When I wrote a piece for The New Republic a couple of months ago noting that the New York Times and Washington Post have an ignoble decades-long history of writing essentially bogus articles about the woes of unemployed college graduates, I didn’t mean to create a blueprint for future such articles. And yet, here are some excerpts from the TNR piece, published in June, and a Times piece, published yesterday.
TNR: “The formula has been carefully refined over the years: Start with a grim headline, like “Grimly, Graduates are Finding Few Jobs.” (Times, 1991)”
Times: “Generation Limbo: Waiting It Out”
TNR: “Two things about these stories have remained constant: They always feature an over-educated bartender, and they are always wrong.”
Times: “Sarah Weinstein, 25, a 2008 graduate of Boston University, manages a bar in Austin because she couldn’t find an advertising job.” (The lead illustration in the article is a photograph of Sarah Weinstein, tending bar.)
TNR: “Build the lede around a recent college graduate in the most demeaning possible profession (janitor, meter maid, file clerk) and living circumstances (on food stamps, eating Ramen noodles, moved back home with parents.)”
Times: “Benjamin Shore, 23, graduated from the University of Maryland last year with a business degree and planned to go into consulting. Instead, he moved back into his parents’ house in Cherry Hill, N.J., and spent his days browsing for jobs online.
But when his parents started charging him $500 a month for rent, he moved into a windowless room in a Baltimore row house and took a $12-an-hour job at a Baltimore call center, making calls for a university, encouraging prospects to go back to school.”
Times: “Some of Ms. Morales’s classmates have found themselves on welfare. “You don’t expect someone who just spent four years in Ivy League schools to be on food stamps,” said Ms. Morales, who estimates that a half-dozen of her friends are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A few are even helping younger graduates figure out how to apply. “
TNR: “Pull back to a broader thesis, like “The payoff from a bachelor’s degree is beginning to falter.” (Times, 2005). Cite an expert asserting that this is no passing trend, e.g. “ ‘We are going to be turning out about 200,000 to 300,000 too many college graduates a year in the ‘80s,’ said Ronald E. Kutscher, Associate Commissioner at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.” (Times, 1983).”
Times: “The numbers are not encouraging. About 14 percent of those who graduated from college between 2006 and 2010 are looking for full-time jobs, either because they are unemployed or have only part-time jobs, according to a survey of 571 recent college graduates released in May by the Heldrich Center at Rutgers.
And then there is the slice of graduates effectively underemployed, using a college degree for positions that don’t require one or barely scraping by, working in call centers, bars or art-supply stores. “They are a postponed generation,” said Cliff Zukin, an author of the Heldrich Center study.”
TNR: “Finish with a rueful quote from the recent college graduate. “When I have to put my hands into trash soaked with urine or vomit, I say ‘What am I doing here? This job is the bottom. Did I go to college to do this?’ ” (Post, 1981).”
Times: ““There’s no point in being diplomatic: it is horrible,” Mr. Shore said. “I have a college education that I feel like I am wasting by being there,” he added. “I am supposed to do something interesting, something with my brain.”
Times: The article finishes as follows: ““You have to make opportunities happen for yourself, and I think a lot of my classmates weren’t thinking in that way,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of setting up your own lemonade stand.”
Now, this kind of paint-by-numbers writing is bad enough on its own terms. But this particular version of the college-article-that-will-not-die has another, giant problem:
Times: “Likewise, Amy Klein, who graduated from Harvard in 2007 with a degree in English literature, couldn’t find a job in publishing. At one point, she had applied for an editorial-assistant job at Gourmet magazine. Less than two weeks later, Condé Nast shut down that 68- year-old magazine. “So much for that job application,” said Ms. Klein, now 26.
One night she bumped into a friend, who asked her to join a punk rock band, Titus Andronicus, as a guitarist. Once, that might have been considered professional suicide. But weighed against a dreary day job, music suddenly held considerable appeal. So last spring, she sublet her room in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn and toured the country in an old Chevy minivan.”
Titus Andronicus is a really good band. I have personally seen them perform four times in the last year, including an epic late-night show at the Rock ‘N Roll Hotel that included Amy Klein’s thunderous rendition of “Rebel Girl,” by Bikini Kill, and earlier this year at the Black Cat, her “Oh Bondage,” by the X-Ray Specs. Titus Andronicus’ most recent release, The Monitor, was named as one of the best albums of 2010 by Pitchfork, the Village Voice, the Onion, Spin, and basically everyone whose opinions matter. Founder of the feminist group Permanent Wave, Klein has been the subject of dozens of flattering articles and interviews.
Amy Klein is, in other words, living the good life. It’s one thing to write an essentially bogus article about recent graduates of elite colleges who, due to economic circumstances, are going through some temporary but legitimately tough times before they all but inevitably go on to successful, rewarding careers. It’s something else to not even realize that some of them are doing that right now.