This weekend I did something I rarely do – something most Americans rarely do. I interacted with human beings above my social status. I am bad at it. Look surprised.

Every so often I end up in such situations and although you could accuse me with justification of being hyper-sensitive to it, I am always struck by the differences in the narratives people of different backgrounds unfold in conversation. It's a useful reminder, on the off chance that you need one, about how class and privilege still dominate every aspect of our society.
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Maybe it's just me – I'm a storyteller in social situations, and maybe that encourages others to respond in kind. But they're hardly the same stories.

When you hang around Ivy League people, it is immediately apparent that they interact almost exclusively with other Ivy League people (and why wouldn't they?) in their professional, if not personal, lives. You can listen to a Harvard person talk about their entire family and every person they've ever considered a friend without hearing about 1) anyone who isn't almost cartoonishly well off financially, although since it is normal to Them they would not consider it as such, or 2) anyone in a profession that isn't some variation of the all-encompassing Business. Nobody is a middle school teacher. Nobody is a dentist. Nobody is in Human Resources. It may be called a variety of nebulous things – Consulting, Marketing, Business, Development, etc. – but inevitably it entails making vast amounts of money to jet around the world doing nothing anyone can identify as work based on qualifications divorced from any skill set.

Everybody lives in New York or San Francisco or LA or, if they're really slumming it, maybe Boston before they move to France or London or Hong Kong because Business and do any other parts of the world even exist?

If so, why?

You know what we could really use?
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More think pieces about how wealthy elites inside the exclusionary circle of expensive prep schools, Ivy League universities, and Mystery Business are so f'n bored with being rich and successful.

After you listen to them talk about their lives and their friends for a while you won't be able to stop thinking about how they clearly don't know anyone like you and you clearly don't know anyone like them. My friends went to cheap public universities and do the kind of things that rich people deem useful enough to keep around – mainly babysitting their children for 18 years, providing them with healthcare, and incarcerating one another until they feel safe. Their friends do Business and apparently hopscotch from expensive city to expensive city around the globe, which doesn't count as vacation but don't worry they take plenty of those too and apparently vacations last several months? Who can say, really. It's all a mystery.

There are exceptions. Magazine pieces can always tout a handful of college dropouts who became Big Successes. Every hayseed university has its list of Famous Alumni who got rich in some appropriately salt of the earth manner. But that merely encourages the delusion of class mobility that Americans cling to like a life raft. For 99% of us, what we think of as "success" would probably make actually successful people double over in laughter. It sucks, but you might as well try to stop the tides. All you need to know is that yes, there is a club. And you're not in it. You just happen to meet a few of its members here and there. If sociologically analyzing their conversation doesn't interest you, just make a game out of counting how many boats are referenced per anecdote.

83 thoughts on “UPPER CRUST FANTASIES”

  • Alright, gin-'n'-tacos, I need some advice. Should I join them? I'm currently working a decent but not exactly thrilling or high paying job. I'm thinking about going to business school, to get into exactly the kind of generic "business" job that this post describes. I'm pretty sure I could get into a high ranking b-school if I put my mind to it. Is it a good idea? I'm 30 if that makes a difference.

  • Both Sides Do It says:

    B-school is like law school: if you don't get in the top 10-15 it is a gawd-awful deal.

    Among the top 10-15, B-school is unlike law school in that academic accomplishment at the school does not predict future career performance.

    B-school is a place to network. No more, no less. If you're good at networking, and want to make that – without support from your skills or knowledge – the sole basis of acquiring and advancing a career, do it. If not, don't.

  • Yeah, I'm bad at networking. I thought B-school would help me with that, since I'm really bad at doing it in my regular life. But maybe it would just be a waste of time if I can't do it there either.

  • Both Sides Do It says:


    There is one more thing to consider, which is the generic "has a masters degree" imprimatur / suddenly being "qualified" for jobs that a HS graduate can do but through credential inflation now require an MBA. That's not nothing.

    Even a non-top 10-15 degree still accesses this. If you can get a great (like, "graduate with debt I'd have no trouble paying off quickly at my current salary" great) deal on tuition, might be worth it.

  • I recently attended the wedding of someone in this set on lake Como. I, like Ed, am one of those professor types and i spent the evening simply tying to figure out what one single person actually did. The more we drank it still refused to reveal itself. I wanted simy to which skil set they all had that was so precious to the functioning of society. It became apparent they were all very good at working the room and maybe that was it… Networking and gladhanding. Speaking the same language and giving off the right social cues….
    There is a club and you aint in it.
    It does make me enjoy visiting ma and paw in small mid-sized american city and talk about the rich families. ..

