How young Filipinos see their future

This semester, I’m teaching an undergraduate class in UP called “Professional Writing,” a course I designed more than 20 years ago to help English and Creative Writing majors (and other seniors in search of interesting electives) get a handle on what the “real world” out there expects of them, in the kind of everyday jobs they’re likely to land. Not Shakespeare, not Jose Garcia Villa, not lyric poetry and neither the full-length play, but rather the more mundane assignments you get paid a salary for: business letters, press releases, feature articles, AVP scripts, brochures and speeches.

I find myself telling my students that, in a way, what I’ll be teaching them – which is basically how to conform to organizational or institutional standards and norms – is counter-intuitive to what’s been thought of as the UP way of asserting oneself and even questioning authority. This mythified UP “yabang” or “angas” could be one reason why UP graduates don’t rank at the top of employable prospects for corporations.

So I feel like I have to teach my students the virtues of humility and sufferance, of sticking with a job and doing it well even if it’s not the coziest or smartest thing in the world to do, and of the importance of execution and delivery with no excuses, no (audible) complaints, on time and against all odds. Before they break the rules, they should know the rules, so they’ll know exactly what they’re breaking and why (I bring up how Picasso was a realist before he turned to Cubism).

Of course, I also tell them that the door swings both ways – they can also walk out of a job they can no longer take (like I’ve done a few times in my own career), but not before thinking through the consequences and figuring out one’s options. Innovation and initiative are great to show on the job – but they can also backfire if not handled well, given people’s (and many managers’) ingrained resistance to change. In other words, prepare for and learn how to deal with adversity, which can be a better teacher than I’ll ever be.

It’s going to be an interesting semester, seeing how the students are responding to my provocations. One of those provocations was our first in-class writing exercise, which was a “visioning” of sorts, where I asked them to look 20 years ahead (preparatory to their next task, which is to write a job application letter). I’m sharing some of their responses below (excerpted here with their authors’ permission) to give readers an idea of how young Filipinos see themselves in their own future. There’s a palpable strain of pessimism in these responses – and that’s understandable, but it worries me. We shouldn’t saddle our successors with the notion that things can only get worse. So I’m making a note to myself: teach reality, teach adversity, but above all, teach hope. Having survived this long, despite everything we had to go through, should yield a useful lesson or two.

Student A: I remember telling myself upon entering college, “If I end up becoming one of those people I despise – a heartless doctor, a vain lawyer, all in the name of shameless success – I’d rather not enter UP.” Twenty years from now, the Philippines – and by extension, me included – will probably still be trying to heal from all the abuse that accumulated through time. In my dejection, I see the country still having a hard time distinguishing the morally right from wrong. Yet I hope that it would be otherwise. My hope sees differently from my rational musings, my hope sees the tide calming, a time I no longer have to convince my father of a reality so transparent it bites us in the face like a serpent.

Student B: I struggle to think of what the future holds for me. Truth be told, I struggle to think of a future with me in it at all. I find that thinking of the future brings with it a wave of dread, because even if the state of the country miraculously improves, there will always be a bigger power that inevitably ruins things for everyone else. However, if I somehow manage to be present still (through either sheer luck or spite), I will likely be working at an office or a school somewhere. I’ll have a cat or two if the landlord allows it. Who knows if I’ll ever get married. The only thing I’m sure of is that I won’t have children – I can’t, in good conscience, bring someone else into this mess of a world.

This all sounds pessimistic, but in reality, I would actually call myself an optimist in day-to-day life. I want to think the best of people, and I believe that people are inherently kind. There is still a chance for things to improve, for everything to work out, but I can’t ignore the sinking feeling that it’ll only get worse from here. It might seem like we’ve already hit rock bottom, but somewhere, some world leader has brought a shovel and they’re ready to dig.

Student C: In many ways the country is a better place. People are more free to be who they are and love who they love, without fear. We have made leaps and bounds of progress in research and development. Science creates new technology, and we artists learn new ways to create, adapt and keep toe-to-toe. Because I’ll be damned before I let the machines win. Yes, life is better. For those who can afford it. I want to afford it. But those braver than me fight for a future where everyone need not do so. Because that’s the thing about human nature. Fighting is instinctual. Through war, poverty and inequality, there will always be people fighting for something better. Many because they have no choice but to fight or die – fight to survive. Others because they owe it to someone, maybe themselves, to be the source of hope they want to see or have seen before.

The country is far from perfect in 2044. Those selfish, like myself, have found a good life amidst a rotten core. We have survived. I have survived. Now it’s time to finally be brave. In 20 years, I know I’ve learned so much. Let me teach what I can.

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