Friday, July 20, 2012


“What’s it like to be 25 and still eating out of your mother’s fridge?” I asked Tiit, the son of some close friends I was visiting. I was prodding him in good fun but quickly realized it was a touchy subject. The kid had been out of work since the day he got his MBA in marketing from the Estonian Business School.

Taking up my insensitive remark as the topic of conversation, my middle-aged friends explained to me that more often than not their twenty-something children - and their friends’ twenty-something children - are still living at home.

“Why not kick their asses out?” I suggested, having just popped open my fifth beer. Tiit’s parents then painted a picture of Estonia as a little version of Spain, where there is little or no opportunity for young people.

According to Tiit’s parents, the kids who had studied finance or IT were working and earning enough money to have small apartments and independent lives, but the rest, if they were working at all, were earning chicken scratch while chained to an oar on the lower decks of Estonian companies.

“Do the math,” said Tiit’s father. “Can you rent a flat, pay your utilities, and cover all your expenses on four hundred euros a month?”

The obvious answer was yes, if you had at least one roommate. But some practices common abroad just don't happen in Estonia. While in London or New York you might find an apartment shared by three guys fresh out of university, I’ve never heard of it happening in Tallinn. Tiit’s parents were clearly convinced that Estonian kids have it tough, so I shut up and popped open another beer.

Later on Tiit joined us in the sauna and I was able to hear it from the horse’s mouth. He’d been offered a couple of jobs, but they weren’t in marketing, and they all paid less than he thought he was worth. Feeling a bit bad about the crack I’d made earlier, I listened carefully and sought to empathize with the young man. But then I recalled my first few years out of university, when the best I could afford was a tiny room in a cocaine addict’s downtown Toronto flat.

“Of course you’re without a job,” I told Tiit. “Studying marketing in Estonia is like going to the botanical garden to learn about grizzly bears.”

Tiit gave me one of those looks that made clear he’d been told at school that he held a coveted skill set and had been pumped full of that you’re-the-future-of-the-nation bullshit that young graduates get everywhere.

“What’s a Soviet-era professor know about marketing?” I continued. “And if he’s worked in the business then his experience comes from a tiny country with a homogenous population of look-alike whiteys. Why didn’t you study math or physics?”

I know I shouldn’t have said it, but I was drunk and it happened. But sober now, thinking back over those words, they are more or less true. And it turned out okay, really, because my honesty got us talking about Tiit’s feelings, and according to my wife Liina, talking about your feelings is a good thing.

Tiit then told me about the Winners’ Generation, “the generation who had balls but not necessarily smarts, the incompetents who occupy Estonia’s seats of power but who won’t get their fat asses out of their chairs so the new generation can have their jobs.”

“Yeah, man,” I cheered, actually taking out a notebook to copy this stuff down. “More spleen!”

And Tiit obliged: “These sad fucks for whom everything is ‘service,’ including art, and success is measured by tickboxing through a list of Soviet-era dreams they established by watching some western series from Finnish TV. And that is the ceiling of their imagination, this sad generation of one-dimensional men in beige sandals that they wear with like-colored socks. No soul, no fantasy, just emptiness.” I half expected him to start singing Bruce Springsteen songs, but he instead muttered something about Blur’s “Charmless Man,” a group I wasn’t hip enough to know and had to google later on.

I’d worked with some of Estonia’s Winners’ Generation, those born in the mid 1960s, those who were in the right place at the right time, “who bridged the past and the future,” as Linnar Viik once characterized them in an interview.

The Winners were the self-anointed Princes of Estonia, and although my words wouldn’t have been as condemning as Tiit’s, I had found some of them to be spoiled and lazy. “After I rest for several weeks I may be able to make a decision,” one Winner told me just last week when I approached him about his interest in a project. This Winner was the sort often profiled in Estonian business magazines, the narratives so full of flattering drivel that reading one start to finish is the equivalent of a warm enema.

Tiit was angry, but I understood his point: In a true meritocracy many Winners would probably have to give up their chairs. The skills they brought to the table in the early 1990s are often not the skills that industry is currently in need of. But despite Tiit’s outpouring, I wasn’t convinced that his generation - shiny diplomas, no experience - were necessarily the best replacements.

So while I didn’t fully buy into what Tiit preached, I did wonder how a guy with so much passion wasn’t employed somewhere. I mean, channel that energy into any job and there’d be no stopping him. Perhaps Tiit was too proud for his own good?

The next day I sent Tiit an email with a link to an article quoting Toomas Hendrik Ilves. "The pyramid tip is always narrow. In the years after the Winners it's nearly impossible to replicate such quick and successful careers. A 45-year-old manager or top specialists intends to remain in his job for at least another 25 years."

I suggested to him that 25 years is like a prison sentence. Twenty-five years of sitting around waiting for a Winner to give up his chair. And so I suggested to Tiit that he move to the UK, share a flat in a seedy neighborhood with Polish and Lithuanian construction workers, and get the first job that’s offered him. Even a job in a London McDonald’s would teach him much about ethnic relationships, conflict, working efficiently, and how not to put his hand into a 2,000-degree vat of boiling grease: stuff they don’t teach you in Estonian marketing courses.

Tiit didn’t reply to my email, and so I can only conclude he wasn’t too keen on that advice. Maybe he decided instead to go back to school and study mathematics.

Liina says my problem is that I’m too insensitive. But I say the problem is that the real world is even more insensitive. Regardless of what the career placement officer may tell you at your local university, absolutely nobody is waiting for you once you get out. There is only the job you want and the job you can get. And sometimes you just have to take the job you can get.

Mom and dad are there, though. They really do care, because they know how special you are. And they’ll always keep plenty of beer in the fridge.

More speeches to give your kids here. And, no, I have no idea why some text appears with a white background.