Jeffrey F. Barken

Pearls of Optimism

(“Catching the last light in New York”; photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash)

Jeffrey F. Barken provides perspective on the current state of affairs, especially for Millennials weathering first a recession and now a pandemic, and looks to the future.

 

I’d been given a mission: Deliver four children’s guitars to PS—, an underserved middle school on the East ends of Brooklyn.

This was a stroke of luck. Never mind my heavy haul, awkward all the long subway crawl from Penn, beyond. The fade-away Friday assignment would leave me in possession of my company’s unlimited metro card for an entire weekend—commuter savings that in the winter of 2008 made a real difference. Count the gigs I’d strung: In addition to my internship at Midori & Friends, any day could present a surprise substitute preschool teaching opportunity, a Craigslist “free lunch” to attend, or an extra diner shift—which at least meant another meal, if abysmal tips. The crème de la crème, best-paying post was any chance to babysit. Despite chronic fatigue, my plight was inspired. I relished the chance to put my feet up on the stack of instruments. As we emerged from underground and crossed the Manhattan Bridge, I noticed two suit-weary brokers seated opposite. They gnawed on extinguished cigars, talked rot at bottom, from slump to bailouts, with alternating venom and despair. Suddenly, these lines, meant for my novel, took light and lingered on my tongue: “My poor sick country, my tired friends,” I recited, caught without my pen and journal. Later, I jotted: “The bootstrap felt broken and that broke our hearts. All we’d ever tried to do was lift ourselves up.” Such were my thoughts as I followed printed “MapQuest” directions and trekked through Brooklyn.

My delivery made, excitement took stage. Another use for the metro card—I was invited to a party in Queens that night. I hardly knew what to call the motley crew of dreams-deferred mid-career professionals, writers, and artists whose weekly meetings I’d been attending. We’d all come together on account of a mysterious Craigslist ad posted by “K—”, a visionary Harvard graduate who possessed some $30,000 with which to start a company. “Look for the girl with the big white hat,” she’d highlighted her essential quirkiness as she pitched a night of intrigue—inviting all of New York to the Jivamukti Yoga Center’s cafe off Union Square, “to learn about the opportunity.”

Essentially, K was seeking zealous volunteers, or talent she could hire cheaply, to develop a website called “Indra’s Pearls.” The basic concept was to establish an online hub where individuals could connect with qualified gurus and engage in self-help spiritual journeys. Part publication, part social networking platform, K believed we could buck the sleepy non-profit precedent for similar New Age enterprises, proving the profitability of online mentorship services by drawing fees as well as advertising revenue.

Every minute-born sucker admits, we all get buzzed when we hear the word “startup.” The launch of any pioneering business is practically considered holy in American culture. Whether it’s the big money—get in at the ground floor—fantasy that seduces, or simply the chance to be creative on a grand scale that’s so enthralling, entrepreneurial daring unleashes energy that is positively contagious. Surely, I doubted K’s business plan, but who could fault her spirit and optimism? She was boldly offering to finance gigs amidst the greatest recession since the Great Depression. Perhaps, I’m the humbug? It’s true, the cynical survivalist in me hungrily sought first to turn a buck, earning my cut of the money K seemed to be lighting on fire, but I was also overjoyed to be a part of something. Within a matter of weeks, I’d grown passionately engaged, supporting the venture.

Besides, for a young writer exploring the city, these parties were the dream. They were not wild to extremes like the drunken blur of college, or a night spent clubbing. On the contrary, they were calm, diverse, philosophical salon gatherings—furloughed lawyers, down and out bankers, doctorates, designers, accomplished artists, yoga instructors, reporters, bartenders, chefs, life-long New Yorkers as well as new immigrants, all meeting to contemplate existential questions posed by the financial crisis. Together, we voiced earnest hopes for systemic change … and yes, the lonesome pulse of lives crammed Manhattan inevitably gave rise to youth’s lust for love, all the requisite tensions of an eccentric scene. Members wondered aloud: Were we forming a cult? Would there be an orgy? “I don’t know what I’d do, faced with that situation,” was the universal, peripheral, whispered refrain.

