April 9, 2012

Paper Dignity

"People with college degrees are working at Starbucks."

The horror. The shame they must feel, to go to work every day, to make money for making coffee. Better that they go back to school. Better that they seek more degrees, further confirmation of intellectual worth. What a terrible economy this is. A cubicle for every man; that should be the goal. Let those without degrees make things; let them sully their hands.

Ahem. Some context, perhaps.

I heard that quote on NPR today, uttered by a reporter while discussing the difficult economy. It seems a degree doesn't guarantee anyone an office these days. Nor - and this is the implication - does it promise a job of which one can be proud.

This will not be a post about chasing your dreams, or about doing what makes you happy. No, this is more about pragmatism, and elitism.

On pragmatism: A job is a job, and "real" if the money is. While most baristas (myself included) are not payed lavishly, the money is usually sufficient. It is, in most cases, what a recent graduate would make in most any other field, especially when tips are factored in. And if we're talking specifically about Starbucks, it needs to be said that the giant pays quite well, and offers a lot of room for advancement.

On elitism: A person with a degree is no better than a person without, and no more deserving of a job that pays enough, or the satisfaction that comes from doing it.

I have a degree from the University of Kansas in English, obtained without a great deal of effort, and in large part, because I was born in to fortunate circumstances. I had good schools, enough money, clothes, and food. I had a stable family unit and plenty of friends. Change those variables, and the degree may change - or even disappear.

In any case, degree or no, why is physical labor shameful? Does fixing cars require less processing of information and problem solving skills than trading stocks? Even if it did, does that make the job - and thus, those who do it - any less necessary?

Of course not. And yet we still get quotes like that, meant as an off-hand jest, but nonetheless full of judgment. And that's really a shame. Everyone does something with their lives, and there are worse paths than employment at Starbucks.


  1. "Did you graduate from college?"
    - "Yeah, I did."
    "So...are you just waiting for 'what's next'?"

    (The single most offensive comment I heard while working for 4 years as a barista). The customer is lucky they delivered it to my co-worker/friend at the time and not me.

    Of all my "real jobs", being a barista was the most rewarding and enjoyable. If it paid enough, I would go back to it.

    Everyone looks down on manual/skilled labor as undesireable work for under-acheiving, failures. That is...until something breaks and they need their car fixed / plumbing repaired / trash taken out / "freedom defended" / coffee made / etc. etc.

    Capitalism creates such a funny hierarchy of false importance.

    1. What"s next? That's a funny question, honestly, insofar as it's awfully presumptuous. I have no idea, and frankly, neither does anyone else. We have enough to worry about with what is, without even considering what if.