  • I went to an Ivy, but I guess I'm not one of Ed's Ivy League People. Our household manages to run on a 5-figure income. There are two reasons I'm not envious of our betters. First is, that I know enough of their kids to see that their kids are not better off than mine (or my peers') when it comes to things like not being screwed up and other self-actualizing kinds of things. And second, privilege tends to put blinders on us all, but the amount of self-delusion that goes into believing you deserve your over-large portion of wealth really starts to take a toll on your ability to see the world for what it is. Call me old-fashioned, but I think wisdom and insight is something worth striving for in life, and from what I can see both poverty and great wealth bring some pretty serious pitfalls.

  • I think the world works better with them, until they decide their skill is the only skill worthy of compensation.

  • Paul Fussell wrote a diabolical book called "Class" back when. It's dated now but was an humorous encapsulation, you might say. Even had quizzes:
    Name the class of each speaker.
    "Grandfather died."
    "Aunt Eleanor passed away."
    "Daddy went to Jesus."
    Anyway I was interested in how I, a putative visual artist, might be caught in Fussell's net until the last chapter, in which all artists, musicians, bohemians, misfits, etc. were dubbed Class X. We tend to renounce class identifiers, though most of us came from the middle class. We freely associate with the upper class, being kept around as pets for parties and preferring the better quality booze as we do. Anyway I'd much rather talk to a poet or Philharmonic horn player among the other invited guests than the jetsetting host or his Ivy League buddies. Even an unplugged academic can be worthwhile. So seek them out if you're stuck at one of these confabs. If you want Vapid you can stay home and watch TV.

  • Donald Trumpet says:

    I got an MBA from Directional State U. It cost about $10K total going part time, and would have cost about twice that if I hadn't had an undergrad business degree that let me test out of nearly half the program. The credential alone let me get a job making 20K/year more 6 months after graduation, which ratcheted me to that level permanently. An extra $300K over the last 15 years is a pretty good return on investment, even if Directional State U's cachet wouldn't allow me access to where the really big money lives, and the work I do would be embarrassing if I had to talk about it at Harvard's B-school alumni gatherings.

  • Anonymous Prof says:

    Speaking of education…

    I gave my class (full of seniors majoring in science) a homework set that asked them to do little more than plug numbers into a calculator.

    Most of them failed.

    So I told them that if they failed that homework, they would fail exam 1, unless they studied to make sure they could use a calculator. I gave them a set of practice problems to do.

    None of them did the practice problems. Most of the class failed, and the rest barely scraped by. Because none of them can use a calculator without screwing it up.

    I confronted them about this, and they said- and I am not exaggerating or reading between the lines- that it wasn't their fault for not studying, because a.) although I told them *verbally* that they needed to study for the exam before the actual exam, I didn't *write* that on the practice problems sheet, and b.) I didn't give them points for doing the practice problems, so they didn't know they had to do them (i.e. didn't know they had to study for the exam.)

    Is this normal for higher education these days?

  • @ Anon Prof – the way people expressed the social contract of the late Soviet Union was, "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." Nowadays, in the US, the students want their certificates, the profs want their paychecks, the administration wants its revenue streams uninterrupted, and maybe the contract of higher education is, "We pretend to learn and you pretend to teach us." You don't get a memo about it, just a chat with a dean about your student evals.

  • I have to stick up for Fair Harvard here. You're talking about B-school types. I've worked* for the science-y parts of Harvard – the med school, a couple/three affiliated hospitals, and a science department at the main campus. Yes, Harvard faculty have it pretty cushy compared to profs at Underfunded State, but they also work pretty hard to actually advance our knowledge of the world.

    *at the peon level

  • I'm in a household with dual careers in IT; we're middle-class in our area. With one kid in grad school and another in college, it takes both middle-class incomes plus income from their various jobs to pay for school and keep the electricity on and food on the table. It's shocking to see the dire straits some people in our area live in, and it's infuriating to see the obliviousness of the upper class. There's a woman in my yoga class who's absolutely Ann Romney-esque in her mindset–she and her husband live off his trust fund and they ride bikes for a living. Seriously; their job is to train for various bike races in the area, and they ride 60 miles a week. Just recently I was bemoaning the fact that my laundry service/gardener/dishwasher-jockey (aka my kids) were back in school and now I have to wait for the weekends they're home to get these services done…and she chimed in with her own tale of woe about how hard it is to hire good staff–her fulltime housekeeper just quit, and they're just not happy with any of their landscapers. "It's just so hard to get good help!" she said, non-ironically.

  • The network is an amazing thing. I've seen mediocres get VC funding because their parents know (or knew) the right people. Bill Gates was a very good programmer, as good as they get. But having a mother who was on the board of national United Way with the chairman of IBM back in 1980 may have meant the difference in his subsequent career.

  • It is easy to find people without a clue in any 'group'; blacks, whites, rednecks, yuppies, guppies, whatever. One can also find counter examples in any 'group'. People are 'individual people', not groups.

    To classify everyone in a 'group' is easy model for our feeble brains, but not correct in 'facts'….

