Thursday, June 2, 2011

Art history graduate unable to find job moves back home

Days after I read it, my mind kept returning to this story about an art history major still unable to find a "decent" job three years after graduating from college.  2009 was a very tough year, especially if your major was art history.
Alone in the darkness, a sense of defeat courses through her body -- disappointment about her past and uncertainty about what lies ahead. This, she thinks to herself, is surely what failure feels like.
Six years ago, Malik fled this town for Syracuse University. Since graduating in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in art history, she has yet to find a decent job.
She hadn't planned on moving back home and, at the age of 23, never expected to return to her mother's house for an extended and open-ended period of time....
"At times, it really feels very personal, it really feels like I've failed," says Malik, standing in the kitchen of her mother's two-story stone house and recalling the eight weeks since she returned home....
After graduating from college, Malik moved to Boston. There, she worked as a nanny, sold books, and waited tables -- a series of dead-end jobs that didn't pay more than the minimum wage, didn't require a college degree, and weren't remotely related to what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
Two months ago, she ran out of money and drove home from Boston to Lansdale, a middle-class suburb north of Philadelphia, her car brimming with the contents of post-college life: canned food, twinkle lights, potted plants. 
In the video accompanying the story, Sabrina sheds some light on how she arrived at her predicament:
"I imagined I would graduate with my degree, and how hard I worked and the contacts I had, I imagined I would end up in a museum or a gallery.  That has definitely been adjusted as it becomes clear that there are people who have masters above me who are looking for that same job and I have to adjust those expectations because of it."
Why this naivete?  Were art history majors finding good any jobs in their field before the 2009 recession hit?
She's hardly alone. Malik is part of a generation of 20-somethings that's experiencing what it's like to graduate from college, move back in with your parents, and then get stuck there. Though estimates vary, a recent study by Twentysomething Inc., a consulting firm specializing in marketing to young adults, predicted that of the 2 million graduates in the class of 2011, 85 percent will return home because they can't secure jobs that might give them more choices and more control over their lives....
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate for younger workers with a college degree has more than doubled since the recession began four years ago -- from 3.5 percent in April of 2007 to 6.4 percent in April of this year.
For college graduates under the age of 25, finding stable work is a particular challenge. According to Andrew Sum, an economist at Northeastern University, about half, or 3.2 million, are "underutilized"  -- meaning they're unemployed, working part-time, or working a job outside of the college labor market, such as bartending or waiting tables.
Sabrina's mother paid $100,000 from savings and $20,000 from a loan to to send her daughter to Syracuse University.  Today, it's the mother who is making the loan payments while Sabrina struggles to pay on her $2,000 credit card debt.
Parents exert a powerful shaping force on their children's decisions to go to college, as well as which college to attend. In addition, they are often caught up in the emotional rush that a college education entails, further complicating an issue that has already become a financial minefield for the middle class.
"All along, I was going to make it work," explains Marilyn. "If I had to take out loans, I was going to do that."
Once Sabrina and Omar were admitted into the colleges of their dreams, Marilyn saw it as her personal responsibility to make sure they could attend -- even when it meant taking out additional loans in order to finance it. And while Marilyn says she doesn't regret her investment, she assumed that a $120,000 degree would at least translate into a decent-paying job for her daughter.
"One thing that terrifies parents more than budget deficits or a weak economy is job security for their kids. They're afraid they won't be able to pass along their middle class status to the next generation," says Anthony P. Carnevale, who directs Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "In raising a child in America, the fear of failing is just enormous. Sending your kid to college used to pretty much guarantee their future success. It no longer necessarily works that way."
From a recent post
The vast majority of parents expect that their children will pursue a college education. Among those with one or more children under age 18, 94% expect at least one of their children will go to college.


  1. One of my mother's good friends, back in the 80's, was a PhD in art history from Harvard, with a long list of major publications. He could not find a permanent position anywhere, and so became an academic gypsy, accepting 1 year positions all over the country. Art history is one of the most impossible fields for finding a job. My sister got her master's in art history, but then went on to get a library degree. You pretty much have to combine art history with something else if you want to be employable.

  2. I have heard the argument that an art history major can be a good way to learn history, serving as a basis for other studies.

    I continue to wonder about job placement services at all these universities. Law schools are under fire now for exaggerating job numbers for their graduates. It's not just the for-profit schools that are painting these rosy scenarios about what kind of job a degree will get you.

  3. I don't think any school will tell art history majors that they are going to get a job with just a bachelors. It is well known that the minimum degree is the PhD, plus significant publications, or major internships at a top museum. Usually, students are counseled to combine their art history degree with something else. That is exactly what my sister was told to do, and she followed that advice and has been employed for years. Another common path is to take a lot of coursework in chemistry, and then enter a specialized program in restoration.

    I know a fair amount about art history degrees because my mother TA'ed in art history while she worked on her MFA, and more importantly, was close friends with many art historians. I took a number of advanced art history courses as an undergrad (and think it is one of the best fields for learning to write well), but I never would have considered it as a major because of the bleak job outlook. Well, actually, I seriously considered a career in restoration, but then I hated my chemistry course so much that I didn't want to ever take any more.

    My mother got her MFA which should have made her unemployable, but she did what many others did - she went into teaching.

  4. A while back, I read an interesting article about the unemployment rate among young people leaving the military. It is evidently very high. Many vets who are in the same age demographic as recent college grads also end up living at home. We saw that happen with the family across the street from us (they have since moved). Their oldest son finished his stint in the Marines, and absolutely could not find a job, even though it was a boom time. He moved back home with his parents and basically did nothing for a while. I remember him endlessly racing remote control cars out in front of our house. He eventually went into his father's auto repair business, which he had been adamantly against. I guess he saw no other option.

  5. I'll add art history to the list of forbidden majors for my kids, not that there's much chance they would be interested.

  6. My oldest wants to be an inventor. I don't think there are great job prospects for inventors either.