I was taken aback by this opinion piece.
Objectively, I understand that the message the author was trying to convey was that grade inflation has become so pervasive retail coffee chains see no issue with requiring potential hires have college degrees. She draws a line from an education system afraid to risk the displeasure of parents who feel the “C” Johnny got in Math doesn’t reflect what a special kid he is and will ruin his chances of getting into a good college to colleges just handing out degrees to anyone who asks.
Where I take issue is in the implication behind that message. Namely, that a college degree should be so valuable that anyone who holds it shouldn’t be demeaning themselves by working at a coffee shop.
Let me state upfront two things: First, that I don’t have a college degree. Second, that I’ve been working at a coffee shop for almost a year and a half now.
There’s a solid story behind the first point that I’ll tell you some other time. The lack of degree didn’t stop me from carving out a decent career in the social media content marketing industry for 15 years. Nor was it the reason I was laid off in mid-2016.
Since then I’ve been working as a freelancer and contractor, something that’s more and more common these days as companies look to change how they manage their more-specialized and often more remote workforce. When after a few months I just wasn’t bringing in the money I needed I finally went and applied at a local Starbucks and started working there a month or so later.
I’m not unique in that decision, of course. More and more adults of all education levels are working “side hustles” or participating in “the gig economy” for various reasons. Some do it just to stay busy or earn a little extra cash. Many, though, are doing so out of necessity. Because so many companies increasingly prefer working with freelancers or contractors job security is even more tenuous than it once was, offering gigs that can be terminated at any time and income that ebbs and flows unpredictability. And they’re working multiple jobs because no one offers any sort of insurance or other benefits because they’re contractors, not employees.
While I understand it may seem odd that a part-time service industry job would *require* a college degree, we shouldn’t stigmatize or look down on those with degrees or other college experience who are working these jobs. More broadly, we shouldn’t look down at anyone who’s working these jobs.
Everyone, I’ve found, has a story. The people I’ve worked with in my 18 months slinging lattes at Starbucks has opened my eyes in new and interesting ways. I’m at least 15 (often closer to 20) years older than the vast majority of my coworkers there. Most are in or fresh out of college. Some are putting themselves through school. Some are trying to get their own businesses off the ground. Some are working there while their spouse or significant other has a full-time job of their own.
The point is they are working that job for the same reasons anyone works any job: Because they have to. This is a means to an income for them. It could be a primary or secondary income for them and their families, but it’s an income. I’m sure that if a more attractive option came along, or they were given the opportunity to lead a comfortable life not having to worry about working or making money, they would. The same could likely be said of most people in jobs and careers of any sort. Ask a barista if they’d rather spend their time working on the novel that’s been outlined in a Word document for three years and they’d probably say “yes.” Same for the doctor or lawyer with several post-grad degrees.
It wasn’t long after starting at Starbucks that I was the subject of my first customer temper tantrum. Most people are somewhere between “neutral” and “pleasant” in my experience. This one – and sparingly few since then – have been outright hostile. I was berated for something or another that wasn’t my or anyone else’s fault. Problems happen and they were resistant to my efforts to fix the situation. So I was called a name, probably because they were having a bad day and I was a safe target for their bubbling hostility.
That incident – and a handful since then – have lead me to believe more people need to be in this situation. I don’t wish job loss and financial insecurity on anyone, of course. But I really believe it would be valuable on an individual and societal basis for people to regularly work in the service or retail sector regularly.
If you’re over 40 you might have worked a part-time job in high school or college yourself. After you got a “real” job, that was it, though. Why go back to that, right? You’re better than that. The late nights, the feeling like you weren’t in control, the low pay. It was rough.
First off, tell me how that isn’t like your current job. Are you still up late answering emails and trying to make your boss or client happy? Are you solely responsible for your career path and responsibilities? Odds are you’re still accountable to someone (or multiple someones) and are pulling the same hours trying to make sense of a spreadsheet you did when you were handing people their VHS copy of Pulp Fiction at your local Blockbuster Video.
Second, explain to me how you’re better than the person behind the counter. Odds are they’re not there because of bad life choices but just because that’s how things have played out for them at this time.
Third, now imagine doing that at 40 years old. Even if you’re in pretty good shape, being on your feet for the better part of an eight hour shift is a lot different at 40 than it is at 18.
That we, as a society, praise the person who can afford the $8 beverage but devalue the people who make and sell it seems inappropriate. We chastise the parent receiving some kind of governmental financial assistance when they spend it on a candy bar for their kids, not considering what else they may be sacrificing to be able to afford what might be a weekly treat. Meanwhile we’re meant to aspire to be the person who can drop $1,000 on a lavish birthday party for a 10 year old without a second thought. A newly-signed executive order would put onerous requirements on those applying for or receiving assistance but fail to require CEOs of companies asking for government bailouts not spend taxpayer money on executive bonuses.
It might seem odd that a college degree would be *required* to sell coffee. I understand that. Let me tell you, though, that a college degree isn’t *required* for a lot of jobs. If your local barista doesn’t have one, take a minute to consider what has happened in their life that placed a degree outside their grasp. If your local barista does have one, take a minute to consider what has happened in their life to put them in this situation as well as the tenuous nature of your own circumstances. How far away are you from being there?
More than anything else, let’s change how we talk about these jobs. A 2014 ThinkProgress story used the headline “College Graduates Are Increasingly Likely To Work Low-Quality Jobs.” It’s a job. Our definition of “high quality” or “low quality” is inherently based in class distinctions that are hard to break out of, regardless of your circumstances.
I’m not going to ask you to hug your barista or other service sector employee. Just be nice. I can tell you, saying “Thank you” or “Have a nice day” to the person who has just told you your credit card can now be removed from the chip reader puts you in the Top 25% interactions they’ll have on any given day.