  • It is both amusing and frightening to me how many people believe that class status is primarily determined by the power of positive thinking, whether that be The Secret or How Rich People Think. I mean, how do they explain inherited wealth? When I was in the void, did I not think enough like a wealthy person to be born into means?

  • I'm amused at the mental picture of PhD's getting the cold shoulder in social settings. As a peon at a small college, I know profs (people I've conversed with) who pass me on the sidewalk without acknowledging my presence. They don't want to catch what I have, I guess.

  • I used to get dental care from a Harvard educated dentist (yes they have a dental school, I didn't know either). My next dentists (a Case Western grad) found a number of problems that she missed.

  • I went to an Ivy and then got a professional degree from Case, and I still make less than I did teaching private school in NYC. Plus debt! We aren't all inbred horse-faced cocktail vacuums.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Get your tumbrels for sale here!

    I gotcher sharp guillotine's right here!!!

    Get both, and I'll throw in a torch, pitchfork, and a free head-pike.!!!!!

  • @argleblargle

    Be careful what you aspire to, friend.

    A B-school degree from anything less than a top-ranked school will send you straight to the very replaceable pool of middle management. You could find yourself saddled with debt and an income that allows you to service that debt — if you don't lose your job.

    Do you just want to make money, or do you want to make something more of the extraordinary gift called "your life."

  • I often have to interact with those whose income is orders of magnitude beyond mine. What I think about A LOT after these interactions is how much money it would take to change my life, vs how much money it would take to change theirs.

    One of the clients of the company I work for is an attorney who inherited wealth and owns a small but fancy law firm. Several times each year, he and his wife and three kids take a trip to Europe. First-class airfare, all the best hotels, chauffeured travel, exclusive restaurants. That sort of thing. For three or four weeks at a time. So that's, what, at least $35,000 each time? Conservatively?

    $35,000 in MY life, on the other hand, would allow me to pay off all my debt, finally be able to put a down payment on a house and stop renting, and have a savings account for the first time since 1993.

    For a certain friend of mine, $35,000 would take care of his debt and allow him to pare down from three jobs to two.

    For many other people, $35,000 would mean the difference between total desperation and merely "scraping by".

    But for that silver-spoon lawyer… it's just another vacation.

  • As someone who's not in the club but for years has occasionally been required to pretend to have fun with those who are in it, let me tell you: you're not missing much. It used to make me uncomfortable, now it just makes me bored. I realized it's a lot more fun to hang out with people who tell dick jokes than people who talk about their "jobs" all day.

  • Will Rogers take on Calvin Cooledge : "Everyone I come in contact with is doing well. If they are not doing well, I do not come in contact with them."

  • I went to an Ivy (via ROTC scholarship), majored in business and saw many of these same things. Not everyone there was in the exclusive club that Ed describes, but the elite colleges are where the club members hang out between the ages of 18-22 so you can't help but run into them, especially in the business school.

    Even many of my business classes mimicked the absurd 1% lifestyle: We all pretended to work, but most of the time we just bullshitted and stroked our egos, professors included. The differential between the very high amount of work I had to do to get myself into this school, compared to the ridiculously low amount of work required to stay there, was amazing sometimes. It actually taught me that I didn't want to work in business.

    But as a kid arriving from a small country town, I thought that acceptance to an Ivy would get me into this exclusive club of privilege and connections. (At the time I thought I wanted to be in it.) But as someone upthread noted, being at the same institution doesn't make you one of them. And it certainly doesn't get you into their network of posh, lifetime employment opportunities in nebulous business-y jobs; that comes from deeper connections, often family-based, which they had before coming to school. Unlike the rest of the world, your qualifications for these $$$ jobs don't really come from school; school is just where these people hang out for a few years before they can be hired.

    If you're not one of them, these assholes can smell you a mile away, and you'll always feel like an outsider unless you can fit in with them both socially and economically – brandish the right possessions, talk in their language of privilege and humblebrags, etc. The problem is, if you're a normal person this kind of lifestyle is quite a turnoff.

    Here's a great piece about that from Walter Kirn: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/01/lost-in-the-meritocracy/303672/

    Lastly, in defense of the Ivies: They're not entirely populated by these assholes. Within a year or so, I found a group of friends who were mostly normal and grounded, and with whom I had some of the best times of my life. I still brushed up against the "club" kids in class and had to compete with them for grades, but they became mostly peripheral. I just needed to stop trying to join their club.

  • @Katydid.
    Giftwrap a trumbrel and guillotine?
    I've never seen what a giftwrapped tumbrel would look like – so I have no clue – and as for the guillotine itself, you can use that to cut your own wrapping paper! ;-)

  • "and because they went to a prestigious school with grade inflation, didn’t have to worry too much about their resume or G.P.A."
    I guess we're not even pretending anymore.

  • As others have noted, going to an Ivy League school does not make you an Ivy Leaguer. I can attest to that. There is definitely a two-tier system, a group within a group — and a wide gulf between the groups. If you are not one of "them" when you get there, you will never become one of "them." You will not be invited to spend Spring Break in the Maldives on Brad's father's yacht.

