Thursday, March 28, 2013

Beware The Baccalaureate ...

Maybe it's just me.

But I'm pretty sure it's not just me.

As our economy improves (ostensibly), as the dust settles from the crash of 2008 and we can survey the new landscape, I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one wondering what new world we're living in.

It sure as hell ain't brave. I know that much.

Yesterday, I read this piece: "Why a BA is Now a Ticket to A Job in a Coffee Shop," and I reflected fondly upon that time in my life when I was about to leave the comfort of college and enter the real world.

The job market in 1991 was reasonably crappy, just as the job market is now.

And I was graduating with a degree in English.

Friends and family, making graduation-season small talk, asked, "What are you going to do with that?"

I'd deadpan: "Park cars."

Of course, I don't actually park cars.

People park their cars themselves. And insert tickets into boxes and chase those tickets with credit cards. I couldn't even get a job as a cashier in a parking garage. Those jobs are gone, too.

But I had no real fear back in the day. A bit of "What lies ahead?" trepidation, sure. But all through college, my English professors helpfully reminded me at every turn that an English degree was a valuable degree because there would always be a need for folks who can express themselves well and who can help others express themselves well, too.

Oh, really?

That may have been true in the late '80s and early '90s, when 2400-baud modems were the rage, when floppy disks would have fit neatly into album covers.

But that was then.

The '90s soldiered on. I took a job at the Chicago Tribune in 1992. In Sports. My thinking was that I'd stick it out for six months or so, slap another name-brand entry on my résumé – along with the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago magazine – and then get a "real" job.

That was the time when folks were starting to make noise about the disappearance of newspapers. Never mind that the World Wide Web was still something I had to access through AOL. There was a whiff of change in the air.

One day, perhaps during an interview, perhaps casually, Bill Kurtis and I talked about the future of newspapers. Bill, of course, is famous for the television side of news, but he was convinced that newspapers were here to stay for a long, long time. "You can't take your laptop on the 'L'," he said.

And he was right.

At the time.

And maybe no one ever did take their laptops on the "L," but now nobody needs to; they have their smart phones and tablets instead. Far more convenient than a laptop, ridiculously less cumbersome than a newspaper, all the information you could ever want or need in the palm of your hand.

And therein lies my realization this week: The Internet is a great thing in many ways, assuming that folks are able to separate the worthy wheat from the glut of chaff. But giving everyone a platform to publish has also severely devalued those who make their living from words.

"The world has become more casual," I said to a friend earlier this week. And that's a good thing in a lot of ways. Though I really do think more men should return to the custom of wearing hats.

But with the speed and proliferation of information and opinion – and worse, the culture of texting – the rules for language have become far more lax.

And more and more people who in the past might have paid for a writer or a proofreader or an editor don't seem to have the same level of concern about written collateral or they now seem to expect word people to work for free. Or for next to nothing.

I think it's worse to be offered a penny a word than nothing at all. With an offer of nothing, at least we can delude ourselves into thinking we're offering our work pro bono. But a penny a word doesn't come off as "It's not much but we wanted to pay you something for your efforts" appreciation, it just comes off as "You should feel lucky we're willing to pay you anything at all" insulting.

And yet, I see so much money in the world. Not oil- and computing-billionaire money. That's another stratosphere of wealth I can barely begin to comprehend.

But this morning, I read a piece in New York magazine about Matt Lauer. I already knew he signed a contract for $25 million a year. I didn't realize that he works four days a week. (I don't watch "Today.")

And I spent a minute doing the rough math.

Let's say Matt takes two weeks off a year. I'm sure he takes more time than that, but it works well for my rudimentary math skills.

So, $25 million a year for 50 weeks of work.

That's $500,000 a week.

He works four days a week.

That's $125,000 a day.

I don't know how many hours he's on the air each day or how many hours he's at the studio before he goes on the air or how many hours he stays after he signs off. So I can't figure an actual hourly rate, but still: $125,000 a day. That's more than most people make in a year. And he makes it in a day.

Just for kicks, let's presume he puts in an eight-hour day, pre-show, show, and post-show.

That works out to $15,625 an hour.

Nice work if you can get it.

Granted, "Today" also once brought in $500,000,000 of ad revenue for NBC each year, so of course the talent who helps attract that kind of money should be rewarded.

But $125,000 a day?

Or worse, reality-TV stars who make $150,000 an episode. For what, exactly? Getting drunk? At least Matt Lauer has skills to which we can assign value.

Meanwhile, kids today are racking up massive debt – or their parents are shelling out massive amounts of money – to earn a degree with less and less promise that they'll find jobs that enable them to pay their own living expenses, let alone pay back the loans.

Last fall, a College Board report revealed that a "moderate" college budget for an in-state public college for the 2012–2013 academic year averaged $22,261. A moderate budget at a private college averaged $43,289.

Let's assume those numbers stay stagnant for four years. Which won't happen, but let's pretend.

$22,261 x 4 = $89,044

$43,289 x 4 = $173,156

And remember that budgets for education assistance are shrinking, not growing. So even those who can afford to go to college will emerge with debt equivalent, for many people, to the mortgage on a home.

Which takes us back to the story about a BA being a ticket to working in a coffee shop.

Not that there's anything wrong with working a coffee shop. The people at my local Starbucks are really nice. But I'm guessing the college graduates among them didn't pursue four-year degrees with the intention of donning green aprons once they took off their commencement robes.

Of course, there are kids getting word this week of their acceptances into schools who will go to those schools, learn many useful things, and embark upon fulfilling careers. (College is great for a lot of folks. I don't want untrained "engineers" designing our bridges.)

And then there are all the kids who won't.

There was never any question that I was going to go to college. Not because I had a burning desire to get a college degree but because it was simply expected of my brothers and myself.

And I appreciate that my parents placed so much value on education.

One brother is working in a field somewhat related to his degree.

The other brother is working in a field in no way related to his degrees.

And me? With my "You'll always be in demand" degree in English?

Well, I spend a lot of time baking cookies. And one day, I might even make money at that. And I will surely have really well written and really well proofread printed materials for my business.

But in the meantime, finding word clients who have any inclination to pay a living rate?

Difficult. It's really difficult.

As for the "real" jobs? The name brands on my résumé signal to some that they can't afford me. Others presume I'll get bored and move on. Interviews are elusive.

Mind you, I don't regret any of the jobs I've had. I've met some of the most amazing people in those positions.

But there are paradigms shifting all over the place.

And I need to work on my balance.


Anonymous Ellen Mc. said...

Beth, As always, well said, and beautifully written.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

Thank you, my friend.

I intended to write something funny.

It didn't come out that way!

11:24 AM  

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