On the Value of a Piece of Paper

On The Value Of A Piece Of Paper

Stop the bellyaching about job prospects for Millennials. I'm tired of hearing about it.

Trust me. We were raised by Cold War parents and came of age in the lurid throes of George W. Bush's terrorism fetish. We don't need your advice on how to despair.

Nevertheless, it's graduation season again, and just like last year, when I doffed my cap, prose-hawkers our parents' age have seen fit to use their dinosaur media to despair for us about our employment prospects as recent college graduates. Though today's Wall Street Journal column on the subject contains several amusing anecdotes lampooning the depthless void our Boomer would-be-employers accept as their culture, it's mostly a dreary, entitled-sounding moan-fest, a perfect fit for the very cultural void that late capitalist America will eat the whole world trying to fill.

People chastise my generation for expecting too much, for having too much self-esteem, and for thinking the world will be hand-delivered to us on a platter as our reward just for being so special, as special as everybody else. They say we're in for a rude awakening when we find out that the Real World is actually a rather boring place, in which most of us will have to work for idiots, next to idiots, doing things that make us feel like idiots, even though we all think we're special, and not idiots. For these idiots people, I have a three-word response: You started it.

We did not devise the notion that spending tens of thousands of dollars on a college degree would guarantee us a cushy job doing exactly what we love. We learned that from you, the ones who steered us through our primary and secondary educations toward that end and made us walk the catwalk in the ridiculous pageant of college admissions. Then you admitted us, you inflated our grades, and you charged us these monstrous tuitions, promising us it would be worth our while, and now, as we come out the other end, you feign surprise that it wasn't.

You can cut out the act now. I'm not surprised. When you let an unprecedented number of people into college, inflate their grades to graduate them so your graduation rates don't look bad, and send them all on their way with the promise of wild success, it is inevitable that too many of us will be competing for too few jobs as professional "professionals," and we'll wind up doing idiot-work. In creating this scheme, the Boomers have overlooked a very salient pattern in nature: a significant proportion of human beings are idiots. Selling a college degree to an idiot does not cure them of their idiocy. To believe otherwise, to bemoan the underemployment that awaits Millennial graduates, serves the same insane American faith that gives frat boy presidents and frat boy Wall Street banksters the keys to the global economy and the nuclear arsenal.

Disclosure time: In 2009, I graduated from a college that prides itself on being a member of the Amateur Blueblood Low-Impact Football Association (ABLIFA), an athletic league of eight really old colleges that later shortened its name to The Ivy League. At college, I was surrounded by people studying esoteric sub-disciplines in the sciences, the arts, and the humanities, eager to find a niche so unique that the one job in the world for which they are prepared would be theirs for the taking, because no one else would ever find it. I wished them the best of luck in this endeavor.

Some of these niche people were geniuses; I would stagger away from a conversation with them, dazzled by how important their esoteric sub-discipline seemed to me after hearing their elevator pitch. This awestruck feeling would subside in an amount of time inversely proportional to how long their elevator pitch was. A lot of the niche people were full of shit. They didn't know what they were talking about, so they hid behind lots of jargon, just like they would hide behind their Ivy League pedigree when they stopped thinking about Theory, a word they always insisted was a topic in and of itself, not just a word that means "unproven idea," and took a job as a Wall Street pirate. Most of the niche people were average, well-meaning people who just did their homework and hoped for the best.

A few people I met in college were not niche-people, and these became my friends. We seemed to be among a dwindling number of people who take these hallowed institutions up on their old promises to create well-rounded, lateral-thinking, broadly aware citizens. Some of us, like myself, had to create our own concentrations (known at other, less special schools as "majors") in order to have a course of study that was as broad and lifelong as we wanted. There were no ready-made programs for us. We did not want to be funneled into some unnaturally specific mold that would most likely leave us totally screwed when the demands of the job market changed, as they inevitably do. We wanted something that would prepare us for life, that would teach us to think and write and look people in the eye and listen to them and respond.

I, for one, figured this would be my best bet in a job interview as well, rather than sweating and averting my gaze while trying to explain how Critical Pedagogies in Medieval Gender-Queer Indonesian Theater would make me an invaluable member of your team.

When I graduated, I had already secured barebones employment as a lowly public servant, working for an urban public school district eager to hire someone who remembers what high school was like. I was not thrilled by this opportunity, but I was relieved to find it, given the fear-mongering I endured from voices of authority in all directions. I was not directly qualified, but as is the case with all idiot-work, no specific qualifications were necessary, just the ability to pay attention, listen to directions, form coherent sentences, and do basic arithmetic. Beyond that, the way to get this job is to be at the right place at the right time and ace your interview, so I guess the fundamental ability to hold a conversation was required as well.

Over the last year, as I've worked in my un-special job, I networked extensively until I found a family friend with a small company in the exact business I want to enter: new media journalism. I spoke to him on the phone, enthused about his website, told him about my ambitions, and asked him lots of questions about his field. Never did I ask him for a job; that would be uncouth. I knew he couldn't hire me on the basis of a second cousin's recommendation and a phone call, not in "this economy," especially in the field of journalism. Instead, I offered my services as an active regular member. In time, and not very much time, either, he and the staff found my efforts useful enough that they offered me a contract to work for them freelance on an hourly, as-needed basis. Now, as I prepare to leave my un-special job and move Out West, where I believe the business climate is better for what I want to do, my employment prospects are far from certain, but at least I have this work as a conversation-starter.

Yeah, I'm a little nervous about making ends meet, but I've got a little paper stacked up from this year, and I'm willing to take a risk. My confidence comes from my social skills and my lifelong curiosity about how the world works, not from the rhetoric I ingested in college, and certainly not from the particular coat of arms on the diploma my family so generously paid for.

But enough about me. I should be speaking in sweeping generalizations here.

The point is, productive work is not an entitlement. It doesn't matter how expensive your diploma was; the intrinsic value of a diploma is the value of the paper it's printed on, just like a dollar. The same inflationary principle applies. The more diplomas are printed, the less they're worth. The real value of something comes from what one can do with it. If you want productive work, you have to make yourself useful. That's the way it has always been, it's just that the relative availability of unproductive work has changed. In a period of fear such as this one, people are less willing to risk their capital on things that aren't clearly valuable. If you want a job, you have to be valuable.

The Boomers sold you a pricy degree. What did you do with it? Did you use your college years to educate yourself, or did you cruise? If you have an expensive college degree, and the debt associated with it, and you're not equipped with the skills and savvy that make you professionally useful, you are a liability. Your knowledge makes you valuable, not your degree. Don't get haughty. If you can't find your dream job, you can go do idiot-work, like the rest of us do.

UPDATE: Jon was hired as the full-time managing editor of the above-mentioned website the following July.