    Ivy Leaguers do not make friends — they have friends. I think they get them at birth. Their parents, especially fathers, all know each other. They're on the same boards, belong to the same country clubs, share the same insider trading info, fly on each other's private jets, etc. The kids are interacting from the time they can walk. They go to the same prep schools, date the same women, take vacations together.

    True Ivy Leaguers are the ones for whom a resume, if they have one at all, is only a formality — and was probably done by an underling. Do you really think Chelsea Clinton or any of the Bush spawn spent hours at the kitchen table trying to craft a resume and a cover letter that would get them noticed? Do you think either of the Obama girls will have to? These people get jobs with a phone call or over lunch at the country club. None of them sweat the interview — except to wonder whether they're going to order the foie gras or the lobster. The job offer is a given. The salary will be six figures.

  • Following a link from FB so I may have missed necessary background but I'm assuming OP holds a non-nebulous, salt of the earth job? Like lumberjack or war hero?

  • It is a good thing that rich people are rich……..they could never afford to be poor.

    @Katydid: gardner? dish washer? Wow. I should have had kids.

  • Based on his disdain for jobs of nebulous description that require few hours, little if any discrete skill, and tend to create insular professional communities comprised of members of a privileged class, I guess I just assumed OP held one of those bygone "real" jobs.

  • @Cecile, harder than lumberjack. Not quite as dangerous as "war hero," but that's pretty nebulous these days.

    He's a college professor, which requires an immense amount of preparation and incredibly long hours — many of which have the potential to suck the marrow out off your bones — all for the dubious honor of giving an education to often unprepared and previously pampered kids, so they can get a freaking job.

  • @Skippper—Chelsea Clinton may have, Bill and Hillary both were the kinds of people for whom the Ivies opened doors and who would not have been invited on Brad's dad's yacht. The Bushies on the other hand absolutely didn't need to worry. W, et al. are third or maybe fourth generation elites.

  • I worked at a place with a moneyed absentee owner/president, whose father and grandfather advised presidents and have buildings named after them at Ivy league schools. Nice guy, friendly… During his semi-annual visits and monthly conference calls he came up with the most ridiculous and impractical ideas for us, his perpetually failing company that seemed to be an attempt at building cred in the dot-com venture capital world. Or we were a tax dodge. Never quite figured it out, and thankfully I no longer work there.

  • Interesting post and comments. Lots of commentators report experience with so-called club kids, or later, adults who populate the top quintile (or higher). Me, too. Whereas some of the trappings may be enviable, the people almost never are. The same is true of the political class. Their relationships with others are wholly cut off from what most of us recognize as real life, and their sense of value (of experiences more than things) is wildly distorted. The transparency of the coded language, shared wink, and secret handshake is overshadowed only by the patronizing disdain exhibited toward those not in the club. Fitzgerald described this class of people from the previous Gilded Age. I doubt anyone could surpass his insight or the obvious pity he felt for them.


  • Well…it's massively trite, but money don't make you rich. Who gives a crap what those rich people do in their club?

  • @Ruviana; Bill Clinton grew up in a blue-collar working-class home with an abusive stepfather, and on the basis of his wits alone, got ahead in life. He had no connections that he didn't make himself. You'd think the right-wingers would be pants-wettingly pleased at this case of someone "pulling himself up by his own bootstraps"

  • Steve in the ATL says:

    I have worked with a large number of Harvard MBA's over the years and they are about the least impressive group of people I have ever dealt with. They generate negligible usable work product, but they are great at taking over meeting and getting large bonuses. OTOH, I was raised by a Yale-educated architect (undergrad and architecture school) and his success was based on hard work and talent. I am much less successful despite my degree from the Harvard of Rockbridge County, Virginia.

  • Potrivnic: Well, maybe not all lumberjack jobs per se. But have you happened to notice where 90% of copier and printer paper seems to come from these days? So, a lot of lumber harvesting-and certainly the mill jobs-has been exported. Towns like Eureka, CA are basically shells of their former selves. (For a variety of reasons. And no, a few tourists wandering around the few square blocks of restored Victoriana don't fully make up for hundreds of mill jobs)

    Cecile is being snide, but he does have a bit of a point. Except that teaching kids is still more honorable than "managing a trust fund" or smoozing to get coruption-allocated government contracts.

  • Cecile is obviously some kind of EXECUTIVE. Or, I would guess a Spreadsheet Diddler who manipulates the tax code and insider information to make money for already insanely wealthy people while extracting his vigorish in management fees.

  • "Managing a trust fund" is not what any of us do. Most "Harvard people" go into banking, law or management consulting, all of which are far more grueling, hours-wise, than anything in academia — and often more cognitively demanding.

