“So, What are you doing after you Graduate?”
Perhaps you know what you are going to do after you graduate. As the fall semester starts to wrap up, there might be a nagging voice in the back of your mind that asks, “What are you doing to do after you graduate?” (Or maybe it’s part of family conversations as you get closer to your graduation date!)
Why do people pick the careers they do? Certainly, some people graduate with a good sense of a career. Some people knew what they were going to do from their first year of college. (That was definitely not me.)
Jooyoung Lee’s Blowin Up: Rap Dreams in South Central provides a window into the tension between the entertainment industry’s bait-and-switch and the earnest efforts of young men attempting to find a path out of tenuous lives. He studies young African American men and the hip-hop open mic scene in South Central Los Angeles called Project Blowed. (Watch a video celebrating the scene, here.)
Lee presents Project Blowed as a prism for understanding paths of among young black men in Los Angeles who are often stuck in a landscape of dead-end jobs and limited prospects but are drawn to the nearby and alluring glow of the world’s grandest entertainment industry. Making it in the scene at the micro-level and the tantalizing prospect of succeeding in the entertainment industry at a larger-scale, makes participating in the hip hop scene a “creative alternative path” to gang life and, frankly, hopelessness (p.26).
Lee offers the idea of “existential urgency.” This is a kind of update to sociologist Georg Simmel’s blasé attitude: the conditions of urban life create a sort of coping mechanism directed toward context-driven attitudes and actions (or inaction). The possibility of success hangs out there, in a foggy middle distance, just out of reach. Lee does a good job of showing how these decisions are hardly irrational. “These men,” he says, “grew up in social worlds that forecasted a precarious adulthood” (p. 46).
Rich Ocejo’s book, Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy, serves as a kind of mirror image to Blowin Up. Ocejo draws from a different perspective, but still attempts to explore how young people risk a great deal to find themselves a foothold in a career. Ocejo studies how middle class 20- and 30-somethings exchange their middle class cultural capital in order to embrace older, craft skills, like whiskey distillery, butchery, barbering, and cocktail bartending.
For Ocejo, these middle and upper class men (and they’re mostly men) risk their socio-economic status—somewhat, since they could all have an easier time returning to the more formal economy as compared with the men in Lee’s book—in order to take more traditionally working-class jobs. The men in Masters of Craft all could fall back on their degrees and social networks to make a life for themselves. A return to their lower-class position seems all but assured for the men in Blowin’ Up. Both ventures for both groups seem equally low-risk and equally rational.
Both books remind me of a classic study of the link between education and work, Paul Willis’ Learning to Labor: How Working Class kids get Working Class Jobs. Within Willis studies the “lads” who ditched school because they estimated that, no matter what they did, they’d end up in factory jobs, and decided that they should just enter the workforce anyway—mirror Lee’s rappers, who figure that those expendable day jobs would always be there, while the window for making a career as an entertainer is very small.
The young Brits make a decision to leave school early in order to accept and embrace their lives as manual laborers, a foretold destiny. They also have a kind of existential urgency. In Ocejo’s book, people eschew conventional jobs as a choice, as an opportunity. A different kind of urgency. For Lee, the young African American men in Los Angeles ignore more conventional paths, if underpaid and unsatisfying ones, in dull jobs (e.g., selling cell phones for Verizon) or semi-glamorous and dangerous opportunities in gangs in order to grasp the slim chance for success through the entertainment industry. Lee notes that these men navigate the twin crises of a.) gang opportunities and violence, and b.) limited and dire formal employment opportunities.
If you are interested in learning more about these topics, you should check out the American Sociological Association’s section on Organizations, Occupations and Work. There are lots of good resources to dig much deeper into this!