The first time I watched “The Graduate,” I watched for the romance between the freshly graduated Benjamin Braddock and the older Mrs. Robinson. The second time, I watched for the romance between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine.
Now, I watch for plastics.
It’s one line in the movie, and one played for laughs with a brusque and confident, yet ultimately not terribly memorable, effect.
But that line, terse and direct, is a perfect encapsulation, almost synecdoche, of the trappings of modern professional aspirations.
Benjamin is at his graduation party, but from the guest list, it would hardly seem so. Everyone at the party is a friend of his parents — they offhandedly toss their congratulations to the newly anointed adult in between other conversations that hardly concern him.
Mr. McGuire, one of the guests, starts talking to Benjamin by the pool. He puts his hand on his shoulder and promises the future — business success, self-confidence, a house in the suburbs with a lawn, a wife and two kids, the whole 10 yards, because nine yards isn’t quite good enough. It rests on one word.
Mr. McGuire may have made a savvy market prediction — the plastic industry has done quite well — but Benjamin would have found his life as synthetic as the material itself.
I have absolutely no idea what I will be doing in one year. For the first time in my entire life, the calendar is open. I don’t know where I’ll be, what work I’ll be doing, what friends I’ll still be in contact with. Will I live at home? Will I be self-sufficient? Will I be dead?
The anxiety has set in. I’ve lost the naivety of a dreamer. The day-to-day costs required of a comfortable life more tactile and consequences of failing to find employment are palpable.
My career search starts with wondering what I want to do in my life, but that question is difficult to answer. Not for lack of hobbies or interests, but rather because I don’t know whether my work will be capital-I Important when I die. I’d love to be a magazine writer, but will my writing end up in a landfill? Even if it’s read, will it help anyone? How do I live a satisfying life if I can never be satisfied?
So there’s that anxiety. There’s also the base anxiety of not finding work in the first place. Try as I might, following certain writers on Twitter is no guarantee of future success.
During my middle school graduation, the principal said a significant chunk of our class would be working in industries not yet existent. The industries are clear now: augmented reality, virtual reality and the like. But I lack the skills and interest in these lucrative markets. I like to write. I like the news. I like art. And jobs that reward someone modestly skilled with common interests are few and far between.
But even given the opportunity to work in such an industry, I’m worried that, come my death, I’ll look back on a life that was not particularly worthwhile. A life composed of small assignments, of one or two viral tweets, of a frivolous notion that I might like to enjoy what I do for a living. The audacity!
I am plagued by the concerns of a life not yet lived. And yet I am troubled by the life that has so far passed by — regrets of nights spent inside and decisions not made, of sunny days spent in the dark and rainy days spent dry.
The point of the plastics line is to illustrate a gap between baby boomers, disillusioned with the future — Benjamin is constantly seen underwater — and their parents, many of whom labored to achieve a middle-class life. That labor included, and still includes, factory jobs, desk jobs: working at a company with little personal connection, with the ultimate goal of the ability to raise children comfortably in a secure retirement.
That dream doesn’t seem so appealing to me. Once, I thought an interest in law would be enough to keep me afloat through a corporate law job so I could eventually do less lucrative, but more personally fulfilling, legal work. Nowadays, the prospect of three years in law school, let alone the miserable career that would follow, doesn’t seem so appealing.
In a perfect world — or more to the point, in a world in which I have a career interest that’s fully satisfying and personally rewarding — I may not have these concerns. If I were to work as a doctor, for instance, each day would be an opportunity to save a life or help someone feel better. Instead, I feel selfish for pursuing a career in media.
Maybe spending nine hours in an office every day doing something not that interesting for good pay is respectable. But it’s not notable. I feel like if I end up in that sort of work, I’ll feel like I’ve failed. That I’ve wasted my one shot at life. That I’ve given up. But if the alternative is a life that is, in the grand scheme of things, only slightly more fulfilling and personally intriguing, but still ends in the same feelings of regret, then I don’t think I’ll feel terribly satisfied either way.
Maybe plastics aren’t so bad.