    And, lulz at the notion that academia these days is more honorable. As an erudite friend put it: You're just a parasite living off $1 trillion in student loan debt, most of it incurred by kids who have been lied to by your paymasters and forced into corporate servitude while you drive a Prius and dream of cheating on your wife with a coed (but lol that ain't happening, lardass).

    OP and I are both effete paper-pushers traveling in insular navel-gazing social circles. The difference is that "Harvards'" professions are more selective and more remunerative, and OP is jelly.

  • I was actually accepted into Cornell (Engr, many decades ago) without knowing it was Ivy League. Just as well, I didn't actually know what that meant. Still a little fuzzy on it, truth be said. The point is, you're throwing around that "Ivy League" term a bit too glibly. I don't dispute your premise, just the terminology. As someone else notes above, there's ivy league and there's Ivy League. And yeah, Cornell is the scum of the ivy league in any case.

    For that matter, the effect of clueless and entitled is true of any social class relative to their lessers. I come from an upper middle class family, and my siblings and once-peers have no concept of the working poor. They deal with them all the time, someone has to walk the dog and clean the house and they've no time for such things, but… nope, no concept of their actual lives.

  • Cecile:

    Please excuse me if I seem a bit rude, but until you start telling us what, exactly, the fuck YOU do to make a living and how many hours you spend doing it, don't be getting all high horsey on Mr. Ed.

    I've known a metric fuck ton of lawyyers, pols and business types in this life. Most of them don't work as hard as a SPED teacher or social worker.

  • It's too hard to resist posting on this one. I'm a State U undergrad with a Harvard MBA and have spent most of my career as a management consultant. (Ed could verify this in less than a minute just by doing a Google search from my email address.) I like to joke that the admissions committee needed one more white male engineer from the Midwest to fill out the statistical class profile and my application happened to be next in the stack. For all I know that could be true.

    Have fun laughing about Ivy Leaguers and MBAs. I do it all the time. But don't kid yourself that your sweeping generalizations are accurate; they're no more accurate than saying that all academics teach a couple of the same classes they've taught for twenty years, make up useless stuff called research and get the government to pay for it, and take the entire summer off.

    Are there trust fund babies, sons and daughters of politicians, and heirs to brand name fortunes populating Harvard Business School (and other Ivy programs)? Of course. In my judgment, some of them didn't deserve to be there on merit, but some of them definitely did. Jerks and idiots aren't defined solely by DNA. For every one of those, though, there were at least five like me: clueless kids three years out of undergrad or the military who had studied and worked reasonably hard, put forth the effort to write an absurdly long b-school application, and crossed our fingers hoping to get the chance to borrow two years' of tuition and living expenses.

    Yes, the HBS program was a relative career turbocharger for most of us who did it, but not just because it's a golden ticket through some secret door. I'm very fortunate that my material compensation is much higher as a result of my Harvard experience than it ever would have been, but it's not just because I can drop the "H-bomb" anywhere I go and people hand me money. If you think that's true, you're ignorant of reality.

    And while I'm at it, some of my classmates have contributed more to decent and worthwhile charitable causes all over the world than I could ever imagine.

    The stereotypes are fun. Fine. But don't make it into one of those things that eats at your soul, because it's just not broadly true. Maybe because when you meet the "normal" ones, they're not so anxious to tell you about Harvard, Yale or wherever. Your experience with the stereotypes is some kind of sample bias.

  • @Cecile

    I'm sure management consultants work plenty hard, but I've never seen one pick their way through a line of thunderstorms at 3:00 AM and then shoot an instrument approach down to minimums at the end of a 12-hour shift.

    If they screw up, somebody loses money. If I screw up there's a smoldering crater in the middle of a residential neighborhood, and I'm in the middle of it.

  • @sluggo Yeah, but you have to beat them a lot (arm gets sore!) and then the little buggers have the nerve to grow up and move away and you're back to square one!

  • what's funny is that this extends to other countries. I'm jamaican, and my friend who went to princeton was telling me that she got invited to hang out with some other jamaican ivy leaguers and couldn't believe she was in the same poor country she'd just been in that morning.

  • My parents both graduated from Private Middle Illinois University Ed happens to teach at. My father was the youngest of 7 and the first in his family to go to college. Despite Cs he was able to get in. With his degree in engineering he was able to get a job in Detroit (when that was actually a good place to work) and later for Large Aerospace Conglomerate. Now he's an executive with the requisite pay and benefits.

    You don't hear many stories like that today. If he had been born into the same situation 40 years later he'd be lucky to be working for Jiffy Lube at 10/hr and get barebones medical coverage. He regularly bemoans the B-school types who think they know a better way of doing his job than he and his teams do, only to mess things up and nearly kill people in the name of "saving money and "spreading risk". Pretty ironic that risk-sharing is what resulted in the larger risks in the first place.

  • I went to a second-tier liberal arts college and the dynamic was pretty much the same. I had a good friend, terrible student who took six years to graduate, who once invited me for a weekend at "the compound."

