What I learned at my 35th MIT reunion

“I thought that because I was smart I should be rich,” noted one alum, still working 9-5 as a software developer. Especially when one factors in retirement/pension, it seems that not too many of the reunion attendees had earned more than a Massachusetts State Trooper or a California prison guard. Most of those who had out-earned an 80th-percentile public school teacher had gotten out of tech per se, e.g., to become doctors or work in financial services.

Electrical Engineering and Computer Science was the biggest department for the Class of 1982 and there were quite a few software engineers and some circuit designers at the reunion. The computer nerds agreed that, outside of Silicon Valley, one’s career was likely to be lame and irrelevant. Typing all day every day was apparently not a healthy lifestyle. Here are a classmate’s hands:

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He didn’t earn enough to retire young. He spent three years teaching “maker skills” and found it rewarding, but it didn’t pay enough so he is back to the coding grind.

Heterosexuality was either the norm among our classmates or a condition of reunion attendance; I didn’t see anyone from 1982 with a same-sex adult companion (at an “all-classes” event with about 1000 attendees, I did see two young women holding hands). In our class of roughly 1,000 there doesn’t seem to be anyone who has changed gender ID. That may change with the next generation, however. Alumni from wealthy Boston suburbs reported neighbors having children who had changed gender IDs. One alum’s son (still!) is a 20-year-old liberal arts college student. The parents refer to “his girlfriend,” but in fact the individual is “non-gendered” and is offended if referred to with female pronouns.

Most of my classmates seem to have been married, at least at one point. This prospect filled some members of the Class of 1997 with horror. The 42-year-old never-married software engineers were fit, slender, cheerful, carefree, and could have passed for 30. One of them said “I’m being buzzed by Tinder right now.” What was wrong with marriage? “The women that I meet want to have kids, but the women I know with kids seem like total bitches and the stuff that upsets them is trivial. You go to a family’s house for dinner and the mom is obsessing over precisely what a 5-year-old is eating. I don’t remember a lot of 5-year-olds starving themselves to death. Why are these moms monitoring every bite?”

The prevalence of divorce tracked the research of Brinig and Allen pretty well. Classmates who’d lived in states where divorce was more lucrative, e.g., Massachusetts or California rather than Georgia or Texas, were more likely to have been sued by their spouses. Classmates who’d earned more money, e.g., by working in real estate or financial services, were more likely to have been sued than those who toiled as faceless cubicle-dwelling coders. The women who had been sued were the higher-earning spouse. For example, female physicians who survived 30 years of practice without a malpractice lawsuit had proved vulnerable to attack in family court. No-fault divorce for their plaintiffs was rephrased as “Would you like to discard your 55-year-old wife, take half of the money she saved from working as a medical specialist, take half of the money she’s going to earn going forward, and see if having sex with younger women is more exciting?”

Aviation was a field best suited to the patient. “My first job out of MIT was at Hughes Aircraft preparing a bid for the FAA on the NextGen Air Traffic Control System, which still hasn’t been implemented [35 years later],” said a tablemate at dinner. An aeronautical engineer, Class of 1960 (so he’s roughly 79), talked about starting his career working on a variant of the F-105 jet fighter and now finishing it as an FAA employee. Not that much has changed! [Thinking that you’ll work with newer technology in the U.S. military? A friend’s message: “I found out that [the Boeing 757 that becomes] Air Force Two’s nav databases have to be loaded by floppy with everything checked against some sort of huge spreadsheet to make sure they have the approaches and waypoints they need for wherever they’re going (they can only have a limited amount at any one time)”; it isn’t quite this bad in the civilian world because a Cessna 172 can have a $10,000 Garmin GPS with, if desired, an SD card containing a database covering every airport, airway, and waypoint on Planet Earth.]

One alum had worked for 30 years building trading software for big banks. What had he learned about the financial services business? “The only way to make money is by cheating the customer.”

Physical fitness seemed to be an important component of happiness for our group of mostly 57-year-olds. One guy works from home for a big integrated circuit manufacturer and his non-MIT girlfriend said that he worked 70-80-hours per week for 12 out of the preceding 18 months. She runs a fitness center (“I worked in corporate America for decades. I’m a lot happier now.”) and gets him out on the golf course regularly as well as into the gym. They both seemed to be doing great despite his lack of “work-life balance.”