Arrived at the party, that night my back raged sore from lugging instruments. K asked if I’d ever tried Yoga. I shook my head. Shocked, she said, “The thing about yoga is that it works!” Then, she took me aside, stood me straight against the wall, and made me bend and Om until taut knots released.

I did feel better. We sat on the floor, spread our legs, and continued stretching. She laughed at my lacking flexibility. That’s when K ordained my spiritual status. Pleased with the work I’d done consulting with other members concerning content development and the grand sitemap I’d recently generated to guide our hired web designer, she suggested that I was a “Connector.” Though she described an ancient and revered class of person that is innately influential in society, I realize now she was likely referencing Malcolm Gladwell’s seminal 2006 work, The Tipping Point, in which he defines a Connector as someone who wields “Social glue.” A “combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy,” Gladwell writes, renders Connectors uniquely adept at bridging disparate people according to evolving interests and alluring concepts.

 

Blame my birthdate, so far, throughout my career, I’ve always had a knack for finding myself to be the youngest employee invited to the board meeting. It’s a situation that conveniently lends itself to self-deprecating humor.

 

Blame my birthdate, so far, throughout my career, I’ve always had a knack for finding myself to be the youngest employee invited to the board meeting. It’s a situation that conveniently lends itself to self-deprecating humor. Be a source of lightness, laughter, and unabashed ideas and you’ll find doors will open someday. Flattered and empowered by K’s praise, I joked that the lofty title she had bestowed would go straight to my head, inspiring me to network with complete abandon. Again, she laughed, then steered me toward the kitchen for a drink.

I reckon that night was the height of the experience. Our host, an artist, burned sage, lit candles, spun ambient vinyl records, and led us all in meditation. We drank, danced, and mused collectively. But Indra’s Pearls was obviously a lost cause on the verge of unraveling. There was gossip that K was unhappy in her marriage to the stiff, English banker whose money, evidently, we’d all been spending. I couldn’t blame her. My one encounter with the man had come earlier in the saga. In one of the most awkward entrances I’ve ever made to a dinner party, I’d arrived early on a silent scene, and as an icebreaker asked him what sort of music he liked. “I don’t listen to music,” came his curt reply, “too noisy.” One look at K, beaming and bright—taking coats as other guests arrived—and it was clear they weren’t soul mates.

Now, as we prepared to launch, K had made certain romantic overtures to the web designer, another married man, and things had grown heated when he refused her advances. As K spiraled, facing divorce and financial derailment, I stepped back from the drama and cleared my desk of lingering assignments—hoping to receive one last paycheck before sparks flew in a grand finale. After a brief reprieve without contact, K called me out-of-the-blue one morning. “You know Indra’s Pearls?” she asked, her voice oddly chirping, as if the startup she’d initiated had been a mere passing fancy and not the entire basis for an intensive three-month-long collaboration. “Yeah … I’m not going to do it anymore. I need to go to India to heal. I really need to focus on healing right now,” she repeated until her voice wore thin and faded.

Is it possible to heal the wounds of ’08? How many of us condemned to that awful “Waiting Place,” so perfectly described by Dr. Seuss, will forever dwell on the crushing failures and desperate idleness that scar our memories of coming of age amid recession? Indeed, that imagery of a broken bootstrap and a poor, sick country, evoked in my novel, has for a long time embittered my heart and, I think, continues to echo the haunted hopes of struggling friends who are all tested again by the Pandemic. Assuredly, my fictionalized perspective felt vindicated when Michael Hobbes asserted in his sensational, 2017 interactive multimedia article, “Generation Screwed” (featured in the Huffington Post), that “[it’s] increasingly difficult not to be scared about the future and angry about the past.” Utilizing multi-directional scrolling effects and pixilated 1980s-styled graphics, readers are overwhelmed by the unique presentation of devastating statistics, explaining, “Why Millennials are facing the scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression.” With shocking charts, Hobbes describes the economic damage that Millennials endured during the Great Recession as well as lingering opportunity costs that will likely stunt the progress of “anyone born between 1982 and 2004,” indefinitely.

