I just finished my MFA, and people are worried about what I’m going to “do” with it.
Touché. I won’t be rushing my hot-off-the-presses diploma to an employer urgently in search of an applicant who can write a great metaphor. Likewise, if I were a high school counselor, I might not tell a shiny new grad to start applying for art programs. But high school grads aren’t the only ones making decisions about life, and for many of us, current conditions are perfectly chaotic enough for an arts degree to make sense, even if it’s not a good “return” on our investment.
People love to sneer at Millennials for indulging in the gig economy and side hustles—curating a YouTube channel is so vain, after all—but Millennials, it turns out, are the ones most adept at assessing and adapting to reality. And the reality is that there isn’t just one reality out there, anymore. There are boomers like my father, who retired from a corporate office in the same company where he began as a pipeline welder—all with a GED and no higher education. At the other end of the spectrum are Millennials with PhDs, working retail.
In the middle are people like me—GenXers and older Millennials who no longer have a blank slate but love to make fresh starts. We’ve already made a few career and educational decisions, and have racked up some debt, student loans, a couple marriages. Our pension plans are constantly in trouble, and we have no illusions about the future of Social Security. The American Dream didn’t hold up, but that’s really okay—Gen X has always been too suspicious to buy into it, and Millennials reject that kind of sentimentality. Our elders are holding their collective breath as we walk the tightrope of today’s economy with only a frayed safety net to catch us.
But we’re breathing just fine. We’re accustomed to living this way. We’ve given up on security, and have instead gone all-in on experience.
Fifty years ago, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio in the US was 20-to-1. Today, it’s 354-to-1 and widening, with no meaningful resistance from the people. In addition to this formula for widespread poverty, projections just 50 years into the future imagine the world as an increasingly uninhabitable hellscape where military power is used to control luxuries like clean water. If you’re able to escape the difficulties of climate change and being murdered by the police, keep in mind that reigning incarceration superstar USA accounts for 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population, so you’re probably going to prison anyway. You might as well cultivate a rich inner life before you get there.
I don’t think this is cynical. Cynicism is a politician vilifying the humanities for the good of “the economy.” Cynicism is the belief that we must choose between security or certain failure. For me, optimism is the belief that the less safe option might turn out okay.
Education. Travel. Live shows. Art. Food and drink. Photos that become memes that become memes with the most meta configurations we can imagine. We Instagram these things for the same reason you would put money in the stock market or a savings account: they’re investments. The American Dream didn’t stick, but the idea of happiness has wormed its way into our systems, which is why you can now leave corporate life and make a living just talking about leaving corporate life.
And oh, how we want to leave. If you believe in an afterlife, you might not feel the urgency that propels some of us into uncertain outcomes. But for those of us who aren’t counting on an eternity of meaningful self-expression, the lack of a clearly marked career path isn’t enough of a deterrent. It isn’t enough for our endeavors to be a do-over—a strategic move toward a more profitable industry. The endeavor itself must be the reward.
And so we do the things that are soundly ridiculed. We eat avocado toast and ride unicycles; we learn the circus arts and immerse ourselves in video games so rich with story that they could fill a dozen trilogies. We nudge our hobbies toward the marketplace and see what happens. We write, and draw, and read—not because of pretense, but because we don’t have anything to lose.
An MFA won’t save me, but neither will my 401k.
Deena Lilygren lives, writes, and indulges her many obsessions in Louisville, Kentucky. She is an Associate Professor of English at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College. She graduated from UofL with an MA in English Literature and recently completed an MFA in creative writing at Murray State University.