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.

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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.