Institutional Man

I think that there is a reason that I joined the class blog. When you start a blog, the first question you must answer is what do you want your blog to be about. Food? TV? Music? Hobbies? News Events? Your ridiculous elderly neighbor who has a collection of lawn gnomes and dispenses advice that sounds strikingly similar to a lot of 80’s song lyrics? Now while I could wax poetic about how love is in fact a battlefield, I just don’t think I could do it consistently enough. One or two entries sure, but as a central theme? Maybe I’m not passionate enough about anything or I don’t have the attention span or I’m simply creatively spent as a writer (which if that’s the case, they need to create a more serious sad-face emoticon I can put in here). But in all honesty the why doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that from here on out I’m just going to use this themeless class blog as in outlet for my unfocused brain.

So get ready for a post that has nothing to do with the class material!

I had dinner with a friend of mine recently, and though I hadn’t seen him in years, his attitude was strikingly similar to what I remembered.

He was the bartender at the bar I used to work at and had been bartending for close to a decade. As his thirtieth birthday neared, he had what I call a “service industry crisis.” He saw into his future as a 60 year-old bartender and did a mental freak out. So he quit his job and got what all people in the service industry dream of.

A 9 to 5.

A job with set hours, set salary,…. benefits. I think I’m salivating over it right now as I type. The dream that needs no field or passion or description, simply security.

To this day, three years later, I don’t know what he does. All I know is that he has to wear a suit and he hates everything about his job.

Our dinner consisted of us reminiscing about the old days of slinging drinks and going home at 6AM.

“The good old days,” he called it. I was shocked. All this time he spent getting out of an industry he couldn’t stand, and all he could talk about was how much he missed it. How he wishes he could go back. How things were “simpler,” “easier.” How he wants to be good at something again, like he was back then.

Honestly I don’t blame him. He had gone from the ultimate position of power in downtown Athens to a clog in a corporate machine that I couldn’t even identify. But still, was my friend experiencing second thoughts about his job, or had he actually wanted to return to the bar where he was so unhappy for so long?

The answer, I think, is that my friend had become an institutional man.

An institutional man is a phrase that the Shawshank Redemption made famous. According to the awesome Morgan Freeman, an institutional man was one that had been in prison for so long that eventually he became convinced that he couldn’t exist outside of the prison walls. He was institutionalized. Now if we completely ignore the fact that Morgan Freeman is obviously always right, we can still observe this phenomenon at work. I am 25, I have been a waitress since I was 14, and there are times when I wonder if I can make it on the outside. Even if I get that 9 to 5, I feel that I would be a fraud. Like I’d be wearing a mask, waiting for the time when my employer figures out that who he has actually hired is only a waitress pretending to be corporate employee.

The thoughts are absurd of course, but the self doubt will always be there. I’m institutionalized. And if you think that idea is crazy, hopefully you’re not one of the members of my class whose only job experience comes from the inside of a classroom. Without theoretical framework and AP/APA/MLA style, can you make it on the outside? Practical jobs, for the most part, are not built on the ability to churn out academic papers and presentations. However, after so many consecutive years of schooling, can the average student transition to the real world? Or will we all find ourselves yearning for days of stressing over papers and classes and projects?

In ending this post, I refer to the great and powerful Morgan Freeman, who is obviously always right:



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4 responses to “Institutional Man

  1. Great post, Andrea, and love the analogy to Shawshank. The institutionalized feeling of being a grad student is something that I think I increasingly identify with since the economy’s tanked. If you asked any of my friends (grad students or young professionals) what they want out of a career, it wouldn’t be surprising now to hear “stability” as a top priority, and that thinking can make it seem difficult to leave academia’s institutionalized walls if they cannot easily find that stability.

  2. I enjoyed your post, Andrea. As someone who has been in the Coast Guard for almost eight years, I have often thought about institutionalization, and whether I myself have become an “institutional man.” I think in some ways, I absolutely am. I, too worked in several service industry jobs before and after college, and I can remember the days when a $10 music cd was an extreme extravangance. I never intended to make a career of the military; I was so afraid of institutionalization and committing to the same thing for the next 30 years, but now that I have the option of retiring in twelve years at the age of 43, it suddenly seems pretty great to have health care, a good salary, and educational benefits. My point is, so-called institutionalization doesn’t have to be a bad thing; you just have to find a career that 1) provides plenty of growth, and 2) allows you to sometimes pursue outside interests. Also, writing term papers isn’t quite so stressful.

  3. I was going to write something similar to Anna’s post, but she obviously beat me to the punch. But the term I would use for myself is not institutionalized, but indocrinated. I frame nearly all my thoughts in military terms. I do make some effort to be subtle about it; not sure how successful I am. Andrea, your discription of you friend raises a point is took me a few years to learn – the grass is never really greener, there is just another brand of BS. But it is always better to take a risk rather than stagate and be unhappy.

    I love it – Morgan Freeman is always right.

  4. Ning Huang

    Institutional man, that’s really a well-descripted word. When someone has deeply involved in some situation, he or she would think that they could not live without this or that. Just like the famous movie, the 1900 never left the ship even when the ship would be blowed up.

    Therefore, we need to learn to get out of some situation sometime when possible, which would provide us a broader horizon and different viewpoint.

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