At university, when I told people I was studying for a history degree, the response was almost always the same: “You want to be a teacher?”. No, a journalist. “Oh. But you’re not majoring in communications?”

In the days when a university education was the purview of a privileged few, perhaps there wasn’t the assumption that a degree had to be a springboard directly into a career. Those days are long gone.

Today, a degree is all but a necessity for the job market, one that more than halves your chances of being unemployed. Still, that alone is no guarantee of a job – and yet we’re paying more and more for one. In the US, room, board and tuition at a private university costs an average of $48,510 a year; in the UK, tuition fees alone are £9,250 ($12,000) per year for home students; in Singapore, four years at a private university can cost up to SGD$69,336 (US$51,000).

Learning for the sake of learning is a beautiful thing. But given those costs, it’s no wonder that most of us need our degrees to pay off in a more concrete way. Broadly, they already do: in the US, for example, a bachelor’s degree holder earns $461 more each week than someone who never attended a university.

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But most of us want to maximise that investment – and that can lead to a plug-and-play type of approach to higher education. Want to be a journalist? Study journalism, we’re told. A lawyer? Pursue pre-law. Not totally sure? Go into Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) – that way, you can become an engineer or IT specialist. And no matter what you do, forget the liberal arts – non-vocational degrees that include natural and social sciences, mathematics and the humanities, such as history, philosophy and languages.

This has been echoed by statements and policies around the world. In the US, politicians from Senator Marco Rubio to former President Barack Obama have made the humanities a punch line. (Obama later apologised). In China, the government has unveiled plans to turn 42 universities into “world class” institutions of science and technology. In the UK, government focus on Stem has led to a nearly 20% drop in students taking A-levels in English and a 15% decline in the arts.

But there’s a problem with this approach. And it’s not just that we’re losing out on crucial ways to understand and improve both the world and ourselves – including enhancing personal wellbeing, sparking innovation and helping create tolerance, among other values.

It’s also that our assumptions about the market value of certain degrees – and the “worthlessness” of others – might be off. At best, that could be making some students unnecessarily stressed. At worst? Pushing people onto paths that set them up for less fulfilling lives. It also perpetuates the stereotype of liberal arts graduates, in particular, as an elite caste – something that can discourage underprivileged students, and anyone else who needs an immediate return on their university investment, from pursuing potentially rewarding disciplines. (Though, of course, this is hardly the only diversity problem such disciplines have).

Soft skills, critical thinking

George Anders is convinced we have the humanities in particular all wrong. When he was a technology reporter for Forbes from 2012 to 2016, he says Silicon Valley “was consumed with this idea that there was no education but Stem education”.

But when he talked to hiring managers at the biggest tech companies, he found a different reality. “Uber was picking up psychology majors to deal with unhappy riders and drivers. Opentable was hiring English majors to bring data to restauranteurs to get them excited about what data could do for their restaurants,” he says.

“I realised that the ability to communicate and get along with people, and understand what’s on other people’s minds, and do full-strength critical thinking – all of these things were valued and appreciated by everyone as important job skills, except the media.” This realisation led him to write his appropriately-titled book You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education.

Take a look at the skills employers say they’re after. LinkedIn’s research on the most sought-after job skills by employers for 2019 found that the three most-wanted “soft skills” were creativity, persuasion and collaboration, while one of the five top “hard skills” was people management. A full 56% of UK employers surveyed said their staff lacked essential teamwork skills and 46% thought it was a problem that their employees struggled with handling feelings, whether theirs or others’. It’s not just UK employers: one 2017 study found that the fastest-growing jobs in the US in the last 30 years have almost all specifically required a high level of social skills.

Or take it directly from two top executives at tech giant Microsoft who wrote recently: "As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.

Of course, it goes without saying that you can be an excellent communicator and critical thinker without a liberal arts degree. And any good university education, not just one in English or psychology, should sharpen these abilities further. “Any degree will give you very important generic skills like being able to write, being able to present an argument, research, problem-solve, teamwork, becoming familiar with technology,” says Dublin-based educational consultant and career coach Anne Mangan.

But few courses of study are quite as heavy on reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking as the liberal arts, in particular the humanities – whether that’s by debating other students in a seminar, writing a thesis paper or analysing poetry.

