At a time when everyone is talking about women’s economic advances and their higher enrollment in colleges, Karina Briski reflects on the familiar experience of being an underemployed college graduate.
One recent Friday morning, I went to work. Not to any glass-blocked high rise, or a sprawl of windowless office buildings, but a corner cafe, four minutes from my apartment. With my $1.50 cup of coffee in hand, I dropped my bag and sat down next to my housemate, also a freelancer-slash-struggling-
“Go to this grocery store,” she said. “They let you buy beer and toilet paper.” I smiled slightly, less because of the beer, and more out of relief to be talking with someone who’d been through this sort of thing. I’d never been on any form of government assistance. I’d also never been more unsure of how I’d make rent in a few weeks.
As we volleyed ideas for the most obscene items to buy with food stamps (a cheese wheel from Whole Foods, we decided), a woman seated next to us leaned forward, her words darting out faster than we could dodge them. “Excuse me, but you’re all disgusting. And if I had time to spare, I would report you.” We were silent, which was her apparent cue to continue. She got on us about the starving people in the U.S., about the people who live in the projects just down the street from us, about draining resources that are meant for truly needy populations of people.
Our irony had fallen on the wrong ears. “But that’s what this service is for,” my housemate responded, relaying the simple facts of our less than part-time (mine) and nonexistent (his, currently) incomes. “How is it wrong?”
“Because you’re overeducated white people,” she said. “Just get a job.”
With a Bachelor’s in Sociology, “overeducated” felt generous. That sociology degree had fed many early curiosities, giving me the adequate chops for things like fighting cultural myopism, defending Marxism, and buying my professors’ books. But this empirical weaponry hasn’t been enough to command any victories on the jobs field.
Post-undergrad, my professional life has played out like a nursery tale. See how I’ve run into and out of dead-end office jobs, blinded more by naivete than bare entitlement. I’ve been an intern more times than I’d like to admit, as unpaid and underpaid as anyone I know. I’ve waited tables whenever I’ve needed to, like when I was three months out of school, jobless, and being considered for a job at Trader Joe’s. After the third interview, the manager called to say I hadn’t been selected. There were 400 applicants for ten positions, he said. Many of them had Master’s degrees or higher. Maybe that’s overeducation, but I can’t say. Three years of chasing entry-level work with Seattle nonprofits, and I decided to take my act to Brooklyn. That was a year ago. I wanted to work in media, but mostly, I’ve gotten really good at scraping the gunk off of ketchup bottles.
On this Friday morning in the cafe, my degree proved even more useless. I could have stared dumbly into my coffee, or attempted to explain three years of resume dumps, networking events and dark Craigslist voids. Instead I left the table to do the work that was to be my only source of income that week. A few strokes of my keyboard later, I realized it wasn’t indignation I felt, it was recognition. I agreed with her. That, with my college education and a working-middle-class-family background, I had somehow failed to keep up my end of the deal, and whatever implicit agreement my privilege came with: to work and contribute to society; to feed and take care of myself; to be resourceful and resolved enough to never accept handouts—especially not from the government.
Karina Briski is a writer for hire and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her work includes essays, cultural criticism, reviews, marketing copy, and grant proposals. She lives and works in Brooklyn, NY and tweets from @karinabthatsme. This story was originally published on TheBillfold.com and is cross-posted with permission.