I just finished Charles Murray’s The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life. It’s a short book and actually targeted at 20 somethings just starting out in the world (a fact I didn’t realize when I bought the book). Murray is an American right-of-centre political and social scientist and his last book, Coming Apart, was a very good read. It was a data rich commentary on the causes of the widening gap between the rich and poor in the US.
The Curmudgeon’s Guide is his view of how a young person today should start out on their own and has some interesting tips and ideas but I couldn’t help thinking that Murray (71 years old) is actually talking to my generation (40s). Some of the stuff he talks about I think has actually mutated once or even twice since he was starting out.
The most interesting thing for me, as a Canadian from a small urban area in New Brunswick, is his advice to the middle upper class young people that are reading his book. They were pampered by their parents, went to all the right schools, worked internships but never grunt work. The way he describes these kids – as if they had never been in contact with the rest of us. He recommends they work a part time job in a restaurant or work in a resort as a waiter for a summer. He wants them to immerse themselves in the lives of the ‘rest of America’. This is actually a theme coming out of his last book.
For me this is a strange narrative. I went to all the wrong schools, scrubbed toilets and flipped pizza all the way through university and then climbed my way from a temporary, two-month job at $12/hour working in government to a reasonably successful career where folks pay me a fairly good amount of money to provide my thoughts and ideas on various subjects.
I did have one interesting ‘internship’ that is usually reserved for high rollers. I’m not sure how it happened but I was a page in the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick in 1991 and the other pages were high rollers. One is a big time lawyer in Moncton and previously rumoured candidate to take over from Shawn Graham. I’ll let you figure that one out.
This kind of mashing together rich, middle and poor in New Brunswick (and much of Canada) has definite benefits. We don’t have the hard and fast class distinctions as in the US. I went to school with all kinds. I was kind of poor as a kid (not dirt poor) but I didn’t know it. My dad always drove a new car and we lived in decent housing. My kids today all have friends from all ‘classes’ such as that is in Moncton. This is probably a big reason why we don’t have as much an issue with class distinction and social mobility.
But at the same time I worry there is a tendency to drop expectations to the lowest common denominator. When a high school brings in a program for the ‘advanced’ kids, it is frowned upon by some. When we do anything to separate excellence out of the pack, we have this gnawing feeling that we shouldn’t be leaving the rest behind.
But we need some folks to stand out. To be excellent in business, entrepreneurship, the arts, etc. We need to be a society where everyone has the chance to pursue their dreams but we can’t resent the folks that end up outperforming everyone else.
There has to be a Canadian way where you can have a good Gini coefficient and have an environment where some folks excel. If the bookends are a highly stratified society where only a smaller and smaller group get into the top and a completely equal society where everyone waits in bread lines in their single pair of shoes, I think we have to find a middle way.