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Why can’t educated millennials find jobs?

October 13, 2010

Will Work for food

Every once in a while, I’ll see some article that plays to or reprises a common motif: the Millennial generation (or Generation Y), despite being one of the most educated, liberal, diverse, and intriguing generations, is entering the job market to find that…there aren’t any jobs for them.

The conclusion? It must only be the fault of this terrible economy! Millennials are hosed through no fault of their own, but because of the eeeeevil recession.

But there is one thing that the articles usually touch upon, but rarely — if ever — do any of these articles address this elephant in the room.

Let’s look at one of the MSNBC’s exemplary vignettes:

…Just ask Michael Barreto.

Eleven months was all it took to bring him from post-graduation autonomy back to his parents’ home in Apple Valley, Calif.

Armed with an undergraduate degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine, and experience from an internship, the 23-year-old Barreto believed he had a better chance than many of his peers to find a job. But more than a year after graduation, Barreto is still struggling to find employment….

Compare and contrast with the first anecdote from Good’s article:

Like a lot of us, Stacks was given a fairly straightforward version of how his life would unfold: He would go to college and study something he found interesting, graduate, and get a decent job. For a while, things went pretty much according to plan. Stacks, who now is 27, went to the University of Virginia, not far from where he grew up, majoring in American Studies. He later enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa, with the eventual goal of becoming a professor.

Flash forward to the fall of 2008, when the stock market crashed. There were never enough jobs for newly minted Ph.D.s to begin with, and now the likelihood of landing a tenure-track teaching position in the humanities was slim. Academia stopped looking like such a sure bet and Stacks grew disenchanted with his program. Even if he were to finish his doctorate, he reasoned, a job was in no way guaranteed to follow. He wondered, “How bad could it really be out there?” Turns out, it’s pretty bad.

Do you see what’s wrong in these?

I don’t know about you, but the thing that jumps out in both of these is the choices of major. What the heck is American Studies? I mean, at least, Mr. Stacks knew from the beginning that his probably place of employment with a degree like that would be back in a university.

But literary journalism as well. I mean, I don’t know if any of these people have been reading any sort of news, but journalism itself isn’t faring too well, so literary journalism shouldn’t exactly ring as the most career-oriented major. (I’m not denying that literary journalism brings a sort of beauty to non-fiction reporting.)

It seems to me that whenever I read articles like these, the common theme that is rarely addressed is that these fresh graduates generally *do* have such “fluffy” majors. Yet, instead of critiquing the attitudes about education that many millennials apparently have, these articles blame only the economy.

I’m sure that the economy definitely bears a non-negligible part of blame…but all I’m saying is many of my millennial brethren and sisters aren’t helping the case to take fluffy majors.

I have heard an educational philosophy, especially from “gifted and talented” students, that may be able to account for some of this. We have been raised to believe that college is about rounding us out as people. College is about exploring our interests and seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake. College is certainly not about vocational training, but in addition, looking at it as professional training is almost an intellectual faux pas. A shibboleth of the petite bourgeoisie.

I think what is happening now is that people are discovering that this attitude of looking at college simply won’t work for most people. It might be great for the elite and independently wealthy students who really don’t need to work for a living anyway, but it’s not so great for those people who simply aspire to someday be elite and/or independently wealthy.

And so we as a generation need to come to look more favorably on profession-focused education.

I would stop there, but the second thing I notice in most articles like this is the emphasis on the tremendous amount of debt that we millennials are getting ourselves into.

This is tough. College is just expensive, and there’s not a lot of cash to go around. But I think there are still some instances when people are thinking more idealistically than economically. I know several friends (once again, the gifted and talented honors sorts) who, having the choice between a well-funded scholarship package at a “non-elite” school and a loan-laded package at a more prestigious school picked the prestigious school. Why? Because prestigious schools are just better!

Now, in some majors, I could MAYBE see the case. But for your liberal arts degree, you don’t need to drown in debt if you can avoid it! And especially if what matters more is *grad* school, then why spend the premium on *undergrad*?