Empathy is usually the biggest skill. That doesn’t just mean feeling sorry for people with problems. It means an ability to understand the needs and wants of a diverse group of people – Anders

When asked to drill the most job market-ready skills of a humanities graduate down to three, Anders doesn’t hesitate. “Creativity, curiosity and empathy,” he says. “Empathy is usually the biggest one. That doesn’t just mean feeling sorry for people with problems. It means an ability to understand the needs and wants of a diverse group of people.

“Think of people who oversee clinical drug tests. You need to get doctors, nurses, regulators all on the same page. You have to have the ability to think about what’s going to get this 72-year-old woman to feel comfortable being tracked long term, what do we have to do so this researcher takes this study seriously. That’s an empathy job.”

But in general, say Anders and others, the benefit of a humanities degree is the emphasis it puts on teaching students to think, critique and persuade – often in the grey areas where there isn’t much data available or you need to work out what to believe.

The biggest group of US humanities graduates, 15%, go on to management positions 

It’s small wonder, therefore, that humanities graduates go on to a variety of fields. The biggest group of US humanities graduates, 15%, go on to management positions. That’s followed by 14% who are in in office and administrative positions, 13% who are in sales and another 12% who are in education, mostly teaching. Another 10% are in business and finance.

And while there’s often an assumption that the careers humanities graduates pursue just aren’t as good as the jobs snapped up by, say, engineers or medics, that isn’t the case. In Australia, for example, three of the 10 fastest-growing occupations are sales assistants, clerks, and advertising, public relations and sales managers – all of which might look familiar as fields that humanities graduates tend to pursue.

 

Meanwhile, Glassdoor’s 2019 research found that eight of the top 10 best jobs in the UK were managerial positions – people-oriented roles that require communication skills and emotional intelligence. (It defined "best" by combining earning potential, overall job satisfaction rating and number of job openings.) And many of them were outside Stem-based industries. The third best job was marketing manager; fourth, product manager; fifth, sales manager. An engineering role doesn’t appear on the list until the 18th slot – below positions in communications, HR and project management.

One recent study of 1,700 people from 30 countries, meanwhile, found that the majority of those in leadership positions had either a social sciences or humanities degree. That was especially true of leaders under 45 years of age; leaders over 45 were more likely to have studied Stem.

Be career-ready

Star performers with undergraduate humanities degrees

Steve Ells, Chipotle founder, art history, University of Colorado at Boulder

George Soros, hedge fund manager, philosophy, London School of Economics

Alexa Hirschfeld, Paperless Post co-founder, classics, Harvard University

Andrea Jung, former Avon CEO, English language and literature, Princeton

JK Rowling, author, French and classics, University of Exeter

Larry Sanger, Wikipedia founder, philosophy, Reed College (plus a Ph.D in philosophy, Ohio State University)

Andrew Mason, Groupon founder, music, Northwestern University

Peter D Hancock, CEO of AIG, politics/philosophy/economics, Oxford

Jodi Kantor, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, history, Columbia University

Stewart Butterfield, Flickr co-founder, philosophy, University of Victoria

Caterina Fake, Flickr co-founder, English, Vassar College

Carolyn McCall, CEO of ITV and former CEO of Easyjet, history and politics, University of Kent, Canterbury (plus master’s degree in politics, University of London)

Chad Hurley, YouTube founder, fine art, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

This isn’t to say that a liberal arts degree is the easy road. “A lot of the people I talked to were five or 10 years into their career, and there was a sense that the first year was bumpy, and it took a while to find their footing,” Anders says. “But as things played out, it did tend to work.”

For some graduates, the initial challenge was not knowing what they wanted to do with their lives. For others, it was not having acquired as many technical skills with their degree as, say, their IT trainee peers and having to play catch-up after.  

But pursuing a more vocational degree can come with its own risks too. Not every teenager knows exactly what they want to do with their lives, and our career aspirations often change over time. One UK report found that more than one-third of Brits have changed careers in their lifetime. LinkedIn found that 40% of professionals are interested in making a “career pivot” – and younger people are interested most of all. Focusing on broadly applicable skills like critical thinking no longer seems like such a moon shot when you consider how many different jobs and industries they can be applied to (though for a young person figuring out their career path, it’s true that flexibility also can feel overwhelming). 

