OP-EDS

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April 3, 2009

Job insecurity

Students cling to the last safe haven they have: college

Eight chapters of reading? A biology lab followed by a 10-page write-up? Gray skies and faces that scream the blues? Yes, it’s clear that we’re back to the daily grind. As our forks poke half-heartedly at the gray, rubbery mass deceptively advertised as “Salisbury steak,” we think back longingly to just one week ago, when we were on that glorious respite known as spring break. Some of you traveled to exotic locations—lying on sandy beaches, taking advantage of low drinking ages, and getting tan (or lobster-red, depending on how pale you are). Others were enviously productive, doing externships and more with their lives than sleeping 15 hours a day. As for the rest of us? Well, we went home. And yet, although there was little more gratifying than seeing old friends and watching hours of television, there was a palpable change in my hometown that put a slight damper on the trip: the demise of the local newspaper. After 174 years, The Ann Arbor News was shutting down.

Sure, the quality of the daily was never that great—at best, the writing was mediocre and at worst, downright dry. The local stories never quite fell into the earth-shattering category (lewd prom-date proposals don’t typically keep one riveted). However, what was disturbing was not the end of The Ann Arbor News in particular, but the fact that such a long-running paper could suddenly be terminated. What happened to this publication was not an exception, but rather a representation of what the newspaper industry is experiencing as a whole: an ongoing slump.

On Tuesday, the corporation that owns the Chicago Sun-Times filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, joining the company that owns the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. These news groups join the multitude of publications that have stopped producing papers—and why not? Print journalism is losing out rapidly to its more attractive, easier, and more popular cousins. Television, Google, and YouTube are the new informers of world events. When your friend posts a link to an article on Facebook, the hits on the story rise exponentially. Advertisers are perfectly aware of these trends, becoming more and more hesitant to buy paper space and thus decreasing newspaper revenues even further. Then there is the issue of the declining economy—newspaper companies have made it a commonplace practice to freeze hiring, fire thousands of workers, and cut page counts and even entire sections from their publications. Even what most view as the pinnacle of journalism in America, The New York Times, has resorted to these methods. So the question is, what is left of the newspaper business? The answer: not much. For aspiring journalists, this fact leads to an uneasy feeling in the stomach and a bit of an existential crisis: If there is no market for what I want to do, then what? Where will I go after I enter the real world?

Of course, I cannot even feign to believe that journalism is the only field rapidly losing ground. Economics, the University’s powerhouse major and the one that claims almost one-fourth of the undergraduate population, is also becoming a dubious pursuit. Investment banking is no longer a viable option, leaving many confused about their post-college routes. Even the pre-med students, once almost guaranteed the reward of security after 10 arduous years of competition, medical school, and residency, have cause for concern. An increasing number of hospital layoffs is making even the science buff’s future uncertain.

College was once two things—obviously, first and foremost, it was a place where people could enrich their minds and embark on a path of intellectualism. However, universities were also supposed to prepare students for their futures. Back then, this renowned, academically-intense school would have decidedly given us the tools to make something of ourselves upon graduation. After leaving college, entering the real world of careers and responsibilities would have been exciting, albeit somewhat daunting—but most of all, it would have been secure. However, the current job market and financial situation of the United States instead leaves one inclined to curl up into a fetal position on the bed, cry a little, and cling to the University of Chicago for dear life, lest he or she be thrown out to be eaten by the sharks (or, worse, the real world). Although this may seem to be an overly pessimistic hyperbole, evidence of students’ trepidation to leave the haven of college is apparent everywhere. When I asked some of my third- and fourth-year friends at other universities what they’re going to do after graduation, the answer was pretty much universal: “Go to graduate school, put off looking for a job, and hope everything improves by the time I’m finished.” Education was once an intermediary point between childhood and adulthood—it has now become a stalling point.

Although we may now be reminiscing fondly of the past, the future does not seem nearly so bright. The adage of college being “the best years of your life” seems truer than ever. And the uniformly dull concrete, the sub-zero weather, and the endless mental grind we constantly gripe about are far more secure and reliable than what lies ahead. Perhaps this thought is profoundly depressing, but on the bright side, that Salisbury steak is beginning to not look so bad after all.

Alice Hur is a first-year in the College.