What “Opportunity” Means From One Generation to the Next

I am going to reiterate Mike’s insistence that you read Opportunity’s Knocks by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow.

It’s the story of Tereza Sedgwick and her attempt to join the fastest-growing career in America: nurse aide.

(This is not an RN job — it is a health care aide position, doing the gruntiest and dirtiest work. As the job ad notes: “Necessary skills: none.”)

There are a lot of interesting and infuriating data points in this story:

• Sedgwick’s realization that even if she becomes a nurse aide, she will still be eligible for food stamps
• A training program that squeezes “6 months of work” into 75 hours
• The structure of the job, which is designed to burn and churn through workers — most nurse aides burn out after one year of work

One of the most interesting parts of the story has to do with the differing expectations that Tereza and her mother Carol have about the world of work. A generation ago, Carol walked into a career college, signed up for a computer class, and walked out into a middle class job. She expects Tereza to do the same, but is only beginning to understand that the game has changed.

To quote Saslow:

It was the early 1980s, the beginning of the tech boom, and it felt to Carol like life was all promise, everything hers to take. She accepted a job at General Electric and bought a three-story house on the Ohio River. She wanted a daughter, so she searched international adoption catalogues until she found a picture of a 6-year-old girl at an orphanage in Brazil. The girl stared straight into the camera, with beautiful, searching eyes and a weary grin. Here was someone with whom Carol could share so much possibility. She purchased a plane ticket to Rio, submitted the adoption paperwork and brought the girl home.

All these years later, that girl was still searching, still weary, and Carol had spent a lifetime trying to help her fulfill the promise that once seemed so assured. But where Carol had seen a world made up of things to take, Tereza was mostly preoccupied with hanging on — to jobs that never lasted, to men who never lasted, to the bottom rung of a middle class that wasn’t lasting, either.

You should absolutely read the full story.

Photo: Mark Hillary

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