Monday, December 10, 2012

Posted from a coffee shop

Found via the usual via - as in, I'm no longer sure - an interesting post (part of a series) about "hipsters on food stamps." The Last Psychiatrist, whoever this is, effectively argues something like what I have as well: it's not right to refer to the unemployable or service-sector workers who happen to be white and college-educated as 'privileged,' if this privilege is purely theoretical and in no practical sense transferrable. Put another way: 'cultural capital' is an interesting idea to toss around in seminar, but it doesn't pay the rent. We're so accustomed to talking about whichever traits as conferring privilege that we have no real way to express the many situations these days where someone will have whichever outward signs of not-remotely-underclass, but will be deep in educational debt, with nothing much on the horizon. Within a broad caste of people who look and dress about the same, there's a huge diversity, cushion-wise. Debt or not? Trust-fund or not? Rich-and-generous parents? Well-connected parents? And so on. So you end up with a bunch of liberal-arts grads apologizing for Lena Dunham-level privilege that they don't even have. Anyway, I hadn't seen anyone else making that argument.

But the post itself goes in some directions I can't quite get behind:

1) Are we talking about hipsters or women? (Did I fail at life and major in French, leading to permanent unemployability, as a woman, or as a hipster?)

2) Everyone likes to laugh at English majors, but I'd thought that trad liberal arts majors often correlate with having gone to a well-regarded college, and that if you do this, you get hired.

3) The tendency of elite-college grads who seem to be drifting at 22, 23 to have their lives sorted out by 27, 28 suggests that... something is going on. Either the name of the college helps, or whichever factors got you in in the first place (work ethic, family connections) kicked in once it mattered. Or maybe whiteness and/or cultural capital do pay off, after all.


PG said...

Put another way: 'cultural capital' is an interesting idea to toss around in seminar, but it doesn't pay the rent.

It doesn't in itself pay the rent, but surely there are a host of jobs, especially in the service sector, where white middle-class manners -- a vocabulary, a modulation of voice, an accent, an appearance, an ability to interact with coworkers or clients pleasingly -- are useful in obtaining jobs that then pay the rent. Maybe hipsters specifically are bad at retail (or being receptionists, assistants, etc.), but they're truly a pretty small subgroup of the masses of English majors graduating every year. A history major is a perfectly good preparation for joining the Foreign Service -- so is Latin American studies or sociology or whatever. Ditto for many other jobs in various bureaucracies, including some private sector ones.

Also, as with certain parts of law school, undergraduate accomplishments (not just a degree in itself, admittedly) are useful for "tricking" employers, in that they are seen as a proxy for useful abilities coupled with intelligence. If you graduate with high honors and were Editor in Chief of a college paper with a couple dozen staffers, then even with a liberal arts BA, that's a proxy for "works hard, can deal with multiple responsibilities simultaneously, can manage people and deal with the public." Maybe you could make the same impression by having worked your way up to manager at Trader Joe's in the same 4 years, but I doubt it.

Britta said...

I skimmed that article and found it annoying. English majors are contrasted with lawyer, never mind law school is one of the most common things English majors do after graduation. Likewise, "hipster" is some immutable identity which means that white/Asian middle class people can't work in service, apparently, since they're "hipsters." (note to author: ironic T-shirts can come off and be replaced by button ups).

It also misses the huge point that where you graduate from college matters far more than what you study, really. An English major from Harvard or UChicago is employable, somewhere, at something, which is respectable and middle class. It's true that the first job may not be, but most people with cultural capital end up doing ok in the end, in part because of reasons PG lists. Also, people with cultural capital usually were raised by people with cultural capital, and probably have some sort of connections somewhere with someone with a white collar profession.

College majors with truly bleak prospects are not hipsters, but first generation college students who take on exorbitant loans to go to a terrible school and major in something not practical/vocational. There is definitely people for whom apprenticing in automotive repair is a far better choice than getting an English degree from Rip-off U, but these aren't the people going to UChicago or Hampshire.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

PG and, I now see, Britta:

I think my qualms address most of what you both bring up, but...

Yes, cultural capital can matter - see my qualm #3. But far too often, we assume 'white and college-educated' means 'set for life,' when it does not.

As for what % of English majors are hipsters, this gets to qualm #1 - who exactly is being discussed? I take it that "hipsters" in this post are liberal-arts BAs. It's a frustrating term, because it's so imprecise, and with this post in particular, there's a not-quite-articulated gender angle.