Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Graduating Into the Great Recession

I graduated into a recession, but went to graduate school instead, where poverty was less 'cyclical' than just 'the way things are.' When I emerged, the rest of the economy was moving along nicely, even though higher ed had long since adopted a much lower level of new normal than just about any other industry outside of print journalism and maybe typewriter repair.

As frustrating as that was, I experienced much of it as the result of personal choices I had made. I chose to go to grad school, which involved, among other things, being poor as a church mouse while my age cohort made actual money. I didn't choose that the "great wave of retirements" would result in the great wave of adjuncts, of course, but I expected at least some struggle.

I'm worried, though, about our current graduates.

At a community college, there's the relative luxury of suggesting transfer as the next step. No jobs at graduation? Go on for the four-year degree instead. You can wait out the recession and build your credentials at the same time. It's one of those rare times when the convenient short term move and the wise long term move are the same move. The opportunity cost is as low as most of us can remember.

That said, though, I can't help but notice that grads of four-year colleges aren't exactly rolling in job offers, either. And their student loans burdens are even higher than mine was.

The first real job is always the hardest to get. I remember the sickening sense, at the end of my Ph.D. graduation ceremony, when I realized that I was all Phudded up with nowhere to go. I had to cobble together a living as an adjunct, later backing into my first real job at the last place I would have expected it. My brother graduated with a degree in an evergreen discipline from a respected college, and had to live nomadically for a few years before clawing his way into an unexpected career. That's kinda how it goes in the liberal arts.

Lately, the same seems to be holding true in some of the more vocational disciplines. And I'm starting to see some very angry graduates who don't understand why they did everything right and can't find work. When history majors have a hard time finding work, they blame themselves. When nursing majors have a hard time finding work, they blame others.

The last couple of recessions felt like somebody had hit 'pause.' When they ended, things came back in relatively recognizable forms. This one's different. If an 18 year old asked me what the hot occupation would be in a couple of years, I'd have no idea what to say. It's just not obvious.

Paradoxically enough, that actually becomes a kind of argument for the liberal arts. It's one thing to juxtapose the employable to the abstract. But if nothing's employable anyway, why not go with something that's at least fascinating? Or, if you go the business route, focus on the entrepreneurial side; if the established firms are shrinking, there's not much point in trying to conform your way up. You can't play it safe anymore; there isn't any 'safe.'

I had a rough economic ride in my late twenties, but not like this. My condolences to the latest graduates. I hope you all keep this time in mind the next time you hear someone say that the economy is meritocratic.