Amid our present Coronavirus Panic, narratives conveying generational despair are rapidly gaining momentum. Most recently, Annie Lowrie of The Atlantic greeted a “lost generation” in her trending IDEAS column titled “Millennials Don’t Stand a Chance.” Seemingly voicing a sense of betrayal, “A lot of good that did,” she remarks of the ’80s and ’90s kids who “for the most part … did it right: … avoided drugs and alcohol as adolescents, went to college in record numbers … sought stable, meaningful jobs and stable, meaningful careers.”

Lowrie ties threads of deprivation together, chronicling how the systemic issues of ballooning college debt and the lack of affordable housing available to Millennials have established an exploitative economy that persistently transfers wealth from the young to the old. To be sure, Lowrie acknowledges that “workers with less educational attainment; those who are least advantaged to begin with” are by far the worst off, “consigned to permanently lower wages.” We have “manufacture[d] precarity for the young and the poor and black and brown,” she writes. Toward close, a link to Pew Research Center statistics indicating that “more than a million Millennials are becoming moms each year,” sends a stark message. The devaluation of labor at this hour of crisis will rob an already weakened generation of their peak-earnings years, impoverishing American families for generations to come.

Taken together, Hobbes’ and Lowrie’s accounts play upon mystic chords to illustrate the ruin of something sacred. If Millennials will be the first generation in the history of the country not to surpass the wealth and personal success achieved by their parents, then does this moment signify the demise of the dreamer’s, “land of opportunity” mantra that has always underlined American identity?

As #RIPCapitalism trends on Twitter in the time of Coronavirus, I’m reminded of how we’d talk, late nights at Indra’s Pearls, back in ’08. The common consensus was that the newly elected President Barack Obama’s agenda had already derailed. In light of the slump, of course he would be forced to devote every resource of his entire first term to the enormous task of salvaging capitalism. “At the end of the day he’s just another politician,” … “He’s already made mistakes,” … “He’s selling out,” cynical New Yorkers chipped away at the euphoria of a historic, hope-filled election. The recession was deepening, but K’s enthusiasm could always steer us bright. Speaking brink of Bitcoin—Crypto quests for an honest currency—she spoke at length concerning the foundational humanity existing at the dawn of commerce. “A lot of people right now are talking about a return to our original understanding of what money is,” I remember her remarking. “At the end of the day, isn’t money simply a medium for storing energy as we exchange goods and services? … Capital was never meant to be hoarded or used speculatively,” she argued, imagining a profound paradigm shift based on surfeit that could render competitive concepts of growth, measured in profits and driven by greed, obsolete.

 


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Whenever the world reels pained, it always comes off phony or reeks of privilege for those with security to sound the chorus and sing “Imagine.” But before we flail in fallen times, lamenting all that ever rhymed, we might seek means to contextualize the triumphs of our forebears without belittling the essential vitality and ingenuity that buoy future generations. “The only way to keep a dream perfect and rosy and intact and unsullied,” Israeli author Amos Oz famously noted toward the end of his life, “is never to live it out.” As the paradigm shifts begun in ’08 accelerate amid the Pandemic, could it prove healthful, if not liberating, to say and let suffice, that here, in America, a dream has been fulfilled? Indeed, many generations have succeeded in outpacing the wealth aspirations of their parents, providing their offspring with enhanced opportunities. Now that extreme circumstances have conspired against one generation’s rising, however, we see how dreams begin to rust. Despairing over the financial reality facing young people, by boxing their averaged experiences and constantly casting their potential in the shadows of their predecessors, is paralyzing. What’s needed in addition to generous stimulus, rather, is a new cultural understanding of what constitutes value and achievement in society. Millennials and their progeny will spearhead this leap.

To this end, I’ve been employed. It turns out that the professional term for a “Connector” is: Recruiter. Since 2014, I’ve worked for Wegman Partners, a Dallas-based legal staffing firm. Yes, this is sales. A high volume of cold calls pitching new jobs to partners and other business executives can yield lucrative placement fees. Success requires the ability to talk fast and to think on your feet. Recruiters get a bad name because they prompt professionals to question their loyalties, and some headhunters are unethically aggressive in this pursuit. When criticized for instigating disruption, I lean on my writing background and escape by this quip; “I always wanted to be a pirate,” I’ll tell skeptical attorneys. But jokes aside, a closer look at our role reveals how invaluable devoted and responsible recruitment services are to individuals seeking career mobility or a meaningful work-life balance change, as well as to stimulate the economy at large. After all, two of the most significant choices men and women make in their lives are with whom they mate and where they work. If someone can assist with the latter decision, providing in-depth analysis of market trends, connecting investment dots, and highlighting where businesses overlap—creating unforeseen opportunities—a simple introduction can lead to promising joint ventures, thereby unleashing a person’s full potential and creativity.

