Future tense

Rising levels of stress among undergraduates stem from a lack of job security

By Emily Wang

It’s been the word—or to be more accurate, acronym—on everyone’s lips this quarter.

That’s right: CAPS. We’re mid-way through winter quarter and though temperatures outside are still frigid as ever, students are already deep into exploring summer opportunities, hoping there’s experience to be gained here or money to be made there.

Recent numbers show that first-years are more career-oriented than ever. CAPS director Meredith Daw was quoted as stating that “Students are coming in with a stronger sense of what they want to do after graduation and what they can do while they’re here,” and that the excitement over career services has risen with the new class of students. But are students really more ambitious and driven than before? What exactly has changed?

Lately the topic of discussion amongst my friends often turns to résumés, internships, and interviews. Whether it’s about our prospects or obstacles, successes or failures, there’s a sense of anxious solidarity here. We’re all nervous about getting our feet wet, since collectively we believe that we’re somehow falling behind if we don’t immediately dive into whatever it is that we’ve deemed our “true calling.” Openness and flexibility for one’s future pursuits, which were once what college seemed to offer, no longer seem viable. And it’s not just my third-year friends feeling the pressure, but also their first- and second-year counterparts. Thus, the meetings with CAPS, the endless tweaking of the résumés, the planning and re-planning of hopefully productive-as-can-be summers all give us a sense of control, a sense we need when there’s so little of it in this socially and economically turbulent time.

The numbers, then, can say what colleges want them to say, but this new trend isn’t necessarily reflective of a more decisive, motivated student body; instead, they’re indicative of higher pressures faced in an increasingly uncertain economic climate.

According to the CIRP Freshman Survey, UCLA’s annual survey of the nation’s students entering four-year colleges and universities, first-year college students’ ratings of their emotional health dropped to record lows last year. Yet the survey indicated that students are more driven to achieve than ever. It’s likely, then, that the desire for success is propelling a stressful struggle to stand out from their peers, which is now necessary to secure a job. The survey additionally revealed that an increasing number of students are focused on the value that a college degree confers—more students than ever believe “the chief benefit of college is that it increases one’s earning power.”

This belief is not only in accordance with policymakers’ advocacy of public investment in higher education as a means to stimulate the economy, but is also reflective of the attitude with which Americans currently view education as a whole: practicality and frugality pave the way to material success and stability. Doesn’t really seem to leave much room for innovation, but who could blame Americans who must face the harsh reality of unemployment every day? We have to face it, our parents have to face it, and our nation’s leaders have to face it. In the present, we’re falling behind as a nation but, as Obama really hammered home in last month’s State of the Union address, we can and need to “win the future.” Winning the future, apparently, consists of focusing, as students and educators, more on math, science, technology, and engineering. Easy to say, hard to do—which, of course, Obama is aware of—but the realization of this goal will inevitably lead to a humanities backlash. What will that mean for the future of American higher education? Is that really the only solution to what’s perceived as the U.S.’s decline in global stature?

I’ve always believed that this is the greatest failure of American education. The system says, “This is the path to success. Look how beautiful and well-traveled it is. You must follow it, or risk loneliness, despair, and hardship in the tangled darkness that awaits elsewhere.” Many of our parents have certainly bought into this mantra. Major in economics, or go pre-med. Go into finance or be a doctor. Stick with what works—why voluntarily take a risk if the current job outlook is just one giant risk?

But then the fundamental problem remains. We don’t become better critical thinkers if we simply choose a path that we believe will lead to a more secure future, whether for personal reasons or for the sake of playing “catch up” to other countries. The notion that America has somehow fallen off its place as the rightful ruler of the world strikes me as an outdated mode of thinking that fails to acknowledge the reality of our modern global society. What the U.S. needs is not to “win the future” but to improve it, and this motivation should not be rooted in wanting the statistics to prove that we’re the best. Obama was right in the sense that our youth aren’t fully embracing math and science, as they must if we want to see progress. Real innovation must occur in all fields—including the humanities—and this doesn’t come from force and obligation but passion and inspiration. How that innovative spirit will be revived remains to be seen.

Emily Wang is a first-year in the College majoring in English.