A major consideration in job value

  • Jim Slusher

    Jim Slusher

Updated 10/24/2019 11:48 AM

A headline doesn't have to be on Page 1 to catch your eye. Here's one from Page 16 on Sunday that got mine: "Top economists say the world still needs English majors."

Phew! As an English major myself, I found that declaration reassuring. It's nice to think someone acknowledges your worth in a world that, frankly, never seemed to seriously value your chosen line of study and these days appears to grow more disinterested by the day. But here was validation. And from economists, no less. Economists! The high priests of "the dark science," the mystical mathematics at the core of our concept of prosperity. If these sorcerers think bookworms and grammar nerds are critical variables in their arithmetic, it must be true, no?


The Washington Post story goes on to describe the second-class citizenship of the humanities in an era that prizes STEM -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. English majors are down more than 25 percent since the Great Recession of 2008. Majors in computer science and health have nearly doubled.

But wait, the story continues, consider this: Unemployment among liberal arts majors in their upper 20s is lower than among STEM majors, and by age 40, even salaries among the concentrations have leveled off. So, in purely commercial terms, we aesthetes can do just fine -- and moreover, the story points out, quoting economist and Nobel laureate Robert Shiller, society needs us to communicate the nuances of the pure sciences among the masses, to put their charts and graphs and coefficients and derivatives into the narrative forms, the simple stories through which humans communicate best.

We journalists -- some of whom, but by far not all, are English majors -- also see this as one of our primary objectives. We aim to use narratives and stories to translate the mechanics of government -- or education or business or criminal justice or, yes, even science -- so as to show "things that really matter to people," to quote Philip Lowe, the head of Australia's central bank.

So, hurrah for the humanities. They can have both a payback and commercial value. But let me add a twist that was reinforced during a lunch conversation with colleagues the other day as we reflected on professional longevity.

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"I can honestly say I've loved every minute of this job," said one. "You get to talk to the most interesting people. You get to be part of every big thing that happens. Every day is different."

She probably spoke for many of us in this business, and she emphasized a piece of the employment equation that The Washington Post story overlooks entirely -- job satisfaction. We English majors and assorted other academic mutts didn't gravitate toward journalism for the money, God knows, or the convenient hours. We arrived here because we like participating in our society. We like feeling like we're making a difference in our communities and our world. We like being constantly stimulated and engaged and working among others who share such passions.

STEM professions can certainly offer these rewards, too, of course, and every job has its unique appeal and worth. But, in the end, it's useful to recognize that we don't need wizards to tell us whether our college major has value.


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