In defence of the barista with the B.A.

What’s wrong with well-educated coffee servers?

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The easiest punchline for media commentators on higher education these days is that we have university graduates working as baristas in coffee houses. Sometimes the assumption is that it’s mainly the arts grads consigned to this humiliating fate, and even this piece by Leo Charboneau, which does a generally good job of pointing out the hysteria over youth underemployment, still concedes the bachelor’s-barista link.

It’s time to drop this trope. And not just because it’s too easy.

For one thing, it makes the same old mistake of thinking that the only reason to have a degree is to get a “good” job. We all know that there is more to life than earning a living, and just about every bit of research we have suggests that wealth does not correlate in a meaningful way with happiness—and yet writers go on pretending that the only thing a sane person would want in this world is a hefty pay packet.

As for a good job, why do we so blithely accept that good means high-paying. I’m not at all convinced that barista is a worse job than being, say, an accountant. Is preparing coffee is necessarily a worse job than preparing lay-off notices? Is it really “blind” as one particularly harsh commentator has said, to pursue your dreams even amid economic uncertainty?

More importantly, it ignores the fact that such people are often only working in such jobs temporarily. We know that recent graduates, often lacking experience, not having a big network of connections, perhaps not even certain what they want to do, may take a while before they find the job they really want. But in time, they find what they are looking for, and they leave their other jobs behind.

I know plenty of drama grads, for instance, some working in the theatre, some in politics, some in high-tech. I myself took a job after university that didn’t need the degrees I had, but it was fine for then, and it paid the bills until the job I really wanted came along. In any event, I would still value the skills and knowledge I gained over those years.

Most of all, though, the barista-with-a-degree schtick invokes the worst kind of elitism. It implies that working-class people should shut up and do their jobs instead of, you know, thinking about things. When it comes right down to it, why shouldn’t a barista have a BA? Does the barista not vote? Does she not sit on juries? Does she not look at this mortal life and wonder what it all means? Why shouldn’t she have the benefit of the best education she can get?

The strongest counter-argument here, of course, is that the poor barista may be stuck with huge debts, lacking the income to pay them off. Fair enough, but then the real issue is student fees, not employment opportunities. If anything, the barista with the BA should be an argument for lower tuition. Rather than lamenting that grads aren’t moving straight into high-paying jobs, and demanding that universities figure out to give the public a better return on its investment, we should be lamenting that grads are crushed by the pressure to get that lucrative position in the first place.

Finding solutions starts with understanding the problem.

And the problem isn’t that your coffee guy knows too much.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section, on Twitter @maconcampus or on Facebook.




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In defence of the barista with the B.A.

  1. The issue is also related to the disconnect between what our education system is “producing” and what our job market needs. There’s a good chance that the barista in question would love to have a job related to their field and cannot find one. We all went through school just assuming that if we worked hard at what we wanted we would find a job related to the field. Now we know this was a myth. Our universities don’t even collect and share info amongst themselves about how many grads are being released from each programs. They’re not connecting students with info on what the job market needs either. Personally, had I had this information before, I would not have picked the degree I had picked. I loved what I was studying (in sciences btw) but felt the need to go and study something else afterwards in order to be employable. That’s not right.

    Having to choose your career path at 16 years of age with little information on what the career would entail isn’t the best of situations either. Not only am I a completely different person now than who I was at 16 but I had pretty much no built-in assistance to discover and determine which careers I would enjoy. I at least got that experience out of university even if it did put me $40,000 in the hole.

    • Not to mention that the field of desirable jobs can change drastically in the 6 years between 16 and the typical 22 of a recent graduate. When I was 16, French teachers were in huge demand, yet when I was 22, there was no interest in teachers of any stripe. When I was 16, RIM was practically an unknown unless you were deeply into tech. By the time I was 22, the dream of pretty much half the computer science undergrads (and a good number of English students) I knew was to work for RIM. And by the time I was 26, half of them were laid off, which means there was probably a contingent of kids halfway through computer science or programming degrees suddenly finding that one of the big employers they thought they could work for is no longer quite that.

      This isn’t to say that I don’t think parents, kids, and guidance counselors shouldn’t look at the job field before making recommendations or decisions regarding university. Too many kids are being told that university is the right path no matter what, and even more are being told that they can be whatever they want to be with no consideration for what is actually needed. I know a lot of people who went on to do more education after their undergrad, mostly professional college programs designed to take their more-or-less useless bachelor’s degrees and teach useful related skills. I personally went on to do a “professional Masters”, and even a year after graduating, I’m still working a “just for the bills” job, even if it is one that’s viewed better than a barista. And I’m just lucky that I switched my dreams from being a teacher, which I was told was totally possible if I just worked hard when I was 16, and was difficult to get a job as then and practically impossible to get one now.

  2. Of course, when I got a B.A. twenty years ago, tuition was $1,100 a year, and I finished with no debt. We have decided that we will no longer underwrite educating good citizens, and so we now graduate women and men with admirable mental machinery who are obliged to begin, immediately, to do whatever is necessary to drag themselves out from under that burden. Who knows what bold chances these grads would take if it was otherwise? Now, I thought long before graduating how I might ladder my B.A. training into meaningful work and students, today, do make a mistake in putting off that necessary work. And I recognize fully that the training we offer must be revised if it will truly make better citizens. But the basic fact remains that thoughtful, articulate, well-read, and clear-reasoning coffee servers are fabulous, if only the world into which they emerge didn’t devour them immediately.

  3. I’m sorry, but who goes to university, college or any post-secondary learning institution thinking “Once I graduate, I’ll get the BEST job in my field”? Who is arrogant enough to think that there are not others out there competing for the same jobs? It’s the sense of entitlement that permeates our culture today – somehow, paying tuition equals getting a job. No, paying tuition AND studying hard means you get a DEGREE, not a job.

    And why is it the responsibility of post-secondary education institutes to ensure graduates are employed in their chosen fields? Or change their courses so they reflect the “job market”? You study what you want and work hard, and maybe, if you apply yourself and gain the experience necessary, MAYBE you’ll get lucky and land yourself a dream job. Stop waiting for life to be handed to you on a silver platter – get out there and work for your dreams!

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