Aaron Clarey, also known as Captain Capitalism, has written Worthless, a book full of straight talk about how to choose a college major. Aaron describes the book as being “harsh, but in a tough, fatherly love way.” I agree. It’s got a lot of very valuable information in it, and he’s clearly trying to steer young people away from earning expensive degrees with little to no value. He keeps the promise he makes at the start:
Worthless will help you navigate this minefield and choose the major that is right for you. It will explain to you how the labor market works, why some professions make more than others, review starting salaries and explore different options when it comes to undergrad and grad school.
Clarey’s an economist, and his book is written from a financial perspective – when you spend a great deal of money and four years earning a college degree, what can you expect as a return on your investment? That varies considerably by major, some of which are worthless.
And the reason they are worthless is because of one simple thing:
There just isn’t any demand for them.
Certainly, some of them may be rewarding intellectually. Certainly, studying these subjects might prove interesting or fun. But ultimately, in the end, they have no economic worth. They are in the financial sense LITERALLY “worthless.”
Clarey contends that when we hear about young college graduates today who can’t find jobs, that cohort includes hordes of young people who majored in subjects like English, art history, sociology and psychology. The reality is that colleges are becoming trade schools that teach employable skills – there are few who can afford a true liberal arts education today. Clarey is a fan of STEM fields of study, and carves those into smaller, more specialized majors for evaluation. For example, he clearly explains the relative worth of various engineering degrees: aerospace, civil, mechanical, nuclear, environmental and architecture. (Hint: two of those are worthless.)
If you’re a college student, or the parent of a kid at college or headed there soon, Worthless is well worth a read. My only objection to the book is that some people just don’t have the aptitude for STEM careers, and many won’t have the interest. I asked Clarey about this:
SW: There are lots of jobs in “the village” that really don’t require STEM knowledge. Sales, marketing, retail, customer service, etc. These fields don’t rely on a rigorous education, and they’re where many humanities majors wind up. Some of them will make a good living doing these things, which are part of the process of delivering to market those products designed by STEM graduates.
AC: Yes, advertising/marketing is important to any business function, just like HR, but the question is do the skills that are required to do those jobs require a 4 year degree? No. HR, maybe a 2 week seminar on employment law. Sales and marketing, if anything people in IT (or program social media sites) and statisticians (to do the hard math required project sales, market penetration, etc) are the degrees that would be in demand. The people calling and making sales calls can be high school graduates.
Get the paperback here for $12.95 and the Kindle Edition here for only $5.
Clarey gets some backup from the New York Times Economix blog and its list of 25 college majors that make up the vilified 1% in the U.S.:
According to the Census Bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey, the majors that give you the best chance of reaching the 1 percent are pre-med, economics, biochemistry, zoology and, yes, biology, in that order.
Surprisingly, Art History comes in at #9, Psychology at #16 and Philosophy at #17. I suspect most of those folks graduated long ago, and may have independent means.
I also recommend that students carefully consider whether graduate school is worth pursuing, and in what areas. (Again, this is an ROI calculation; not a self-actualization one.) Medical school remains a ticket to the 1%. However, there’s a glut of young lawyers today – I know several from top law schools who got jobs, but had to wait 18 months to assume them, when business had picked up enough to bring them on board. While 1 in 8 lawyers gets into the 1%, 1 in 3 Wall St. lawyers does.
A recent article in Inc. magazine asks whether an MBA or advanced degree in “a nerdy pursuit” is more useful today:
The company [Identified], which analyzes Facebook profiles, combed through its database, culling information on the profiles of CEOs and founders to see what path they took to entrepreneurial success. The result: Three times as many had advanced degrees in engineering than had an MBA. When it came to company leaders with only an undergrad education, the number with degrees in business and engineering was about evenly split.
…Increasing doubts about both the value of MBAsandtheir creativity-destroying side effectsmay also be partly to blame, as could the increasingly technical nature of many of the fastest growing business sectors. But whatever the cause or causes, the nerd-ward shift in business is significant, according Brendan Wallace, co-founder of Identified. While MBAs used to employ engineers, now engineers more often hire MBAs.
It’s clear that there is little room for the generalist in America’s future. The most successful young people will come from specialized disciplines, mostly in technical fields. It’s far easier to go from the specific to the general, and there will be plenty of creativity among STEM types who have the skills to make their visions a reality.
As an aside, it should be interesting to watch the continued ascent of the STEM professionals, who may be expected to gain in status, while the affable generalists with a sales personality can only hope to work for them someday.