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Mar 11 / Great Apes

The Social Cost Of Getting An Education

When I was growing up, the importance of getting a university education was strongly impressed upon me.  This wasn’t a family thing – I was, as far as I know, the first person in my family on either my mother or father’s side to get a degree.  But I was told, by family, educators, and the media that if I wanted to get a good job when I grew up, I should go to university.  At any rate, I finished high school with no real desire to do the kind of work that was available to me, so off to university I went.

It wound up being simpler and less expensive to move to the city I was attending school in rather than commuting, so that’s what I did.  After I finished my undergraduate degree, I decided I wanted to go to grad school, so I moved again.  After I finished my MA, my girlfriend at the time (who I’m still with) was about to start her PhD in another city, so I moved there with her.  I wasn’t getting very good work opportunities there, so I moved once more, to Ottawa, where I still reside a few years later.

While I got one more degree than many people do, I suspect my story sounds somewhat familiar to most people who have gone to university, and especially to anyone who has done graduate work.  You move around, get settled, then move around some more.  Hopefully at some point you find a place you can actually stay, or you just get tired of packing your stuff up and decide you’re sticking around whether the city is working or not.  Not only is this story pretty common, it’s what you’re told to expect.  If you can’t find work in one place, you’re supposed to go find work somewhere else.

People often talk about the career sacrifices they make for family; how they got offered a great job somewhere other than where they currently were, and how they held back their career because it didn’t work for the other member(s) of their family.  But we don’t really talk about a much more common trade-off, which is that we sacrifice our friendships and our social networks to advance our careers.

When I graduated high school, some of my friends moved away to other cities to go on to university, while some went to a school closer to home (virtually everyone I was friends with in high school went to university somewhere).  That cut my peer group quite substantially.  When I moved to a new city to be closer to my university, it became harder to keep up friendships with friends back home, but I picked up a new group in the new town.

Then people started graduating and moving away again.  Before too long I decided to go to grad school, so I moved again too.  Grad school was only a year for me, so there wasn’t much time to forge friendships.

When I moved with my girlfriend so that she could continue her studies, I made new friends in the new city again.  I started working and made some friends there, in addition to other contacts we had who introduced us to other people around town.

Then I moved once again, this time because I got offered a much better job here in Ottawa.  So I left another group of friends behind (two distinct groups, really), and had to start forging new friendships all over again.

Over the course of roughly a decade, I ended up going through about five distinct groups of friends, forging bonds only for them to become hard to keep up shortly thereafter.  And that’s really difficult to do.  It’s true that it was my own decision to move in many cases, but I was doing what I’d always been told I had to do: get more educated, find better work, go wherever that takes you.  It’s a rotten way of being.  But so too is not having enough money to pay your bills, a situation I’m only too familiar with.

It might be easy to say that I’m just in a weird situation and getting educated and employed isn’t normally so hard on friendships, but I don’t think that’s true.  I know that within my various friend groups, the same thing has happened to almost everyone else.  In every city I’ve lived in, other people have moved on to other places for work and school too.  If I were to go back to any of those places (as I do, occasionally), I would find that almost no one I knew there was left.  Everyone else moved on to get more educated or more employed, too.  They all made the same sacrifices I did.

We also know, from social science research, that these kinds of problems are getting more common.  Researchers are growing concerned over the “loneliness epidemic” as an ever-growing number of people report feeling lonely or socially isolated, and associated health problems are on the rise.  While no one who I know of has specifically researched the link between friendships and moving for work or school, they are among the risk factors according to researchers; additionally, loneliness is on a faster rise among the young than the old.

I like to wrap up anything I write with some kind of clean conclusion, but I’m not sure I have one here.  I just think it’s a problem we don’t really talk about, and one that’s affected me, so I wanted to talk about it. If I have any take-away, I suppose it’s this:

We under-estimate how damaging social dislocation can be, both in our own lives and in those of others.  It’s just assumed that people are always willing and able to go wherever work is most plentiful.  And beyond that, anyone who complains is seen as being lazy and not sufficiently committed to work.  But that’s a very troubling way of thinking about work and, more importantly, other humans.  The economy should work for people and not the other way around.  I don’t have any grand suggestions for how to fix this problem, but friendships and social connections matter, and we should not undervalue them.

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