"It’s really hard to publish a book, you know."
"Freelance writers make pretty much nothing."
"When in life are you ever going to need to know about Postmodern Literature?"
"So you’ll end up teaching, right?"
"You should go to school for something like computers, or finance. My son does, and he makes seventeen million a year."
These are the conversations that I and my fellow English majors have been up against since the nanosecond we declared our majors. Fortunately, there are coping mechanisms: We laugh it off. We make jokes like, “And that’s why I’m a waitress!” We search for statistics that prove how good we are at being functioning adults. We bow our heads in remembrance of the ones who switched to pre-med in their sophomore years and say, “Smart dude. Maybe I should've tried it.”
But all kidding aside, I will never, ever regret getting my degree in English, because my predicted relevance in today’s job market is not the be-all and end-all to life on this planet. (Though, while we're on the topic, it's been seven years since I decided I was going to make my living as a writer, and there has never been a shortage of work for me — even during the pandemic that brought the world to its knees.)
Let’s get philosophical for a second: jobs, at their core, exist to better society. You’ve got a skill, so I’ll give you money to exercise that skill. You do the same for me. Everyone benefits. Our web of products and services grows, and the society we live in becomes more efficient, more useful, and better adapted to survival.
What people often fail to remember is that these very societies were built on language. The ability to communicate was once at the core of our success as a species. We learned to speak and express — to combine the thoughts in our heads with the thoughts in other people's heads, so we could become something bigger than singular, detached individuals. We became tribes, and then clans, and then civilizations, and then nations, and now we’re one big world, united by the biggest and most intelligent manifestation of written expression that our species has ever known: Twitter.
Just kidding. I’m referring to the internet in its entirety.
You learned a lot in four years, and to an outsider, yes; it might all seem pointless.
You analyzed lots of poems. You know the difference between a metaphor a hyperbole, and iambic pentameter is now your jam. But you were also learning to weigh the meaning behind a word. You were learning to relate to someone you didn’t know. You were learning how to look into a stranger’s eyes and say, “Yeah. I get it. I’m with you.”
You wrote lots of papers where you took a side on something. The Road Less Traveled: Good thing, or bad? Doesn’t matter. You were learning to stand up for yourself. To form an opinion, and then articulate it in a way where others could understand. You were learning how to preserve a marriage, and how to ask for a raise, and how to phrase things in a way that might get through to your future fifteen year old daughter during her I’ll-smoke-anything-within-a-five-foot-radius rebel phase. You were also learning how to write an enticing resume, for those of you who are a little bit more concerned with the here and now.
Yes, you read a hell of a lot of Romantic literature. You can quote at least six instances where Wordsworth was overcome with emotion while looking at a tree. You were learning how to look at the world and see the best in it. You were learning how to love being alive.
And, as an afterthought, a few other supposedly trivial things you’re probably good at now: sounding intelligent when you speak, organizing thoughts into coherent sentences, spelling, editing, vocabulary, interpretation of language, formulating arguments in the comments section of Youtube, public speaking, critical thinking, giving presentations, research skills, time management, leading discussions, general flexibility, and the miracle that is Google Workspace.
Conclusion: You will never be irrelevant in this world, because you’re fluent in humanity and the communication that unites it. The next time you’re cornered into a Thanksgiving dinner conversation with the relatives who ask, “What’re you doing with your life?” you go ahead and tell them that.