Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Overheard in the Locker Room

One of the consolations of middle age is that it brings the power of invisibility.  That brings with it a certain amount of unintentional eavesdropping.

Earlier this week, as I was getting changed in the locker room before work, I overheard a retiree -- I’d put him around 70 -- talking to a student who I’d put around 19.  The exchange:

Retiree: Enjoy yourself now, young man.  Once you start working and join the real world, the party’s over, yes, sir.

Student: Actually, I work about 45 hours a week now.  I have afternoon shifts at (local employer).

Retiree: You do?  When do you do your homework?

Student: (laughs) It’s hard.

The exchange, as short as it was, gave me pause.  From the tone of it, I don’t think either man was kidding or pranking; it sounded pretty straightforward.  But the assumption gap between the two was glaring.

The older man seemed to assume that college was a relatively carefree time in which a young man could spent most of his time, well, being young.  That’s a popular image of college, and there’s ample historical precedent for it.  

But the younger man is living in a very different world.  For him, college is one set of time commitments among others, and his days are all about time management.  Just the fact that he was in the gym at dark o’clock in the morning suggested a certain density to his day; at that age, I was dead to the world at that hour.  (I assume he has some “being young” time in there somewhere; some things don’t change.)  

The perception gap between them matters, I think, because the older man’s cohort has far more political power than the younger man’s.  Among the people who actually make the decisions that impact everyone, the idea of college as a sort of sybaritic retreat is still the default assumption.  And they make decisions based on that.  Cut the Pell lifetime limit by a third?  Sure, why not?  They’re just goofing off anyway...

But they’re not.  They’re working harder than most of us did at that age, at greater cost and greater risk.  

For some reason, that message still comes as a surprise to many, even to those of us in positions to know better.  It’s easy to fall into “kids today...” laments if you don’t look very hard, or if you look backwards with rose-colored glasses.  (I went to college before the era of handheld internet devices.  Kids did crosswords in class.  Distraction is not new.)  That’s harmless enough when it’s confined to cranky observations about, say, pajama pants in class.  But when we base public policy on it, it’s destructive.

Is there a better narrative out there to describe the world as current students actually experience it?  Preferably one that doesn’t involve eavesdropping in locker rooms?