One 2017 study found that the fastest-growing jobs in the US in the last 30 years have almost all specifically required a high level of social skills

Specialised technical skills are important in the job market too. But there are a number of ways to acquire them. “I’m very pro-internships and apprenticeships. We’ve seen that that can directly correlate to you having a more grounded skill base in the workplace,” says career development coach Christina Georgalla.

“I even advocate that post-university, if you’re not sure, take a year out and instead of going travelling, actually trial doing different internships. Even if it’s the same field but in TV, say, broadcasting versus producing versus presenting, so you can see the difference.”

But what about the other perceived pitfalls – like a higher unemployment rate and lower salaries?

Why broader matters

It’s true that the humanities come with a higher risk of unemployment. But it’s worth noting that the risk is slighter than you’d imagine. For young people (aged 25-34) in the US, the unemployment rate of those with a humanities degree is 4%. An engineering or business degree comes with an unemployment rate of a little more than 3%. That single additional percentage point is one extra person per 100, such a small amount it’s often within the margin of error of many surveys.

Salaries aren’t so straightforward either. Yes, in the UK, the top earnings are pulled in by those who study medicine or dentistry, economics or maths; in the US, engineering, physical sciences or business. Some of the most popular humanities, such as history or English, are in the bottom half of the group.

But there’s more to the story – including that for some jobs, it seems that it’s actually better to start with a broader degree, rather than a professional one.

Notable wage disparities persist in the humanities: US men who major in the humanities have median earnings of $60,000, for example, while women make $48,000

Take law. In the US, an undergraduate student who took the seemingly most direct route to becoming a lawyer, judge or magistrate – majoring in a pre-law or legal studies degree – can expect to earn an average of $94,000 a year. But those who majored in philosophy or religious studies make an average of $110,000. Graduates who studied area, ethnic and civilisations studies earn $124,000, US history majors earn $143,000 and those who studied foreign languages earn $148,000, a stunning $54,000 a year above their pre-law counterparts.  

There are similar examples in other industries too. Take managers in the marketing, advertising and PR industries: those who majored in advertising and PR earn about $64,000 a year – but those who studied liberal arts make $84,000.

And even while overall salary disparities do remain, it may not be the degree itself. Humanities graduates in particular are more likely to be female. We all know about the gender pay gap, and notable wage disparities persist in the humanities: US men who major in the humanities have median earnings of $60,000, for example, while women make $48,000. Since more than six in 10 humanities majors are women, the gender pay gap, not the degree, may be to blame.

We also know that as more women move into a field, the field’s overall earnings go down. Given that, is it any wonder that English majors, seven in 10 of whom are women, tend to make less than engineers, eight in 10 of whom are men?

Do what you love

This is a big part of why there is one major takeaway, says Mangan. Whatever a student pursues in university, it must be something that they aren’t just good at, but they really enjoy.

“In most areas that I can see, the employer just wants to know that you’ve been to college and you’ve done well. That’s why I think doing something that really interests you is essential – because that’s when you’re going to do well,” she says.

No matter what, making a degree or career path decision based on average salaries isn’t a good move. “Financial success is not a good reason. It tends to be a very poor reason,” Mangan says. “Be successful at something and money will follow, as opposed to the other way around. Focus on doing the stuff that you love that you’ll be so enthusiastic about, people will want to give you a job. Then go and develop within that job.”

This speaks to a broader point: the whole question of whether a student should choose Stem versus the humanities, or a vocational course versus a liberal arts degree, might be misguided to begin with. It’s not as if most of us have an equal amount of passion and aptitude for, say, accounting and art history. Plenty of people know what they love most. They just don’t know if they should pursue it. And the headlines most of us see don’t help.

This is part of why parents and teachers often need to take a step back, Mangan says. “There is only one expert. I’m the expert on me, you’re the expert on you, they’re the expert on themselves,” she says. “And nobody, I really mean nobody, can tell them how to do what they should be doing.”

Even, it seems, if that means pursuing a “useless” degree – like one in liberal arts.

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Amanda Ruggeri is a senior journalist and editor at BBC.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @amanda_ruggeri.

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