Every afternoon at 12:45, some of the newsroom baby boomers push two lunch tables together and attempt to solve the world's problems. Call it the Lean Cuisine brain trust.
During one recent lunch hour, we twirled pasta on plastic forks and talked about the high cost of college education for our kids. If you have school-age children, you know that doing the cost-benefit analysis on college isn't as clear-cut as it used to be.
I posed a hypothetical question. Would our children be better off with:
A.) The best private, liberal arts college education money could buy? (Estimated total cost $250,000 including grad school; split among grants, loans and parental support.)
B.) A good nurse's aide job in early adulthood followed by a midlife check for $1 million? (Our hypothetical $250,000 private college cost invested prudently and doubling twice between ages 18 and 38.)
I know, I know. Who's got $250,000 to give an 18-year-old? Just play along.
I got a chance to pose my question to Laura Dodd, a 29-year-old author and former University of the South student. Dodd's first book, "Dig This Gig" (Citadel Press, $14.95), is available in bookstores and through online booksellers March 29.
Dodd is a graduate student at Columbia University in New York. For two years she interviewed young adults who are trying to assimilate into the 21st-century work world. Her literary role model was author Studs Terkel, whose 1974 book, "Working," is full of vignettes about ordinary American workers.
Dodd interviewed, among others, a genetic counselor, a founder of a nonprofit, a video-game illustrator, a Peace Corps volunteer, an organic farmer, a zookeeper and a print journalist. Many of her subjects fit the mold of kids who went to good colleges, made top grades and then felt as if they were set adrift in a work world where mere college degrees have become devalued currency.
Dodd herself has one of those high-priced liberal arts educations. After a year at Sewanee, she transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, where yearly tuition, room and board is just under $50,000. After that, she spent six years in Los Angeles working in the entertainment business before deciding to go to grad school.
When I asked Dodd my nurse's aide/midlife millionaire question, she paused for several seconds considering her answer.
"Good question," she said, and then she told me that she would want her top-flight education AND the nurse's aide gig, assuming that is was a job she really wanted to do. Forget the million bucks.
"Not everyone is supposed to be a doctor, lawyer or accountant," she said.
Immediately, my $1-million question seemed like a baby-boomer contrivance, equal parts materialistic and paternalistic.
Today's highly educated young adults, Dodd indicates, would chose to be smart and happy, too. Most have given up on the baby-boomer notion of nose-to-the-grindstone, single-track careers with pensions anyway.
Still, the point of Dodd's book is that liberal arts colleges have sort of abdicated responsibility for helping new graduates find traction in the work world.
"You're brimming with excitement to go out and make your mark," she said. "But there's this paralysis. There's so much out there. And nobody knows what these [traditional] job titles mean."
Dodd said "Dig This Gig" is the book she wishes someone had handed her the day she graduated from Washington University - a guide to jobs in government, health care, media, entertainment and business through the eyes of people actually doing the work. It packs the punch of dozens of job shadowing experiences into an afternoon of reading.
"My book is not about what to wear to an interview, or the Top 5 resume writing tips," she said. "It's about learning through others' mistakes."
I asked Dodd to tell give me a couple of golden nuggets from her research.
She told me about a former advertising associate, Julia Riley, who went on 16 interviews and had four jobs in the space of two years before landing her dream gig.
Lesson: Be relentlessly optimistic.
Then, she told me about Drew Chafetz, a young man obsessed with sports, who has established a nonprofit to build soccer fields for kids in impoverished countries.
Lesson: If you can't find a job, make one.
Dodd herself is a poster child for a new generation of intellectual entrepreneurs who are smart enough and audacious enough to invent jobs for themselves. After all, if you need a problem solved, why not simply write the book.