    Like, not just a mansion, but a walled and gated "compound" somewhere in the wilds of Connecticut where I'm sure more than one crazy _Eyes Wide Shut_ kind-of-party must have went down.

    Yup. This guy and his twin brother, another academic slacker, had a famous novelist father and were scions of an ultra-wealthy New England old-rich family.

    And if you look at the family as a whole, tons of them were Yale and Harvard grads but hey, the dumber ones need an alternative, no?

    I remember trying to explain to them what a "summer job" was. Good times.

  • Bess Bibbentucker says:

    Good thread. Nothing to add, except to say that Cecile's comments are probably similar to what anyone in Ed's secret club might say if confronted by a resentful prole in some unlikely scenario in which he or she was forced to respond. Maybe a stalled elevator.

  • Cecilia,
    My experience is the less you make, the harder you work. Try a $7 hr job, then tell me how hard your job is

  • Just read something a little off-topic about Cooper-Union:
    Not quite the days topic, but plenty of oblivious .01% types.

  • "Most 'Harvard people' go into […] management consulting, all of which are far more grueling, hours-wise, than anything in academia — and often more cognitively demanding. "

    I hear that one of the more grueling things you can do in that occupation is to colonize another planet. When your planet is in imminent danger of being eaten by an enormous mutant star goat (as ours might just be), you've got to take drastic action.

  • Navy brat here, both parents in the service. They were both out by the time I was three, split when I was five, Dad got custody. Lower-middle-class from there — dad's always been somewhere between blue- and lower-white-collar, either working as an electronics technician or as Generic Office Worker. Mom's been working two jobs in Generic Retail/Customer Service for the last 15 years or so.

    Suffice it to say, no wealth to inherit there.

    I was fortunate enough to be born on the high side of the intelligence scale, and to have been pre-disposed to nerd interests like computers. Worked hard in school, studied while everyone else was partying, got high enough grades to go to State Engineering University on a combination of baseline low-grade state scholarship and federal student loans. Studied just as hard in college, forsook the usual college experience of parties and frats to live in The Dorms and complete my four-year program in four years despite the academic planning staff continually trying to push me to five years instead.

    Graduated with a BS in CompSci in 2008, roughly 10K in student debt.

    Lived with Mom for a year, dedicating the majority of my pay to paying off loans. Mom continued to work two jobs, I paid the grocery bill. Got my debt paid off, found a studio apartment for reasonable rent, lived there for four years putting most of my pay away to make enough of a downpayment on a modest house that my mortgage would be roughly half of what I was paying for rent.

    I don't quite make six figures, but I'm pretty close. Suffice it to say I don't have any money problems or concerns. I'm currently dedicating most of my pay to getting my house paid off entirely so that I could flip burgers and still have my fixed expenses taken care of.

    Moral of the story? Mobility and/or comfort beyond just-scraping-by is possible in today's society, but it requires you to make a decision, very early on in your life, that you want that and you're willing to do what is necessary to achieve it. What is necessary, it turns out, mostly boils down to adopting very cheap hobbies (video games are some of the best entertainment-hour-per-dollar value out there) and disengaging from Normal Life As Americans Know it. I don't go out to eat on any sort of regular basis, I don't often go to movies, I don't indulge the endless fashion treadmill, I don't participate in the latest rounds of tech fetishism (I didn't even have a smartphone until last year, regular old phone calls work just fine for me).

    I don't really recommend it for the average person, because by most modern standards it's effectively living like a hermit. But living like a hermit until you're 30 enables you to enjoy 'normal life' guilt- and worry-free for the next forty-someodd years after that, so I consider it a fair trade.

  • Anonymous prof says:

    Why the hate for Ivy League types? Have you never been to Oklahoma?

    Just imagine being at the party Ed described, but everyone is Boss Hogg. All of them have MBA's from Oklahoma Sportsball U. And all of them assume that people around the world view an MBA from OSBU as more prestigious than a Harvard degree.

    I remember we once had an undergrad who was thinking of transferring because he got admitted to Harvard on a full scholarship. His advisor told him that it was better to stay and get a degree from Oklahoma Sportsball U. So no, I am not exaggerating when I describe how these people think.

  • I remember attending the wedding of a friend a couple of decades ago, she a Harvard grad, he a Dartmouth grad. I hopscotched tables, and was completely bemused at how just about everybody, everyone! had such great jobs. No, not jobs…positions. And at such young ages! Can't say I was surprised, because I'd been thinking about class here in the good old USA for a long time prior to that wedding, but I do remember being amazed to see it all played out in such an obvious way, just as I would have predicted.

  • @Cecile

    How delicious. Lulz, lol, lardass and erudite all in the same short paragraph. Your superior education has served you well.

