We should have warned them

Picture this: a dewy-eyed high school graduate flipping through a university program catalogue in the middle of an economic recession. She flips past accounting, biology, and chemical engineering. She skims through management and decides it’s not for her. Instead, she looks through the arts programs, picks one, and doesn’t give a second thought to what kind of job she’ll get when she graduates. Sound familiar?

Recently, The Globe and Mail published an article titled “Why are we training our arts grads to be baristas?” The author interviewed several recent graduates from arts programs. Many of them seemed to be serving coffee instead of working at a “real job”. At the end of the article, the author came to the conclusion that high school students need to be better informed about the job prospects after completing a bachelor of arts. Many students, she says, choose their postsecondary
degree “without realizing the magnitude of the decision they are making until their mid-twenties”.

The article makes some excellent points. For example, the author
points out that most job ads demand effective communication, teamwork, and problem-solving, and argues that these skills are best learned and practiced in arts programs. She explains that despite this, employers continue to higher business graduates over arts graduates because the arts graduates are less likely to fit into a “cookie-cutter” position.

And yet, after an entire article explaining why employing arts graduates are important, the author finishes by speculating that high school students need to fully understand the path they’re choosing when they select an arts major—almost like they need to be warned of what’s coming.

But it can’t be that simple. It’s hard to imagine a student spending thousands of dollars and at least four years on a degree without any thought on what comes next. And if that’s hard to imagine, it’s even more difficult to believe that international students are paying more than double that and traveling miles away without having given serious thought to their job prospects.

If there’s one thing we do know, though, it’s that our humanities jobs have changed. Take journalism for example. In an essay titled “How to Succeed in Journalism when You Can’t Afford and Internship”, writer Alexandra Kimball tells the story of how she tried and failed to become a journalist—until she inherited some cash. After comparing her own experience of trying to become a journalist to her grandmother’s, Kimball concludes that journalism has changed. It evolved from a “gettable, middle-class” field to an “elite pursuit”. Many newspaper interns are PhDs.

Journalism, like many arts programs, has acquired a certain exclusivity. Nowadays, the journalism graduate’s primary reward is being published, not getting paid. Entire organizations have built their business models around this kind of prestigious perk. The Huffington Post, for example, has only a few full-time editors. The rest of the content is produced by volunteers—people who desperately want their name, their voice, and their expertise heard, in print or elsewhere. Meanwhile, if you check out their job site you’ll find vacant full-time positions for a Linux systems administrator, a CMS developer, and a software engineer.

So what does this mean? Does it mean we’re too ambitious? Maybe. Although that might be flattering ourselves too much. It might be more apt to say that we’ve transitioned from thinking about jobs to thinking about careers. Instead of graduating from university, landing a job, and working at it for 20 years, many of us are choosing to stay for only a few months with a new organization. Why? Because we’re already thinking about what’s next. We’re partly building something, partly playing the field to find exactly what we want.

If you’re thinking that this sounds a little childish, you’re actually right. Since the nineties, adults between the ages of 18 and 26 who live in developing countries are taking longer to make major life decisions—like who to marry, where to live, and what career to spend our lives working towards. In development psychology, it’s called “emerging adulthood”. Actually, some scientists say this is a good thing, even when it comes to career choices. They argue that taking longer to decide means our the decisions will stick once we make them. But the most pertinent point here is that it seems like society has been working towards this for a long time socially and economically.

Yes, it’s important to educate high school students about the education choices they make before they make them. But who’s to say that’ll change anything? As for the graduates that never gave a thought to their employment after university, it seems doubtful that we’ll make a difference by reminding them that their employment prospects are bleak. These are the people who probably chose those fields simply for what they wanted to learn. For the rest who chose with an eye towards the future, they probably already had an answer, or part of one. Perhaps a small percentage will reroute their careers, but it’s too simplistic to say that the solution is to inform them. By all means educate them, but also tell them that circumstances have vastly changed and will continue to change—even in the four years it takes them to graduate.

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