by Calvin Alvarez
I had a lot of fun in college.
It wasn’t so much the drinking, the partying, the first taste of freedom, or the drug experimentation-not that those were unappreciated.
It was the peace of mind.
From the day the big acceptance letter came in the mail, I felt set. I had truly earned something. Now my days of working toward truly earning anything would be over.
Graduating from college isn’t a challenge. You just have to pass. And unless you’re a square and study engineering or something, it’s hard not to pass. I chose my degree based on the ideal ratio between scholarly prestige and lack of mandatory lecture attendance. I had my life planned out, and a top university pedigree was all I needed to set it into motion.
I’d be sort of like the bourgeois bohemian David Brooks wrote about ten years ago-except I’d be younger and cooler. I was just going to be a comfortable bohemian. And I was going to live happily and alternatively ever after.
In case there’s any confusion about what I mean by “comfortable bohemian,” let’s start with what I don’t mean: a bohemian in the original sense. That’s someone in the creative class who lives with total disregard for society’s norms. It’s sexy. It’s a Hunter S. Thompson type of lifestyle. But living like a true bohemian almost guarantees a life of poverty and hardship. And that sucks.
Comfortable bohemians, on the other hand, gripe about the death of old-fashioned bookstores while relying on our iPhones to find quaint new spots to take their place. We read our local alternative weekly, pushed by the national alternative weekly syndicate, to tell us what alternative concerts to see. We’re tired of the commercialization of American sports, so we watch European soccer, fed live by ESPN and Fox Sports at 11 a.m. We shop at Trader Joe’s and try to get to the farmers market when it’s nice out. We’re alternative. But not that alternative.
In the arena of life, we occupy the peanut gallery. We get to take in the show, but we don’t jump in ourselves. We don’t necessarily strive for material affluence, but we compensate for economic inferiority with cerebral superiority.
It’s a lifestyle with its hypocrisies, sure, but that doesn’t make it unrespectable. (Hypocrisy and respectability actually marry quite nicely.) I have no trouble finding the absurdities in our society, but I’m not about to devote my life to railing against the status quo and dwelling on the fringes. I’ve dabbled with poverty enough to know it’s not for me. But I still carry a little shred of conscience. So I’m willing, as a card-carrying comfortable bohemian, to maintain an attitude of respectful dissent, as long as it doesn’t exile me from polite society.
If the point of going to college is to prepare yourself for your future career, I can without boasting say I succeeded in my preparation for comfortable bohemianism. I studied political theory. I read my Lenin and Lukács and Foucault.
Of course, if I’d been looking around more, I might have realized a lot of my peers were, just like me, paving their way toward lives of comfortable bohemianism.
And it might have worked out for us.
Unfortunately, we’ve found ourselves thrust into the worst economy since the Great Depression. And all those squares we laughed at for joining student business groups and going to speed-networking sessions are the only ones with decent jobs. And we live with our parents.
No, things aren’t going as planned. Let’s be clear: the first rule of comfortable bohemianism is comfort. You find your golden cow, whether it’s a job that “harnesses your creativity” or a fat inheritance. And then you layer on tasteful bohemian accents to a degree that’s commensurate with your income. The greater the income, the more bohemian accents you’ll require in compensation.
But without any income, what can we be? Certainly not comfortable bohemians. But we can’t be uncomfortable bohemians, either. We’ve been taught to depend on material abundance. Even those with much more bohemian resolve are weighed down by student debt they can’t ever shake.
And so we are floundering.
To make it worse, pundits have taken to kicking us while we’re down, offering up diagnoses for our problems: We’ve been coddled. Facebook has turned us into social retards. (This is coming from the generation that needs Match.com to get laid.) We’re indifferent to becoming useful members of society.
In some ways, they’re not entirely wrong. Contributing to society isn’t something that feels like an especially noble calling right now. This is a society with its priorities out of whack. This society told me I needed a university education to avoid becoming desperately poor-and then buried me with debt when I followed its directions. (Just going to UC Berkeley, a public university, left me with $80,000 in student debt-and that makes me one of the luckier ones.)
Now, I know my gripe is in some ways predictable. It’s the natural order of history that every generation gets into a fight with its predecessors. Still, it’s pretty rich to be taking a lashing from the generations that gorged themselves on credit and sent the whole system crashing down, all the while rearing us on Playstations and designer handbags and convincing us that it was possible to live comfortably off of a liberal arts education.
I think my generation would garner more respect from our elders if we tried to stand for something more substantial. We could show even slight concern about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya (or is that last one over?). We could cause even a slight uproar in response to the California college tuition hikes. We could-I don’t know-ask to audit the Fed, or something. Instead, the biggest political groundswell I’ve seen from my generation was a not-very-taxing effort to elect our slightly left-of-center President Obama. And I suspect even that was fueled mainly by clever Facebook marketing and a Shepard Fairey portrait.
Perhaps my generation could have had a watershed moment if the London rioters had actually protested the killing of their disenfranchised peer instead of looting sneakers and computers. But we are the youth of today, and today very few of us would allow principles to distract us from a free shopping spree.
So maybe we should just become real bohemians. Jack Kerouac set out on the road with nothing but a notebook and a beat-up Chevy, and that worked out pretty well for him. Then again, would he have been so eager if he’d had a monthly iPhone bill to think about?
Calvin Alvarez is from Los Angeles.
*Photo courtesy of reidmasimore.