  • DamnTheTorpedos says:

    Well, I work in tech – which aside from marketing departments and the finance/legal side of the house is as close to a meritocracy as you're ever going to find in this silly excuse for a country. Even so, I feel like I'm kept as a pet — I don't have a degree, I dropped out of high school even — but I'm very good at what I do (hardware engineering) and find that comparatively I didn't miss much next to my peers with CS/EE degrees. I read a lot and I still do, I'm almost completely self-taught except for some professional training that was more about chasing certifications that my boss thought were important to have which had stipulations that you'd take mega-bucks classroom training before you were allowed to test out.

    I've run into a surprisingly large number of people with similar circumstances to my own throughout my nearly 25 year career in the field (I'm 41 now, so I started young). I do have to say I see it less with the younger people coming into the field now though — college has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have sometime in the last 10 years. It would bother me a lot less to be honest if I thought college was adding value to these people's lives but from where I sit it hasn't. The educated ones tend to be the least creative, least interesting and least capable people on any team you work with, and also the most snotty, most over their heads and finally the most costly. In other words, excellent management material (so I'd better keep a civil tongue). Thank god internet comment sections are for the most part anonymous.

  • Mobility and/or comfort beyond just-scraping-by is possible in today's society, but it requires you to make a decision, very early on in your life, that you want that and you're willing to do what is necessary to achieve it. What is necessary, it turns out, mostly boils down to adopting very cheap hobbies (video games are some of the best entertainment-hour-per-dollar value out there) and disengaging from Normal Life As Americans Know it.

    It also helps to be white and/or male and/or able-bodied and/or suited to the kind of IT work that doesn't get you laid off every time the sector coughs (i.e. not what I do) or John Chambers gets a bug up his ass about "disruption."

    I'm a white female technical writer with cerebral palsy (although I'm pretty high-functioning) and I guarantee you, I have wicked cheap hobbies and don't consume anything like the Normal (North) American, but I'm still intermittently employed after more than ten years in the industry (and unemployed now after losing my last long-term job almost a year ago, and finishing up a three-month contract a month ago), and the most I've ever made per year is sixty grand. Which is good money by the standards of a single person scraping by, but it is not good money relative to the IT industry, and thirty has been more like my normal baseline. Before the rental market here crashed, you couldn't starve in this burg on that kind of money.

    And I do have two fairly prestigious degrees. I'm Canadian, so not Ivy-Ivy, but basically Canada's answer to Yale and Canada's answer to MIT. But I'm not a legacy or Obvious Money, so it doesn't help me all that much.

  • Should I join them? I'm currently working a decent but not exactly thrilling or high paying job. I'm thinking about going to business school, to get into exactly the kind of generic "business" job that this post describes. I'm pretty sure I could get into a high ranking b-school if I put my mind to it. Is it a good idea? I'm 30 if that makes a difference.


    Sorry, buddy, you don't "join" the American elite class. You have to be born into it.
    People who went to Andover and Exeter as kids and who vacationed in Martha's Vineyard have a whole set of subliminal social cues that the rest of us aren't equipped with. It's like a secret fraternity handshake. If you don't have it, no matter what else you do, no matter how much you accomplish, you're not gonna be let into the fraternity house.
    Want proof?
    Look at hiring at the top law firms, the top investment banks, the top echelons of government. Everybody who gets hired went to Princeton or Yale or Harvard. Look at the Supreme Court. Yale, Yale, Yale, Yale, Yale. It's a really small club. And if you didn't go to Andover or Exeter and go to Harvard or Yale as a legacy, you're not in it.
    This is why the Washington elites hate the Clintons so much. They're not in the club but they attained extraordinary success. That's treason in the world of the elites.
    Face it, kiddo: America now has a caste system more rigid than the one Diocletian imposed on Rome in the first century A.D. And you weren't born into the Equestrian Order.
    Get back to treading those grapes, slave. If you do a good job, maybe your masters will let you have dessert with your gruel tonight.

  • Mobility and/or comfort beyond just-scraping-by is possible in today's society, but it requires you to make a decision, very early on in your life, that you want that and you're willing to do what is necessary to achieve it.

