In college, I worked for a summer at an alternative music-PR company in exchange for vodka soda cranberries and free tickets to see live bands. From 11 until seven, I proofread pitch letters and pasted in the names of over a hundred rock critics and bloggers (“Dear Sasha, check out Yoko Ono’s live show!”) I sent the emails, click after click; re-pasted said names into an antiquated version of FileMaker Pro, and watched as a publicist and her friend, a well-known Lower East Side DJ, flirted with emo-band frontmen of ambiguous sexualities.
At the time, it offended me terribly that I did not, in fact, need a Columbia education to perform working-world tasks for hours on end. I wondered why I had worried so much about the SAT, and consoled myself with the vodka, which was invariably third-rate, and the music, which seemed like the best thing ever but in retrospect kind of sucked. I told myself that my As in Literature Humanities and Middle Eastern Cultures did play a part: They had given me the poise and self-confidence to get hired in the first place. Besides, I wrote for the school newspaper. I was not wasting my time.
Then, in mid-July, a high-school junior claimed the seat opposite me. She was the boss’s friend’s daughter.
During my junior year at Columbia, I responded to a call for applications from a prestigious literary agency that had posted on the Philosophy Department LISTSERV. I wrote a florid cover letter that quoted Borges, put on my nicest high-heeled shoes, and spent the majority of my interview talking about literature and France. When I got the job I was elated. Salman Rushdie! J. D. Salinger! Books!
Over the course of two months, I read a couple of manuscripts, but mostly got intimate with a large pile of contracts and a scanner. My boss (who, I must point out, was both brilliant and kind) apologized as I struggled to open rusted-over cabinets and sort through disintegrating papers. “You’re a great intern,” he told me as I left. “It was a pleasure having you.”
I still don’t understand why the agency recruited a philosophy major over a subservient fifteen-year-old. My tenth-grade self would have been much happier—and more productive—in the noisy backroom full of computer servers and fans. Not too long ago, I would have cranked up the volume and reveled in Courtney Love’s screeching. But I was in college.
Instead I went home and read a lot of Marx.
My first “real” job was an underpaid consulting gig at an international economic organization that purports to creating a fairer, cleaner, greener economy but claimed not to have the funds to pay a college graduate a living wage. During the interview, my boss, a speechwriter, worried about my lack of economic training for this unpaid job. “I’m reading about development economics,” I reassured him, referring to, but not naming, No Logo. My boss needn’t have worried. I spent my days on Google figuring out the hobbies of third-tier government officials. See George swing. Watch Wilhelm run.
That year, I applied to graduate school.
Because being paid for working is too much to ask these days, babysitting was, until just a month ago, the most lucrative and available form of labor I could perform. It felt more productive than pushing paper, and never pretended to require knowledge about the leading exports of Madagascar. I rather enjoyed it: The kids were adorable, I was paid in cash, and my days were spent far from screens and fluorescent lighting.
The downside was that it made me feel old. I worried about being mistaken for a mother, and by extension, formerly sixteen-and-pregnant. I envied the carefree cartoon-watching and ice-cream-eating summers my charges took for granted. Last summer, when I was watching two elementary-school-aged girls on the Upper West Side, I felt older still when I found an errant resume lying on the oak coffee table in the living room.
The name in the header was Gossip Girl worthy. Somebody had obviously paid close attention to details like line spacing and fonts. And the young woman’s accomplishments—let us call her Angeline—were astounding.
Angeline was the LeBron James of the labor market. By the time she’d turned 17, Angeline had worked at a cardiovascular research lab, a local conservancy organization, and an art website. She was a math and squash champion who helped kids in Harlem with their homework. She had a perfect GPA and a spot at Yale in the Fall.
I looked her up on Facebook. She was horrifically pretty.
That summer, Angeline worked at J. P. Morgan as an investment-banking high-school analyst. She’s now a summer analyst at the same company. I found out through LinkedIn, and wish her the best in her future endeavors.
It seems clear that Yale needs her more than she needs Yale.
It’s no secret that youth has tremendous cachet in our aging and cancerous society. Add an anemic economy to the equation, and it’s all but inevitable that employers will start to hire kids halfway through college, or straight out of high school, for reasons both practical and economic.
Angelines will proliferate. The lab manager, the nonprofit head, and the art editor were all right to have hired her. She was not entitled, at least not professionally; her mind had not been cluttered with complex formulas or liberal arts. She did not expect, nor need, to be paid or intellectually engaged and she could not thrust a diploma in anyone’s face while demanding higher pay or a bonus. She was on her way to the Ivy League—that much was clear by the time she turned 15—and probably hadn’t had a summer off since. What more could J. P. Morgan want? She was, in HR terms, a perfect fit.
As Angelines replace more educated workers, the “skills myth”—namely, that one is better equipped to read, Google things, and follow orders after earning a B.A.—will crumble. Overdeveloped analytical skills and inflated expectations will become liabilities as hoards of nubile young hopefuls climb over each other to work for free. Forget gap years, camp counseling, or waiting tables. Teenagers will work in the nation’s best banks and law firms, replacing interns, entry-level workers, secretaries. They they will be cheap—too cheap to fail—and will get younger and cheaper still. You can’t break child-labor laws when victims are willing and no money changes hands. They’ll learn everything they need to on the job.
This isn’t to say that hiring younger will have an equalizing effect or create opportunities for the less privileged. Elitism is here to stay; it will simply take even more symbolic forms. Earlier this year, PayPal-co-founder Peter Thiel started a fund to encourage entrepreneurs under 20 to drop out of college and start businesses with $100,000 of his hard-invested money. The catch is that they have to have already successfully applied to and enrolled at a respectable university.
This new model resembles the National Basketball Association. The big-timers—the Zuckerbergs and Gateses—will complete their token year in school and head right to the pros. They—not their graduating classmates—are the real winners in this game.
The reason for the bachelor’s degree’s impending obsolescence has a lot to do with the high costs, and now publicly-recognized flaws of American four-year colleges. It is also an inevitable consequence of just how available higher education has become. With limitless student loans and free-for-all admissions to for-profit colleges, education is no longer a surefire indicator of class or race—a valuable function for the reproduction of both hierarchies—or even intelligence or ability—the supposed backbone of the information economy.
And even if it did reflect someone’s intelligence, what would a degree tell us? Spending time earning credits in a classroom is not necessarily a bad thing, but does it really make you a better worker?
Angeline would suggest not. Increasingly, the real marker of ability will be in who is smart enough to drop out or bypass higher education altogether.
I’ll be the first person to appreciate the sheer pleasure of learning about fascinating ideas from brilliant people. I loved going to class, reading books, and writing papers. I loved arguing with classmates. I still do.
But college did not prepare me for working in a cubicle. College did not teach me how to make small talk at the water cooler. Even the most prosaic and boring freshman-year lectures did not come close to mimicking the brain-fog and listlessness induced by a day spent under fluorescent lights. I learned nothing about teamwork.
What college did was make me want more than the adult world has to offer.
Last week at work, I found, in a stack of papers on the printer, a leaflet about a corporate work-study program for high-schoolers. It was presented as both an act of charity (the school was low-income and the hires ended up doing exceptionally well) and a smart business move. “Students willingly perform repetitive tasks, freeing up higher level employees for more complex assignments,” it read. “Companies give, but get something in return.”