“It’s a biased perspective, but we’re very consequential,” my CEO, Colby Wegman, told me when he agreed to discuss his experience leading the company through two recessions. For about an hour, I conducted an informal interview, both of us musing openly at turns, with collegiality. Knowing how I struggled in ’08 and how ingrained the fear of another recession remains in my psyche, I suppose he sought to set me at ease. “This Pandemic will cause a ton of disruption,” Colby acknowledged, a reality that will likely be profitable for our company long-term. “The way for businesses to pick up and thrive is to acquire talent where firms are distressed,” he said, highlighting the fact that no matter how loyal a person is, it’s human nature to seek growth at all turns. Nobody with any bit of gumption will linger long on a sinking ship. For proof, he suggested I dig up an American Law 100 list, (an annual publication that ranks America’s top law firms) from 2007. “If you go and compare it with one from today, I’ll bet it looks radically different,” he said. Indeed, recruiters have left an indelible mark on the legal industry since the Great Recession.

Don’t think there’s only greed-reaps-profits behind this phenomenon. Real people, mothers, fathers, ambitious young professionals starting out burdened with debts, all sought change, engaged in conversations that opened doors to them, and took risks when the opportunity felt right. There’s joy when life leaps forward, and therein lies the renaissance we seek beyond the worst recession. This was the real purpose of my call with Colby. I wanted to know what a recruiter’s role is, seeding optimism when there’s universal hardship, and whether he subscribes to the notion that my generation is “screwed”?

“I don’t really associate with a generation,” Colby answered. “I don’t think it’s productive.”

By age, Colby belongs to Generation X, but he certainly doesn’t hire personnel according to any deep-seated sense of contemporary camaraderie. On the contrary, between the several affiliated recruiting agencies he has founded, he now employs almost 250 persons of all ages. His advice for young professionals starting out in any industry who may feel intimidated by successful older colleagues, or a fundamentally disadvantaged account of the economic challenges described by Lowrie and Hobbes, is simply to get integrated with the generations preceding them. “Talk to folks who have been in the business longer,” Colby says. “Engage in cross-generational learning.”

When I pressed Colby about the serious deprivations impacting new entrants to the workforce, he argued that many Millennial wounds are self-inflicted. “In terms of the information you put out on yourself, you wind up documented,” he said. Unfortunately, it takes time to shake the stigma of youth. The openness and often reckless behavior that individuals exhibit online in the age of social media has forced many employers to set compensation standards that reflect the risks of hiring someone whose maturity and commitment remain woefully untested.

 

… there’s a bit of a double standard in play when companies will hire Millennials in large part to gain access to the very asset that supposedly compromises them: rich social media networks, harnessed through years of online presence and very public personal experimentation.

 

I countered his position here, arguing that there’s a bit of a double standard in play when companies will hire Millennials in large part to gain access to the very asset that supposedly compromises them: rich social media networks, harnessed through years of online presence and very public personal experimentation. Likewise, younger hires are more likely to possess the skills necessary to manage and innovate on social platforms, while older personnel may struggle. Colby was receptive, acknowledging that “it’s a tradeoff—privacy for access.”

We shared some despair when it came to addressing the high cost of education. “I don’t think that there’s really any desire among the general population to fix it,” Colby lamented. “Schools are valuing sports and new buildings … as long as that mentality is in place, I don’t see them lowering costs for students,” he said. Colby did, however, consider that the virus could be a game-changer, prompting employers to begin viewing online education on par with traditional in-person studies, thereby offering a means to drastically reduce tuition.

One question I always ask potential candidates as I make cold calls is whether they feel valued in their present position. When I turned this question on Colby, curious what he thinks conveys a sense of appreciation to his employees, he was very specific. “We value time with family—the ability to give them some safety and a future.” As a matter of principle, he believes that no employee should have to worry about the shenanigans his or her company is up to, or who their next boss will be. “If you run a sound company and treat your people well, then you can weather every crisis,” he believes.

