I have a graduate degree, and I work two part-time jobs. One is teaching writing at a university; the other working at a supermarket. People don’t believe me when I tell them I make more money per hour bagging groceries than I do lecturing on literary techniques.
On occasion I run into old colleagues from my early career days while I’m on shift at the grocery. Their reactions range from mild embarrassment to disdain (curled lip and all) to pity; usually a combination of all three. Sometimes there’s an awkward backpedaling on their part: “Well … it’s a tough economy out there,” or “Hey, whatever pays the bills, right?” before they shoulder their reusable ChicoBags and beat a hasty retreat.
We are a society that glamorizes white-collar professionals at the expense of their blue-collar counterparts. We take our cues from the likes of Mad Men, White Collar, or The Apprentice, not Dirty Jobs (whose name alone tells us how we as a culture deem the show’s profiled professions, however lucrative). We all want to “suit up”, not “uniform up”. We associate office jobs with higher levels of class, income and education; “menial” jobs with lower status.
The traditional formula has always been: college = white-collar job = success. To achieve this covetable endgame, parents prep their children, as young as four years old, for the college path. Private pre-nursery school interviews are conducted with the sort of competitive rigor reserved for university admissions. What’s most disturbing in all of this is not our desire to want the best for our children, but how narrow our definition of success is.
At a time when unemployment is at an all-time high and college tuition continues to climb, the old formula no longer upholds. Students emerge with their hard-earned degrees and the college loans to show for it, but for what returns? The majority do not land a six-figure banking job straight out of school. According to the Economic Policy Institute, wages for recent college graduates have not grown over the last decade, and actually dropped from 2007-11. In 2011, that average was just $16.81 per hour, a figure that barely makes a dent into student debt. The average wage for high school graduates is $9.45 per hour, a figure not much lower than that of a newly-minted university graduate, especially after you factor in tuition costs as well as the four years of being out of the workforce.