My daughter called me last night to celebrate her news. “I got the job!” she said. “I’m going to be decorating cupcakes!”
I cheered. My daughter earned an honors degree in Natural Resources from a major university this past May. This is the happiest I’ve heard her sound in months.
You think that you know where this blog post is going: oh, no, another parent bemoaning the fact that our nation’s newly minted college graduates can’t find decent jobs! And why wouldn’t you think that? New books like Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest are rolling off the presses daily to explain the “shocking truth” behind the fact that 5.9 million people between the ages of 25 and 35 are now living with their parents.
But you would be wrong. This is a very different rant.
My daughter is the poster child for why college matters. She went to a decent suburban high school, finished in the top quarter of her class, played varsity sports. Attending a State university allowed her to continue expanding her intellectual and social horizons. She worked closely with researchers in Natural Resources, learned Spanish, studied and worked abroad, explored electives that enriched her perspective. She continually added to her resume, too, always building toward her post-graduation dream of working as a scientist.
She did everything right, and lo and behold, the system worked. She landed a job with a West Coast environmental engineering company that paid her more money than she had ever dreamed of making right out of college. Hurray!
Slowly, though, things unraveled. My daughter loved living near San Francisco, but even on her hefty salary, she could only afford an apartment in a dire section of Oakland, which led to her being caught in the middle of a mini gang shootout. (She has a nasty bullet wound on her car to prove it.) Meanwhile, her spiffy new job bored her, and her bosses were often negative, even mean-spirited.
For months, she stuck it out. Her student loans were about to kick in and this job paid double what any of her friends were making, plus benefits. As time passed, though, my sunny girl grew more despondent. Every day, she dragged herself into work. And, every day, things didn’t get better.
She started looking for work. In California, the unemployment rate is dire—11.3 percent, compared to 8.6 percent nationwide as of November 2011. One of her job interviews for a coffee company required four different interviews, plus test taking. My daughter got the job and was thrilled, especially because the position includes health benefits. But the pay was abysmal: minimum wage.
Did she really want to leave her posh job for minimum wage? How could she—a driven student, a hard worker, a young woman who had always set goals and reached them–possibly justify making that leap?
There wasn’t any rational reason for her to quit. But there was every emotional reason to do so.
“Life is too short to be miserable for money,” I told her finally. “Just quit. Take the barista job and figure out something else while you’re making lattes.”
I can hear the gasps of horror from most parents out there. How could I advise my daughter to join the ranks of the marginally employed, after our family invested so much into her college degree?
Easily. College, you see, is not really about preparing you for the job market. It’s about gaining the knowledge and skills you need to seize opportunities—and that includes knowing when to walk away from something that makes you unhappy.
There’s a lot of talk these days—well, all days, I suppose—about what good it is to get a liberal arts degree, what majors are most likely to lead to the best-paid and most stable careers, and the importance of building your resume while you’re in school so that you have an edge when it’s time to enter the almighty job race.
That’s all true, mostly. Obviously, you have to eat. But maybe the goal of college shouldn’t be so closely linked to employment. Actual life isn’t that different from the game of Life, in the sense that there’s a point where at the start we all have to choose the college path or the career path. You can earn the same money either way, and the same good (or bad) spins on the dial can send you into a tailspin of debt or misery: illness, accidents, divorce, tornadoes taking your house. College is no guarantee that you’ll be rich, or even middle class. In fact, there are some arguments that suggest technical training is a better bang for the buck.
(A handy example: my younger brother never finished his four-year college degree, yet he makes ten times more money than my other brother and I do, and we both have master’s degrees.)
College, if you’re lucky enough to get there, is really about figuring out your friends and your values as well as your dreams for the future. Nobody—well, almost nobody—finds a top-paying position right out of college. Most of us have to pay our dues and climb a dozen different career ladders before we find one that has rungs we can reach–and a place at the top with a view that suits us. If you land that seemingly “perfect” job with a salary worth boasting about, but then you hate it and are afraid to quit, your wings are clipped. That “safe” job will kill your creativity, drown your enthusiasm, and smother your ability to get up in the morning with a bounce in your step. Why stay?
The answer most people give is “fear.” We’ve all heard the unemployment statistics.
But let’s turn those around. The unemployment rate is high—even upwards of 12 percent in certain U.S. cities. But that means that 88 percent of people have jobs. Can they make a living on their wages? That depends on how you define a “living.” Maybe you don’t need a new car, or a car at all. Maybe you can find a seasonal rental or roommates.
Jobs are like college courses. Each one you take teaches you a set of new skills and offers a fresh perspective on life. They aren’t meant to be permanent, most of them. They are only stepping stones.
In my daughter’s case, the barista job led her to have enough free hours to do what she really loves: draw comics. She’s thinking about publishing her comics online. In her free time, she also happened to stop by a new gourmet cupcake store, where she chatted with the enthusiastic owner and was hired to decorate cupcakes and work the counter. Again, it’s not much money, but combined with the coffee place, it’s enough for her to scrape by. Meanwhile, she has moved out of Oakland and into an affordable room in a house near the beach in Santa Cruz. She’s happily experimenting with cupcake flavors and thinking about helping this new business owner with social media and marketing. She is learning something new every day. Life is good.
When you quit a job, any job, it can be terrifying. But it’s also exhilarating, as you open yourself to new possibilities. So go ahead. Take the risk. Quit that job, if you hate it. You might surprise yourself.