What distinguishes Colby from other business leaders I’ve met is his patience for the often-strident tides of discourse surrounding capitalism in an age polarized by rising wealth inequality. Rather than react aggressively to socialist rhetoric, as though his interests are personally threatened, he acknowledges the validity of many progressive causes and empowers his workforce to engage with the innovators driving societal transformations. While he is not an activist and will unapologetically support pro-business policies to lessen the shock of new taxes or costly regulations, he accepts that the partial socialization of the American economy is likely par for the course—an inevitable evolution of any free-market system. “Capitalism will level everything out over time,” Colby expresses unwavering faith in our consumerism as well as the essential adaptability and enormously innovative potential of privately owned businesses, “but when you’re burning fossil fuels, you need some government intervention,” he asserts. After all, “The government exists for a reason, and maintaining our health and safety is one of those reasons,” he says.

Where I felt echoes of K’s vision for a post-recession, spiritually-aware world peeking up in my conversation with Colby—a world where Millennials and other rising generations can emerge empowered to redefine elements of the American Dream—came when I asked him whether he thought collaboration might eclipse competition as a strategy for growth? “You certainly need a combination of both,” Colby answered. “Collaboration is starting to explode,” he observed, noting the grand scale on which pharmaceuticals and governments are currently working together to develop a Coronavirus vaccine. “We were probably lacking collaboration leading up to this and the virus will likely show there’s a financial benefit,” he suggests, underlining the fact that for any positive change to be sustained, there needs to be a measure of profit. “Maybe you do need a black swan event like this to prompt real change,” he offered, musing, “perhaps we’ll even see retail and restaurants begin to collaborate as well in the aftermath of the pandemic.”

Hope floats a vague remedy to toast, that grows sacred once rooted. Certainly, the spiral of events since last March and the Black Lives Matter protests have brought unrest to a boil. We see a seizing as members of my generation integrate among their forebears who are tasked with handing down the gloried rights of patriot woe, that weight in tow: the Union. Is “God’s country” ark to hold, all creeds untold, in touch with better angels? As the battle hymn sounds solidarity, what marches forth mounts highest hopes—an entire ideology—demanding racial, social, and economic justice—every last full measure of equality. They fight with growing strength and confidence. This generation bears a collaborative instinct that is unprecedented and will usher in the socialism Colby knows is coming.

So, I’ll cold call—connecting Millennial professionals across the country—individuals who deserve our faith and investment as the world rebounds from COVID-19. While this group is certainly unique in “facing a second once-in-a-lifetime downturn at a crucial moment,” as Lowrie states, it’s premature to call anyone “lost,” especially when history has routinely posited destitution as the starting plight of all “great”-fated pioneering generations. The fortitude Millennials have acquired on account of trauma becomes of virtuous renown and unparalleled value in a rapidly evolving job market. Perhaps they know better than anyone how to take risks or to pivot when a gig is up.

Now, think of all the bold and fleeting pearly invites to virtual meetups percolating online in midnight bursts as lockdowns lift and stimulus emits—how the chorus “lift one up” recurs. That’s when I find my confidence to make new connections and to embrace upheaval with optimism. Many of us are wired to fear change, but entrepreneurialism is the antidote to paralysis. Nothing jump-starts drastic innovation more effectively than a recession, and the sooner we abandon narratives of despair, the sooner we’ll discover that our divided, quarantined quiet has awakened sleeping giants.

 

Jeffrey F. Barken

Jeffrey F. Barken is the author of All the Lonely Boys in New York and This Year in Jerusalem, collaborating with Irish artist Diana Muller to illustrate his fiction. Barken is the founder and Chief Editor of Monologging.org. This colorful publication and small press connects writers with artists around the world, encouraging collaborative multimedia projects and providing regular arts-related reporting. Barken received his Bachelor's in English from Cornell University and his Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Publishing from the University of Baltimore. Now based in Ithaca, New York, Barken was recently elected to serve on the City Council as Alderperson for Ithaca's Third Ward.

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