Plastics and the Undergraduate

Of course, we all know that people who went into plastics in 1967 were soulless, superficial jerks. As opposed to, say, those that went into silicon in 1978 or electric cars in 2003. Those guys are heroes! Consider how much more spiritual and pure it would have been for Mr. Robinson to give his career advice while dressed in a sharp black turtleneck. Genius!

A similar kind of confusion bedevils kids coming up today. It’s good to be a Maker, a Richard Florida creative, a bobo in Paradise, but, uh, don’t take a dirty, dangerous and demeaning job. Supposedly, global capitalism has already ensured that those are being done by peasants in third-world countries who’ll puke out their lungs at 43 from inhaling toxic chemicals. But, as we’ve seen, garbagemen can literally do better than lawyers. So what gives?

Railroad engineers are in short supply even as striver poors with useless humanities Ph.Ds are coming out of our ears. How are we to understand this phenomenon? Clearly, supply and demand isn’t doing its job. The feedback mechanism is broken. The signal’s not getting through. Guys, this might blow your minds, but the free market hasn’t corrected itself!

“It’s a great idea to go into railroads,” said no guidance counselor ever. The guidance counseling profession is all about two things: doing social work for high school students, and helping kids fill out the FAFSA so they can become debt slaves for 30 years in order to pay for a 4 (or 6) year vacay. Reminder, significant numbers of kids actually become dumber while in college (years of hookups, beer bashes, beer busts, beer blasts, keggers, stein hoists, smoking pounds of weed and partying to 3 AM nightly will take their toll.) Has anyone ever been told by a guidance counselor, “start a big box realtor, or maybe have a look at commercial real estate, which has been through a local bust and probably has opportunities for developers to buy in cheap”? Of course not, it’s absurd to ask. Has anyone ever seen a high school movie where the protagonist decided to skip college to build up a bottling company or take start a chain of commercial printers? There are entire industrial categories that are totally invisible to media, advising and kids.

As we’ve documented extensively here at The Rat-Faced Man, it’s a straight-up life-ruining mistake to go into academia. You’d probably be better off getting into hard drugs instead. People do it not because they have done the numbers and know what they’re getting into, but because certain careers have much higher salience than others; there’s an available and easily understandable life script for becoming a professor, but not for becoming an industrialist. Likewise for doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, civil servants—it’s pretty well understood how you get on each of these roads.


Therefore, if you want to do better, you have to find your plastics. Audiences in 1967 were supposed to see Mr. Robinson as a sucker. Maybe he was, but not because of how he made his living—unless you think of a company with 9-figure revenues as a sucker business. Hey, he might not have a scholarly CV, but at least he’s not on food stamps! (Note that this adjunct, profiled in one of the links above, has worked as an office manager, staff writer, etc., jobs that are not, to me at least, obviously more scholarly or dignified than working as a manufacturing engineer or something.) Entire huge countries have made it big in manufacturing. And they’re usually doing it to American spec.

Of course, what your plastics is may vary. You have to be realistic about your options. But a quick look at a list of occupational shortages might be a wake-up call. A lot of these jobs pay medium fish in medium ponds quite well. Re fish and ponds, stay tuned—that’s the next RFM.

6 thoughts on “Plastics and the Undergraduate

  1. One thing to note about that scene though, in the late 60s the “great future in plastics” had already largely been realized. Going into plastics would’ve been a huge opportunity a decade or two before, but at that time it was just another mature industry. The point of the scene wasn’t just that it was unsexy, it was also supposed to be clueless boomer advice.

    At least that’s what I recall reading about it, probably in another blog comment somewhere.


    1. Thanks, this makes a lot of sense. (Note that the plastics company I linked to was founded in 1949.)

      However, I wonder if it’s not a little too pat. I don’t doubt that Robinson is a bit out of touch and his advice is supposed to be little off, but I suspect there were still materials science fortunes to be made. After all, plastics fabrication in the 1980s must have hugely increased with the microcomputer and automotive tech revolutions. And getting into this business would probably have been a better, rattier use of energy than whatever it is Benjamin wound up doing.


    2. “One thing to note about that scene though, in the late 60s the ‘great future in plastics’ had already largely been realized.” If memory serves me well, Peter Drucker made this same point back in the 80’s. Also, Mr. Robinson would have come across as less of a “soulless, superficial jerk” if he didn’t talk of plastics as if he were talking of the Tablets of the Law or the Golden Fleece.


      1. But today people talk about “tech” and “apps” the same way, and we’re supposed to think they’re awesome. What changed? I think Boomers were supposed to see this as “beautiful loser” stuff—Benjamin is “too pure” to turn into a mere business drone—but this doesn’t fly with Millennials, who have much worse prospects for stumbling into good jobs and who therefore kind of want to become salarymen. (Admittedly, cut with a lot of ambivalence.)


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