattoos and poor grammar as they make a living
picking items for resale from America’s
past glory. “Dog the Bounty Hunter” follows a bizarre-looking, tattooed bounty
hunter way past his prime who still thinks he is in his prime. “No Reservations”
follows a chef-cum-pop philosopher, Anthony Bourdain, who travels the world and
periodically shows what a cool dude he is by getting tattoos in other
countries. “Bizarre Foods” follows the personable but obese Andrew Zimmern as
he eats his way to an early death from heart disease. “Swamp People” follows
rednecks with missing teeth as they catch alligators and other critters. And
some show, the title of which I don’t know, follows a tattooed father and his
tattooed son as they yell at each other and otherwise behave like jackasses as
they modify motorcycles.
There are many other shows and role
models of this genre, but you get the flavor.
Don’t get me wrong: These characters
deserve a lot of credit for rising from the pack and being successful. And
there is nothing particularly negative with being from the working class or
nothing particularly positive with being from the managerial class. The point
is, the chances of being successful and wealthy are a lot lower for Danielle
and her generation if they emulate today’s role models instead of
The role models of the past might seem
square, old-fashioned, conformist, and even laughable. But most of the people
who get ahead in this world and make hiring and promotion decisions have basically
the same “un-cool” traits.
My closing advice to Danielle is to cover
the tattoo, lose weight, invest in several conservative business suits, and
stop emulating the wrong people.
Mencken’s ghost is the nom de plume of an
writer who can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.