Maintaining musical skills also seemed to be a good investment of time and energy. The Alumni Jazz Band (roughly our class’s age) performed at our brunch and they looked happy and sounded fantastic.

Understanding government and government regulation seemed to be the key to a lot of careers. One alum’s wife works for a “woman-owned small business” that perpetually keeps the headcount below 100 people. They are thus entitled to “sole source” federal contracts and don’t have to compete with other/larger companies. How do they get the work done on what might be huge contracts? “They subcontract everything to Booz-Allen. That’s how business is done in D.C.”

Readers: What did you learn at your latest college reunion?

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17 Comments

  1. Patrick M O'Keefe

    June 25, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

    1

    Perhaps there might have been a sampling effect?
    Alumni with fabulous careers and lifestyles might have better things to do than show up for a 35th reunion.

  2. Tom

    June 25, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

    2

    Did you ask whether the coders still get to have a cubicle?

  3. Smartest Woman on the Internet

    June 25, 2017 @ 3:32 pm

    3

    By my tenth reunion after undergrad, every female CS classmate was no longer doing hands-on software development, including myself.

    By my tenth reunion after the MBA, the 08-09 recession had upended and stalled many careers, including my own.

  4. philg

    June 25, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

    4

    Patrick: I considered the sampling effect. However, I’m also Secretary of the class so I’m email contact with most members. The folks who showed up don’t seem to be a biased sample. Class members who are struggling financially were perhaps the least likely to show up.

    [Separately, I talked to a friend who just came back from his 25th Harvard reunion. He encountered quite a few spectacularly successful people there, including federal judges who had been considered for Supreme Court positions, and a bunch of Wall Streeters who have retired rich. So it seems that people with “fabulous careers and lifestyles” do show up at least to Harvard reunions.]

  5. anonymous

    June 25, 2017 @ 6:19 pm

    5

    Thanks, Phil.
    I will post under a different name next time, as I enjoy hearing from kindred souls on this forum who don’t launch into ad hominem attacks in response to my comments, but need to maintain my privacy …
    but I am that female physician, you so aptly described, except my MBA educated, healthy six figure earning ex, who submitted a financial statement to the court, signed by him and his lawyer that he had zero weekly income, got
    plaintiff’s special divorce package that totaled more than the entire marital assets – not half.
    That was a defining moment in my life, and as a discarded frumpy post-menopausal old hag with no further prospects for romance, I have instead decided to devote myself to reform family law for all ever since. (Kind of like joining the convent for a life of prayer).

  6. the other Donald

    June 25, 2017 @ 8:13 pm

    6

    anon,
    I’m beginning to understand why philg beats this drum so hard. Save some energy for fun, those with some fun in their lives do better.

    philg, re the 1960 AE and technology – engines have progressed much more than airframes. Witness the 737MAX, 1960’s derivative now passing 200 seats with the latest engines. FAA technology? an oxymoron.

  7. J. Peterson

    June 26, 2017 @ 1:45 am

    7

    @Patrick,
    Isn’t the whole point of going to a fancy Ivy League school to cash in on the connections to your wealthy &/| high-achieving classmates? Those dividends can still pay off decades later.

  8. Reha Gur

    June 26, 2017 @ 10:56 am

    8

    “… were more likely to have been sued than those who toiled as faceless cubicle-dwelling coders.”

    Wow, an advantage to being a programmer/developer/code monkey.

  9. Smartest Woman on the Internet

    June 26, 2017 @ 11:58 am

    9

    “I thought that because I was smart I should be rich,” noted one alum, still working 9-5 as a software developer.

    The importation of hundreds of thousands of mediocre H-1B programmers over the thirty years has crushed wages and job opportunities for native-born software developers.

  10. jack crossfire

    June 26, 2017 @ 2:29 pm

    10

    There aren’t many jobs which don’t involve programming, anymore. Never knew any women who wanted or could have kids.

  11. Siddharth

    June 27, 2017 @ 6:40 am

    11

    >>>
    “I thought that because I was smart I should be rich,” noted one alum, still working 9-5 as a software developer.
    <<<

    The undertone in the above statement made me a bit sad – probably because I am on the same path ? (though i am much younger).
    Perhaps becoming extra rich also involves being extra lucky in life (by being part of successful startup[s] etc. ) – No ?