    Genuine mobility means moving from the middle class — which today involves scraping by month-by-month in a tiny one-bedroom apartment you share with 4 other middle-class schmucks, with two of you sleeping on the sofa and all of you eating ramen 4 days a week — into the upper class.
    News flash: upper class in America starts at $400,000 per year.
    You cannot make $400,000 per year by studying hard and getting straight A's and going to the right college and getting the right job.
    No, folks, the only way to make that kind of money is…know the right people.
    If your roommate at Harvard winds up at Goldman Sachs, he'll recommend you, and bingo…there you are. Say hello to 400 large per year. Plus bonuses.
    If, on the other hand, your roommate at schmuck state U. is a frat boy who likes to crush beer cans on his head, your straight-A average will earn you a wonderful part-time position as barista at Starbucks after you graduate, with marvelous hours that you will learn 30 minutes before your zero-hours on-call shift starts each day. Hint: don't count on more than 30 hours per week. Because efficiency. And workforce flexibility. And the global supply chain. And fuck you, middle-class-wannabe dirtbag , because you didn't go to Exeter and Princeton.
    That whole delusion that if you work hard and get good grades you can rise society is a dead dream. It was true for the WW II generation and the generation after that. But by 1980, kiss it off. By the 1980s, if you worked hard and got good grade, you went to work for PATCO, then got fired and wound up working as a clerk at 7-11 until the 1991 recession hit. After that you got part-time work as a janitor, but you had to compete with all those harder-working older people who had lost their family farms and rust belt assembly line jobs in the midwest and northeast, and you wound up standing on the streetcorner in a goofy costume twirling a Domino's Pizza sign to attract the attention of drivers at the mall.
    America is now a master/slave society. And you're not one of the masters. Times only get tougher from here on. Wait till the real estate prices get so insane that middle-class workers have to hot-bunk in Japanese-style company-owned capsule hotel rooms 3 shifts per day. And for only $1000 per month! Oh joy!
    And by the way, make yourself available for 4 half-day shifts next week, but we might not need you at all, so we'll call you to let you know if you're gonna come in that day.

  • Kevin sneeringly bloviated:

    Yes, the HBS program was a relative career turbocharger for most of us who did it, but not just because it's a golden ticket through some secret door. I'm very fortunate that my material compensation is much higher as a result of my Harvard experience than it ever would have been, but it's not just because I can drop the "H-bomb" anywhere I go and people hand me money. If you think that's true, you're ignorant of reality.

    Thank you for providing a perfect illustration of the species.

    Hint: the phrases "career turbocharger" and "material compensation" immediately identify you to ordinary human beings as a raging asshole.

    And the assertion "you're ignorant of reality" administers the coup de grace to whatever claim you might have had to anyone's respect or attention.

    But what does anything I say matter?

    This guy is one of the elite: to him, I'm "one of the rats" who "annoyingly chews on the furniture," as one Ivy League family described their live-in middle-class au pair girl.

  • Cecile sniffed haughtily:

    "Managing a trust fund" is not what any of us do. Most "Harvard people" go into banking, law or management consulting, all of which are far more grueling, hours-wise, than anything in academia — and often more cognitively demanding.

    Let's translate that into English, shall we?

    "Control fraud" is not what any of us do. Most "Harvard people" go into financial criminal fraud, tax avoidance, or consulting on ways for giant corporations to fire their workers and ship their jobs overseas, or otherwise torment them in such hideously cruel ways that most of the ones who keep their jobs wind up with PTSD or nervous breakdowns (as at Amazon.com). All of which are far grueling, hours-wise, than anything in academia because it takes incredible self-discipline to destroy thousands of peoples' lives every day by shipping their jobs overseas or automating their schedules into a living hell and then convincing yourself that it isn't just Josef-Mengele-style cruelty for the sake of greed, but that you're doing God's work (as Jamie Dimon put it) because capitalism! And Darwinian selection! And globalism! — and it's often far more cognitively demanding. In academia, you observe the evidence and use logic and arrive at conclusions, whereas in crafting tax avoidance schemes or elaborate financial frauds or shipping workers jobs overseas, you're destroying the lives of countless men and women and their families but you have to be able to work a tricky mental jiu-jitsu with your conscience whereby you convince yourself that the human wreckage you're wreaking is actually good and right and true and just and all is for the best in this best of all possible globalized capitalistic worlds. And that ain't easy, bubba.

  • Well, here it is. I have to admit I somewhat agree with mclaren – a first.

    I went to a state U and got a BS CS degree. Never left home state bot for first year at elite liberal arts college, and then the US Navy, when I was about to be drafted into the VN war.

    Wife worked too. We have hundreds of acres of rolling hillsides covered with forest, a large house, pensions, social security, and money in the bank.

    And no, $35,000 won't take your family to Europe for the summer, not on a top hotels and M-B rental level. That would do about a week, no, a couple of weeks.

    Working hard and making good decisions will get you ahead in life. Both are required, unless you bliss out by being born into vast wealth.

    I have a good friend, a lawyer, who works for family trusts, helping them maximize income from, for example, 350,000 acres of mineral rights and timber. Of course, he needs to hang with the beneficiaries of those family trusts, chatting with them about how Mountain-Top Removal doesn't hurt downstream ecologies at all. For example.

    I couldn't do that. He can. A bright nice guy. We enjoy having dinner with him, going hiking, etc. He knows some very nice properties to hike on, to survey timber stands, for example.

  • @Brutus:
    Thank you for bring Fitzgerald into this, as it is this very problem, paradigm, paradox and perfidy that inform his most-read-in-high-school-novel, The Great Gatsby. And this is why it is still being read, because it exposes the myth of "work hard and you, too, can become one of that class of superior people" for the whole cloth lie that it is. We, the aspiring middle class, are Gatsby. Gatsby is us. And he will never, ever, ever have Daisy.

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