At a time when prominent authors like Margaret Atwood are arguing for an increase in literacy (a direct result, she argues, of the internet and Twitter), and novelists (of all creeds) are seeming more “real” and accessible than ever before, it would appear that writers are a thriving group in 2012. Indeed, simply the fact that we know an author’s opinion exposes the changes in the way writers and readers interact, and has added layers of potential relating to what writers might accomplish in the 21st century. However, one question has emerged, despite the success and public interest that follows the few: Where (and how) do new writers begin? Those who are left scratching their heads with freshly printed diplomas and charred views of life beyond college walls seem to be forgotten, and it is they who are attempting to raise awareness.
Struggling writers, who are echoing each other’s despair across the country, are facing the culmination of issues brought on by new technology, the limitations of education, and an unpredictable economy that have made “the real world” a volatile environment, where many aspiring writer are longing for the safety and permanence of their written words. Part of the problem is a result of our changing world. Today, more than ever, educational institutions view art as an abstract luxury because of the country’s difficult economic times. Indeed, with our education dollars and our businesses, the United States has clearly shifted its cultural emphasis from humanitarian disciplines like English, Art, and History to more “practical” concentrations with clear applications such as Economics, Engineering, and the Sciences. Their rationale has always been to “get a student a job.” And because of that, from the top down, our culture is being re-shaped to exclude opportunity for young people who want to pursue writing, journalism, and their related disciplines, because jobs are becoming less likely to come by.
Although it may seem puzzling to consider that educated youths are struggling to find employment, we must consider that Americans are graduating college at the highest rates in our country’s history. The resulting surplus of individuals with higher educational experience has led writers and journalists to a job market that has become super-saturated, and therefore generally uninterested and unwilling to gamble on the potential impact of their contribution, because of the risk it entails. This pessimism is unfortunately practiced almost irrespective of an individual’s abilities, education, or potential.
However, the hardships associated with entering a volatile job market are hardly a deterrent for high school students who enter college unsure and unprepared for a continuation and specification of their academic studies, who view a job as a distant worry. And because of personal uncertainty relating to their education, many students seek refuge in humanitarian disciplines like English- one of the few majors where individual thoughts and opinions are not only allowed, but encouraged throughout one’s academic career. In fact, the central premise of many English programs is to provide an outlet for students to express themselves both in class and through assignments.
And, generally speaking, English students are satisfied with their degree. However, there is another, harsh reality awaiting them once they leave the comfortable confines of their college classrooms: English majors have a very difficult time finding jobs.
The knee-jerk reaction of an outsider who hears of an English major is to venture a guess at the most “logical” career path: teacher. However, an informal survey conducted on 120 English majors at Stony Brook University in 2010 by Stephen Spector, who is a Professor and Chairperson of the English Department at Stony Brook University, revealed about 50% wanted to pursue teaching. What many of those aspiring English teachers face, however, is a lack of job openings (which echoes the fissures in our education system). Most secondary schools have few or no job openings for English teachers. Additionally, current (and tenured) secondary-school faculty are choosing to continue to work because of the current economic climate and a rising uncertainty concerning government retirement plans.
And then, of course, there are the other 50% of English majors. These students, whose interests and career goals carry a wealth of variety, are left to compete against a current job force that are willing to work for less or equal pay, have no college debt, and who have more experience “in the field”, as well as against each other. In contrast, humanities majors rarely “compete” until after school, focusing instead on cooperation while at school.
This job environment may seem like a perfect storm of adversity, and indeed, it is not helped by technology as much as one might think. With the advent of e-readers, and the popularity of online book retailers like Amazon.com, aspiring writers are facing new challenges, since agents and publishers have become unwilling to “take chances” on first time writers who may not meet wild success with their debut work, and because of the surplus of available work that readers have available to them. Because of this, traditional publishers are putting pressure on agents to pitch “can’t miss” books. Agents are then forced to stake their reputation on the authors they introduce.
That risk more readily illuminates why agencies are not quick to hire or take on writers, either. And while the recent graduate might argue for the strengths they hold in using digital media, as well as their talent, passion, and willingness to work, the truth is that employers are not so sure.
Uncertainty is another driving force behind the failures of job seeking writers, and it may not even be their fault. Some form of thought has risen, an experienced Risk Professional at a large financial services firm based in New York disclosed to me, that some companies have expressed concerns over hiring “unproven” workers:
Many employers feel like they can’t be sure of the motivations of a recent college graduate today. When I was just starting, many of us were hungry, and the consensus was that you would be willing to work extended days [to get ahead]. Now though, you see kids coming out of school and they are content working their eight hours and going home, because there has been a shift of emphasis in our children from getting ahead professionally to getting ahead in a private life.
The Risk Professional, who asked to remain anonymous, added that because of this, many businesses might feel more comfortable entrusting a new position to an older employee who had an established personal life. The emphasis that he highlighted, however, is a shift in our youth from professional hunger to personal fulfillment.
That perception, whether right or wrong, is compounding the complexities of navigation and success for writers who have focused on their education. Alone, this would be a formidable perception to overcome, but as more and more graduating students are finding, adversity is a many-headed monster. From the time students begin their studies, many who have not had the luxury of attending an “arts” school face the looming prospects of cuts to departmental budgets, which translates into fewer faculty, and fewer classroom resources.
For writers, the trend (of low budgets and few resources) continues when they leave school, having been educated and trained in a variety of skills like rhetoric, prose, and analysis, but with nowhere to call home or apply those abilities. Some might say that the discipline [of writing] itself is too broad to provide proper direction, and others might question the value of the skillset students learn. However, as a noteworthy 2008 presidential candidate proved, there is something powerfully resonant and universally appealing about the ability to articulate oneself.
Because of their struggles to find paid work, though, many writers have turned to the internet, where blogging and small “boutique” websites have emerged as viable commodities for aspiring writers to seek an audience for their thoughts. However, pay for such work is rare, and thus, the education of writers seems to be closer to perfecting a hobby then preparation for “a real job”, despite the fact that writers comprise some of the most generally well read, widely knowledgeable, and articulate members of any college campus and work environment.
Ultimately, however, technological advances – from the internet to e-readers, have hurt writers, because despite positive stories from writers whose blogs have gained huge followings, the failures of the masses far outnumber the successes of the few. Simply put: because of competition and lack of work, the life of the “starving artist” is becoming the standard of living for those who wish to study and pursue writing as a career.
The ultimate risk then, of choosing to be a writer, must be born of a love for reading, writing, and voicing one’s opinion. The truth is, this profession holds no promise of certainty or comfort. Rather, you as a person must cultivate thick skin and a competitive nature as you begin pursuing your future. Because all that you are guaranteed upon graduation is a degree, and a chance to pursue your goals, armed only with the knowledge that your education was worth something. And even if no one knows it but us, you will be heard.
Follow Mike Vidafar on Twitter @mikevidafar