Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The illusion of second chances

Today is the first day of school here.  It's also the day after Labor Day (kudos to the School Board, as an aside, for not making kids go back to school right before a three day holiday).  So, the kids are going back to school, and the parents and others back to work.

As they do, a lot of the kids are looking forward to a year of new things and new opportunities (while some are also lamenting the start of another school year).  A lot of those parents and other adults, however, don't view the start of the workweek on a Tuesday the same way. There's a cautionary tale here.  Indeed, I meant to post this awhile back, but a question I heard the other day caused me to ponder it again.

Americans love the happy ending story. This is so much the case that Europeans call these type of movie endings "American endings".  Americans usually don't like a story that ends on a sad note, although there are exceptions.  One I can think of off hand is the movie Will Penny, which ends on a bit of a downer, and which sort of taps into the them of this post.. But we don't find too many of these types of endings, however, in American films.

Anyhow, included in these stories, and broadcast on television every year, is the late happy education or career story.  You know, woman who dropped out of school at 16 years old graduates with high school degree in her 50s.  Man who left school at 14 receives honorary high school degree at 90.  These heartwarming stories confirm our belief that "it's never too late" to do this or that.  And indeed, for some things it is never too late.  It's probably never too late to make healthy lifestyle choices, within the confines of a person's present health.  It's never too late to turn from a life of vice or depredation into one that has virtue and meaning.  So, to some extent, this is true.

But with these stories that have economic implications, for most people, there actually is a statute of real limitations, like it or now.  If life is like a river, you might be able to get out and back upstream, but it's more likely that your boat can just be beached, by design or accident, and you have to put back out from where you are.

Getting a person's GED or a college degree, late in life, is often quite pointless.  Worse than that, it often tends to prove nothing whatsoever.  A person, for example, who is obtaining a GED late in life has already had their economic course set, and a GED is going to do nothing for them.  It might validate their sense of self, but that's a purely internal matter.

The same is often true, in my view, to late in life degrees.  News channels like to run stories about people obtaining advanced degrees in their 60s or older, and if a person simply wants to, the more power to them. But if we think that this actually gives them a break in life, forget it.  Obtaining your JD at 60 years old, if you actually want to practice law, is, for example, darned near pointless.  A relative of mine obtained his, after a successful university teaching degree, in his 40s and rapidly discovered that nobody was going to hire him.  He clerked for a year and then returned to academia, grateful for his first career and a bit wiser about the law, lawyers, and the practice of law, but with no hope of a legal career.  Having said that, a couple of my good law school friends were 40 when they graduated with their JDs and went on to successful careers.  One is now retired, and the other about to.

And, in things like the law (but not in everything involving higher education by any means) sometimes the elderly or older occupant of that school chair has bumped out some younger person.  I have no problem with people applying for such spots up into their 40s, although frankly if they're going to be crowding their mid 40s when they graduate they are occupying a space that a younger person might more justly occupy.  Or at least that can be the case (in law schools it probably isn't, given the 50% decline in applications to law school over the past few years).

Moreover, and not so obvious to the young, life has a way of taking over.  I've known and know now kids who are entering the military service.  I don't begrudge them that, but I'll sometimes hear parents hoping that when they get out, they'll go to college.  Maybe they will. Some certainly will.  But if you do four years in the Navy or Marines and find yourself 22 years old, for some they'll imagine (incorrectly) that they're ship has sailed and they best not try it.  One young man I knew who joined the Marines for one hitch found life taking over and is still in nearly a decade or more later.  When his hitch comes up in the next couple of years, he'll have to weigh getting out and into civilian employment (the lack of which kept in him in the Marines) against completing an additional eight years and having a military retirement.

The period from 18 to 30 is one of tremendous change, with the period from 17 to 25, really, being the most significant of that period (yes, I know I dropped a year in there).  People start and stop career paths.  People marry or pass by people they think of marrying.  People go one place for work and leave others.  A lot of these choices, if not irrevocable when made, start to set up like cement in a few years.

There are always exceptions to the rule.  I've known one man who started off a meteorologist, became a geophysicist, became a lawyer, became a teacher, and started practicing law again (after retiring from his school district).  And there are many, many people who started off in one career and chose another.  I'd guess maybe 40% of all lawyers fit that category, including myself.  But those doors, from the moment you see them, are closing, and they don't remain open for ever.

Chose wisely, if you can.

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