I have a friend who’s bee discouraged about work and education lately. This caught my attention in particular because of the streak of bitterness running through it, which is unfortunate. I had started to write a response, suggesting that our generation is not in fact being screwed over by the system, society, and so on. I’m a bit hesitant about this, because my own work experience, angsty as it has been, has also been a bit providential, and I’ve been trusted with more freedom than seems quite warranted. All the same, I do really believe that it’s true that we’ve taken something that’s meant to be generous — the possibility for just about anyone to get nearly whatever manner of education we want — and turned it into a burden through lack of restraint. Our current educational system needs a certain degree of restraint, because it’s possible to amass a great deal of debt taking nearly useless classes. We don’t stop people from doing that, and sometimes outright encourage it. And we don’t live in a culture that much encourages restraint.
If I understand the complaint correctly, it’s two-sided: on the one hand, young people are taught to pursue interesting, rewarding, middle class sorts of jobs for which there may not be a huge demand like history professor, marine biologist, musician or artist, and so on. They are trained to find such a niche, become a specialist in it, and to keep at it until they’ve reached their dream. I will acknowledge there are people who really have a sense of vocation in that way: who might want to be a professor, and in fact be a brilliant professor whether they can get tenure or not, and suffer significantly in living that out. Or whatever their thing is. There have been a lot of great artists like that, and even more since it became embedded in our culture as a well known archetype (in contrast with the artist as one who listens especially hard to the muses, but may not be ill-used by them). They get an expensive degree, or two, or three — and become specialists, only to learn upon graduation (probably in their mid twenties) that they’re facing a kind of occupational gulf, where they are qualified to get a job in their chosen profession if they can (but there aren’t as many of those jobs as there are well educated applicants, so perhaps they can’t), or the same sorts of jobs that they were already qualified for at 16; making sandwiches, frying fries, stocking shelves, running cash registers, babysitting children, mopping floors, and so on, starting near minimum wage, while supporting a substantial debt.
There is definitely an economic mis-alignment at work here, but tend to see as a generous but only partly successful gift. We want to give every citizen as much education as they can successfully absorb and use for the public good, in whatever they are most suited to succeed at. To that end we have free primary and secondary education, cheap community colleges, scholarships, low interest loans, all sorts of encouragement, educational counseling, and so on. There could be, and has been, a different system, where only so many people as are needed for educated jobs have full access to educational possibilities. For good or ill, we don’t do that. We go overboard, actually, telling children that they can all be professional athletes or whatever, when of course most of them (us) can’t. I don’t know much about demographics or economics, but it stands to reason that it’s simply the case that there’s a greater demand for sandwich makers than there is for history professors, because we tend to spend more time eating sandwiches than studying history, but there are more people who consider teaching history to be an interesting and respectable job than making sandwiches. Or something like that.
What I’m getting at is: this is not a conspiracy. It’s probably not permanent in the majority of intelligent, diligent young people’s lives, either. But we don’t (and most of us, myself included, can’t) put this in a way that young people will be able to absorb, so as to make reasonable choices, and know what those choices involve. I don’t know the statistics on that, but I suppose it would involve looking, when setting out to get a degree, at the job market for that profession, and some other options in case one can’t get that job right away — or even within 10 years — and what that will mean, what kinds of options are available, what kinds of sacrifices may be necessary, and how to live in that with some equanimity. Not to discourage people, but to encourage… academic restraint.