One month ago, I graduated from college. You can tell that I’m a real-life adult now because currently I am eating Smart Start out of a box instead of an individually-packaged container filched from the dining hall. And I’m not the only one with a newly-minted degree; according to Census projections, 3.4 million students in the United States supposedly graduate from institutions of higher education this year. That means 3.4 million discarded Ikea end tables, 3.4 million sets of embarrassingly tearful parents, and 3,399,999 people against whom I am currently competing for a job.
Maybe it’s because I happen to be a member of this demographic and therefore am narcissistically drawn to any mention of it in the media, but it’s felt for the past few years as though the world at large has been overly concerned with our financial wellbeing. Of course there was, and is, the looming juggernaut of the recession (which I’ve seen recently inscribed all over the Internet as the Great Recession. Cute.) And it’s easy to measure economic shifts based on new entrants to the job market, and it’s an election year, and the education system is constantly being evaluated; it makes sense that this crop of graduating students would come under such scrutiny. But I began to take issue with the sheer number of headlines loudly, sometimes gleefully, telling me and my friends ad nauseum that statistically we’re more likely to get run over by Tupac’s hologram driving a cruise ship than to find gainful employment.
In April, the Associated Press published findings indicating that half of all college graduates in the United States are either unemployed or underemployed. USA Today countered, benevolently informing us in May that “College graduates enjoy best job market in four years.” Three days later, the Washington Post decreed “Class of 2012 enters work world with jobs, hope, debt—and fear about shaky economy.” Thanks you guys, I had no idea I had that many feelings! Once America quietly decided that in fact we would be allowed to find some jobs, they hastily started separating out exactly WHO would get WHICH jobs, and how many; the Daily Beast ran a series of articles regarding the top 13 most useful and most useless majors depending on employment and pay rates. Everyone posted the links on Facebook and promptly, if uneasily, appeared to forget about them. (I should mention that I didn’t just graduate from any college; I graduated from a liberal arts college, a particular breed of institution whose merit and value is forever being debated. I’m not far removed enough from my time there to effectively weigh in. Suffice it to say that I may not be able to recalibrate a submarine or open a jar, but I can write a mean sestina.) And the week I graduated, the New Yorker featured a complicated, insightful Comment column entitled “What Is the Real Value of a College Education?” in unsettling counterpoint with the cover image: a bunch of kids in robes and mortarboards drifting out to sea on some ice floes. Everyone has something to say about our future.
I understand that this is an unbelievably complicated, expensive and politically-charged topic, and that all these voices aren’t necessarily contradicting each other. What I’m honestly tired of is the voices in the first place. I’d rather go out and be in the world than sit around and be told about it by somebody else. I think my response is equal parts fear, defensiveness and good old-fashioned rebellion: if a bunch of comfortable old people probably wearing ascots are telling me one thing, I would like to believe the opposite. Especially if what they predict looks this bleak. Furthermore, even if it’s naïve, I want to believe on an individual level in both myself and my peers. I would like to think that we are passionate and resourceful enough to cut through the numbers and the forecasts and the impassibility. If I can’t believe that, then what’s the point?
At the end of the day, all the statistics and articles in the world can’t outweigh personal experience. This past month has been a hurricane of goodbyes and train rides and finding space in childhood bedrooms to hide illegal substances, but through it all I’ve been frankly dazzled by the breadth of places my classmates are headed. Some have had consulting jobs lined up in DC or Chicago since first semester; some are being flown across the country on company dimes for interviews. One of my great friends is deciding between working on an organic farm or as a historical reenactor on the Freedom Trail (I vote the latter because literally there is nothing I like more than historical reenactment villages (tallow, anyone?)). Another is hiking the Appalachian Trail, starting in Georgia and hoping she makes it to Maine before the weather turns too cold. A few are desperately trying to get visas, a few are moving in together to audition, and many are heading back home to get their bearings, apply for what they love and then go from there. As for me, I’m going to New York for the time being. I would like to write and edit and find some old people and some new ones. I would like, in whatever small way, to build a life. Write a front-page article about that, Newsweek.
by Alanna Okun