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  1. It’s true. Whenever articles like this pop up, it always seems to be about the humanities graduates. Maybe there isn’t enough good advice given about the economic risks of each major. I can understand the ideal of following your true passion and rounding yourself out and everything, but there is that nasty practical side of things.

    I had a choice between two interests: percussion and computers. In a perfect world, I would be a full time drummer. Instead I chose the more practical route, and the job market slump hasn’t yet been an issue for me.

    You gotta admire those starving artistic types though. I mean the kind that know full well about the economic risks and still venture ahead toward their passion.

  2. It used to be that folks with a fluffy undergrad degree could simply move on to law school and do OK financially.

    But that’s no longer true. Law Schools keep increasing class sizes and the ABA keeps on accrediting new schools, and the market is FLOODED with law grads. They are absolutely nothing special anymore. There simply aren’t positions for all of them, and prices are being driven down. These days a law degree is more like a ticket to 40K per year. If you get a legal position.

    And all this student debt is crazy nasty. It’s non-dischargeable in most cases. I had a female client in bankruptcy a few years back who had a graduate level degree in fine arts or something like that. But she contracted a nasty health problem that rendered her unable to work. Plenty of doctors willing to testify to it too.

    Didn’t matter – her 70K in student loans was still non-dischargeable. She was stuck with it, with no way to pay for it. Don’t know what she’s going to do, to be honest.

    It’s almost getting to the point where getting a fine arts degree is just the same as getting ripped off. They don’t pay out – there are no jobs there. And having one merely tells an employer that you’re somebody who doesn’t know what to do with their life, and decided to play with their undergrad years.

    Professors in the field are no help in career counseling whatsoever because they all have egos and an inclination to create clones of themselves. It gratifies their own sense of self-importance.

    So OF COURSE they’re going to tell you that you can make it. That doesn’t mean you’re likely to actually make it.

    So ditch the crappy degree in Japanese Literature, and go do something useful like Engineering.

    Play time is over, and 40K a year is way too high a price to pay for a four year escape from reality (more likely 6 years – college student work ethic being what it is). It’s time for our twenty-somethings to grow up and realize that living in mom and dad’s basement is not an option.

    From someone who made a lot of these mistakes himself.

  3. Carson, good point about the starving artistic types. I’ve always wondered if those kinds of people aren’t in some way “better” people because they have evaluated the economic riskiness of their chosen path but they go after them anyway. Like…if I were a better person with more solid values or whatever, would I be able to risk everything to chase after my dreams?

    Seth, that’s a good point. I still know people who are going into law school, but fortunately, these people recognize that they need to have a solid background in something for undergrad in case law doesn’t work out (especially since the market is oversaturated.) I mean, tax accounting -> J.D. is a pretty common course in my program, but we all recognize that even if we don’t have a J.D., we can still be pretty marketable CPAs. (Alternatively, now lawyers are competing for our jorbs.)

    Interestingly, even as you point out that living in mom and dad’s basement is not an option, I’ve seen several articles that raise the point that that’s exactly what a lot of these college graduates are doing, and of course, the parents — who are the same parents who wanted to be helicopter parents in the schools — are completely willing to oblige.

    Needless to say, my mom and dad would not be cool with that, haha.

  4. It’s not always merely a binary choice of cynical job-training vs. idealistic exploration. Even if you want a well-rounded liberal education, you can certainly lean a little farther in the direction of math and science (and coincidentally improve your job prospects). American’s dismal K-12 math and science education is part of the problem, keeping these from being the exciting directions that many people want to explore.

  5. chanson,

    I actually agree with you here. I always wonder if I might have been more interested in science or math if I hadn’t had a couple absolutely dreadful teachers.

    Notwithstanding the bad ones, even the best teachers are constrained by their environment. E.g., with pressures to raise standardized test scores, they have to play according to the testbook instead of going into some really interesting things.

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