Ok, sorry about the detour into politics. If you want more, Fred Kaplan’s slightly reassuring analysis can be found here.
But for now, back to what you’ve all been waiting for — long, meandering posts about random crap I happen to find interesting. Next up: Lazy Europeans!
In the wake of the French protests, the Washington Post’s Molly Moore profiles two Frenchmen from similar backgrounds in the wake of the student uprisings. The first, Pierre Kosciusko-Morizet, went to business school, learned practical skills, and started an Internet business, PriceMinister.com, in France. He’s providing 150 much-needed jobs to young French workers, and is gleaming with cash and self-confidence (he just learned to fly, for example).
The other, Nicolas Dhelft, "is typical of the many French youth who follow their hearts through college with a curriculum [sociology] that is decades behind the current job market." After a leisurely stroll through college, he did what plenty of young Europeans do, he looked, sort of half-way seriously, for some nice, low-stress job in the "culture" or "social" areas (translation: no business, please!).
After finding a few poorly-paid temporary positions, he drifted back into school, got another degree, and then went on unemployment benefits. He "lives with his parents and volunteers as a handball coach for children." He doesn’t "feel bad" living on government benefits, but admits that "[h]aving his parents and the government payments as a financial crutch is ‘a double-edged sword,’ Dhelft said. ‘You are protected, but you tend to be too protected to do something.’"
At this point, many Anglo-Saxons (as we’re known here on the Continent) are spewing their coffee over the newspaper. "Good God, will those lazy Frenchmen never learn? Does this Dhelft twerp think he hang around in cafes forever, sponging off his parents and the State? Why doesn’t he learn a few lessons from his dynamic, positive-plus, company-starting friend?" Some examples of Anglo-Saxon frog-scolding can be found here ("They are a nation committing an extremely slow suicide by suffocation.") and here.
But you won’t find me doing any frog-scolding. I didn’t fly across the Atlantic just to work 70-hour weeks, chained to my Blackberry. Besides, I know plenty of people like Mr. Dhelft, and like them. They’re often cultivated and fun to hang out with.
They’ve also helped me form a sociological theory of European and American misfits. It goes a little like this: in any society, there will be intelligent, sane people who end up being misfits. They’re bright, but either not extremely hard-working or unfocussed. They may go to university — they may even finish school — but somehow, they just don’t really fit into institutions very well. They feel a need to somehow chart their own course in life, but can’t ever seem to decide just what it should be. They need to find some legitimate-seeming social role. My theory is that in Europe, these people become pretend intellectuals, whereas in the U.S. they become pretend entrepreneurs.
Take the U.S. side first. An acquaintance of mine went to college, but didn’t finish. He has held a series of "regular" jobs (not quite full-time), but they don’t define his identity. In fact, he quits or gets fired from these jobs with some frequency, usually complaining about how his former boss "lacked vision" or "wasn’t comfortable with me thinking outside the box." His real mission in life, thought, is to be an entrepreneur. He’s constantly founding businesses, inventing new office products, working out strategies, selling his "share" in some enterprise or another, meeting with "venture capitalists," etc. The businesses usually fail, and some of the meetings with "the guys from Encino" seem to be, uh, invented. I never mention this, of course. It would be impolite — and besides, his motto is never look back.
Another fellow I know used to have a real job in venture-capital type stuff, but then lost it as a result of various life-setbacks (divorce, the bottle, etc.). After he got back on his feet, he had to get back into business. He set up convincing-looking website (complete with the "resumes" of his various "partners"), bought some new suits, rented an office space, and fitted it out with computers, printers, pencil sharpeners, the whole nine yards. He shows up to work punctually at 9 AM and reads the Wall Street Journal every day. The hours click by. He gets one or two calls a day, which he handles with consummate cheerful American professionalism. They never amount to anything. But he keeps showing up to the office, drinking the coffee, making the notes about potential acquisitions. Financial ruin is setting in, but you’d never know it from his cheerful demeanor.
These men are American misfits — pretend entrepreneurs. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the Euro-misfits, the pretend intellectuals. I hope you’ll join me!