  12. Anonymous

    June 27, 2017 @ 10:26 am

    12

    Does ‘smart’ mean a PhD? How many people went to academia? How many people did good research? How many people invented things we are using now? What types of software developed and designed? What percentage of class of 1982 did this? Being a lawyer, doctor or trader is hardly what is expected of MIT grads. I have seen great derivative traders with high school + party university educational background and lawyers/doctors from anywhere.

  13. philg

    June 27, 2017 @ 10:54 am

    13

    Anonymous: “Poor as a professor, dumb as a Ph.D.” (Chinese saying) seems more reasonable than associating Ph.D. with “smart”! In 1982 the Ph.D. was not the new Bachelor’s and the Master’s was not the new high school diploma. So a lot of classmates went out and worked. Even today,

    http://web.mit.edu/facts/alum.html

    says that only 37 percent of MIT grads went to “graduate school” and only 12 percent of Master’s students “went on to further study”.

    http://web.mit.edu/annualreports/pres10/2010.01.02.pdf

    says that 144 MITers applied to medical school in 2010 out of 1,116 who graduated with a Bachelor’s and 67 applied to law school. Back in 2005 it was 158 med school applicants (more than 82 of fresh graduates got in) and 132 applied to law school. That’s out of 1,220 bachelor’s degrees. See http://web.mit.edu/annualreports/pres05/01.02.pdf

  14. Anonymous

    June 27, 2017 @ 11:30 am

    14

    Faculty is now should be considered as new rich, somewhere along with California prison guards. My career path intersected with MIT grads and while they were good guys I was not awed, to the point when I solved a problem in a day that an MIT alumni (not MIT undergrad though) was entertaining for more then few months. I thought it was because area I was working in was underwhelming and did not attract an average MIT grad. I also heard that MIT grad school is unnecessary stressful and unreasonable telling off is common, especially in very technical areas of study. And of course I have heard about great scientists and pioneers that affected their fields, such as Philip. Since usable inventions do come from somewhere and not only form Japan I would expect MIT alumni be over-represented as inventors of useful and cutting edge things and producers of cutting edge research. Is there statistics for that, per grad class year?

  15. philg

    June 27, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

    15

    In terms of hourly pay, being a college professor is tough to beat. http://philip.greenspun.com/book-reviews/higher-education suggests that $242-820/hour was typical for tenured faculty circa 2010. But there aren’t that many hours when a tenured professor needs to work!

    MIT graduate school unnecessary stressful? See the end of http://philip.greenspun.com/school/graduate-recommendations where one graduate student compares MIT to being in a federal prison.

    Statistics on accomplishments by MIT graduates? Of course the school’s PR department is great at highlighting the 1 or 2 members of each class (of more than 1,000) who do something spectacular. See http://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/50_things_that_mit_made for a list (note that the “modern lithium-ion batteries” link regards A123 Systems, which became a graveyard for more than $100 million in taxpayer funds and even more than that in money put in by public shareholders. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A123_Systems has some of the story))

  16. Anonymous

    June 27, 2017 @ 2:07 pm

    16

    Typical tenured professor pay and benefits package is from $200K/year to 300K/year and is not limited in time. So it is a great position with required 3 to 9 hours per week 8 months of calendar year of teaching, even if it kicks in in full in early middle age. PR link is great. But I am more interested in accomplishments by MIT alumni, not faculty, and not one off basis (I can google noble prize winners education) but as percentage of specific class year for example. It would be a great help to high schoolers who want to apply, to better understand what they could expect. I am aware that MIT is a premier research institution with large endowment and faculty from across the USA and the globe, although some of historic accomplishments listed were paralleled both domestically and abroad at approximately same time or earlier.

  17. Russil Wvong

    June 27, 2017 @ 4:04 pm

    17

    “”I thought that because I was smart I should be rich,’ noted one alum, still working 9-5 as a software developer.”

    As a software developer myself, I’m kind of puzzled by this. I would expect an MIT grad who’s been working in software for the last 35 years to have made quite a lot of money, from salary alone – enough for a net worth in the low seven figures, at least. Maybe that still doesn’t feel like you’re rich? Using this calculator, it looks like that would be enough to put you in the top 5% or 10% of US households headed by someone between 55 and 59.

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