If you’re like me—a person under 30—the job outlook right now is pretty much shit. And if you’re even more like me—a graduate student in history (or any of the humanities/social sciences)—you likely have to cope with a lot of the social blame we receive regularly that lambastes us for our “poor life choices” and “unemployable” fields. If you’re like me, and joined academia from a working class community, you’ve probably also been told numerous times that perhaps you should have eschewed college altogether, perhaps it wasn’t the “right” choice for you, and you should go back to shoveling manure and subjecting your body to inhuman working hours because that’s your natural state—even if it caused you to slide into a severe depression that almost lost you the right to attend university in the first place.
The flip side of this, of course, happens when I live my “other” life—when I’m at my job, cashiering and bagging groceries at a high-end chain retailer. You, as a fellow member of what I’ve taken to calling Generation Fucked, probably have to deal with all sorts of b.s. here too. Sometimes, it’s the wealthy customers who assume you’re an idiot because you’re bagging groceries and haven’t been named the junior partner at daddy’s law firm. (Though, in my department alone, we have at least ten graduate students in fields from education to history to sculpture, a comedian who just landed his first gig at Second City, a successful DJ, a working costume designer, and an apprenticing filmmaker. It’s about the least idiotic group of people I’ve ever met.) Other times, you are subjected to dehumanizing company incentive programs that run a classic speed-up on you while they explain that you are a “stakeholder” in this process. Oh, and they’ll split you into teams that have to dance around like a troupe of trained monkeys in front of regional management in the name of synergy.
There’s no winning in this dichotomy. Either you’re a failure because you dared to get educated beyond the ruling class’s minimal needs for you, or you’re a failure because you haven’t manage to make a fortune by stealing from others in banking. The problem isn’t so much what you’re doing, it’s that you’re not rich. You are therefore open to ridicule from any wealthy person who feels the desire.
But far too many people jump on the ruling class’s bandwagon here. They urge us to go into “employable” fields without ever questioning the priorities of a society that is willing to pay massive salaries and bonuses to people who wreck the world economy and destroy the lives of millions but not willing to pay teachers a fair salary with pension and benefits—let alone hire an adequate number to give our children the quality education they deserve. If I had run the course on my first career choice—aerospace engineering—I could definitely have landed a job…with the military, designing drones to murder innocent people around the world. A society that values the ability to wage endless imperial conquest on people around the world above the ability to examine the social forces of history and extract lessons from it for the future is the failure. Not me.
What about my co-worker earning her masters in literacy education? If Rahm Emanuel has his way, she’ll be getting a gutted wage with no benefits, no pension, and no seniority protection, but if she joined the Chicago Police Department, she’d be getting a raise and brand new equipment. People who tell her she should not rack up student debt in pursuit of her degree are completely missing the point: that the priorities of capitalism have skewed our social values in such a way that the socially beneficial and constructive careers become untenable while the morally unconscionable paths of enforcing the new Jim Crow through police terrorism, of making record profits by speculating on the misery, starvation, and death of millions are considered success.
Apologists for this system cry, “But we can’t have everyone studying post-colonial literature and Diaspora studies! We need nurses!” at the exact same time that they lay off health care workers and subject remaining ones to brutal and unsafe working conditions. In reality, people do want to be nurses, and doctors, and care staff, and if they had good pay, healthcare, and meaningful say in running their workplaces, we’d probably have a lot more. The following is not a joke: I actually heard a man on NPR claim that bankers deserve to be paid more than nurses because they do more for society. In other words, bankers make him more money and screw those nurses and poor people. A society that values Bankzilla above the people who save our lives is a very sick society.
Instead of blaming a whole generation of youth who sought a meaningful career and protection from poverty through a higher education system that is increasingly inaccessible, let’s lay the blame at the source of the problem: an entire economic system that values profits over people.
For our entire lives, the ruling class has been on the offensive, busting the unions four generations before us fought so hard to build and protect, rolling back the gains of the Black freedom struggle, the women’s movement, the environmental movement, and the Chicano movement, and reasserting the terrorism of empire from Nicaragua to Iraq, from Chile to Afghanistan, from Bosnia to Uganda. The truth is that while austerity and empire are killing us, the rich are richer than ever before, the powerful more powerful. If we ever question that, they pepper spray you, they gas you, they shoot at you, and if things get really out of control, they turn your city into a warzone like they did in Anaheim.
Again, the problem is not us. The problem is capitalism and the society that has been constructed to support it. Without the need for ever expanding profits and markets, there is no need for imperial conquest, no need for the speed ups, the ecological degradation, the human destruction. Shockingly enough, a society in which college students face loans that will keep them massively in debt for the rest of their lives is not the best we can do. How many kinds of cheese would we need in that society? I can’t say for sure, but we sure as hell wouldn’t be selling $34 a pound brie to middle class yuppies while people are starving in high-poverty neighborhoods in the same city.
In fact, the choices that so many students make—to study fields that are not valued by our society—like history or literature—or fields like dance and sculpture that are, in academia, reduced to luxury tokenism speak to the massive gap in values between ordinary people and the wealthiest among us, and they make me incredibly hopeful of the society we can build. But before we can build a new society, we have to tear this one down. We, the new generation of workers, we can destroy capitalism. We have the power on a global level to build a new world that values us and our abilities.
Karl Marx was right when he said the system had produced its own gravediggers.