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Story 01: An Optimistic Time

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Confidence in the Future

Written by George Hein

My memory is that we all had enormous confidence that the future was bright. We believed that whatever we did in our lives, it was likely to be interesting, challenging and not lead to dire personal consequences. When I think back on my first dramatic professional switch (it seemed momentous to me at the time), what now impresses me most is that in leaving a secure profession for which I had trained for a decade, it never occurred to me that I might be out of work, not able to contribute to supporting my family or even forced to take on work that was demeaning (in my eyes), unpleasant or dull. The opportunities, even as I plunged into an unknown professional world, seemed limitless. Besides, there were others who were taking what might have appeared to be similarly outrageous risks only a decade earlier. My more senior colleagues at ESS—public and private school teachers, academic scientists and editors—had come mostly from stable careers to spend a few years in an experimental setting. Younger staff had no difficulty in taking a year or two off from "serious" professional efforts to try their hand at a temporary position.

Spending a few early adult years finding your way either after high school or college is common today, at least for children of the affluent middle class. My own children in the '70s (and more recently my grandchildren) didn't appear to be anxious to follow an uninterrupted trajectory from school to college to settled careers. But it was still novel in the early 1960s to pursue a more flexible path; it was certainly a new attitude for young professionals. The willingness to take a risk, to try something challenging became familiar at least partially by the experiences of those who came of age during the Second World War. Despite interruptions in their lives, most were now leading rich and increasingly comfortable lives. Higher education opportunities, many financed by the 1944 Servicemen's Readjustment Act (the GI Bill), and general economic abundance—even if not distributed equitably—allowed us to be optimistic about the future and freed us from the concerns and advice of our parents, most of whom had experience of economic hard times and urged us steadfastly to pursue practical, remunerative careers. When presidential candidate John Kennedy first suggested the Peace Corps in a speech at the University of Michigan in October 1960 his challenge was novel both in urging young Americans to go to developing countries (international travel, especially to exotic locations, was hardly common then) and in suggesting that service activities unrelated to a direct career path were appropriate for young people. The idea caught on quickly and established a model for our society: In 1961, the Peace Corps' first year, fifty-five volunteers went to several destinations. About 7,300 were dispersed two years later and 15,000 were in the field in forty-four countries by the middle of the decade. Other bold (or escapist) pathways also blossomed in the '60s from civil rights work (such as the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964) to hanging out in Haight-Ashbury. We were all freed from the lingering Victorian rules of conduct that our parents had absorbed as children and the economic crises that had shaped their young adult lives.

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