Lena Dunham’s Girls is a wryly observed comedy centered around four young women in present-day New York City. With its frequent scenes of nudity, casual sex, and drug use, the show comes across as a defiantly liberal assault on traditional social and moral values. But on the economic front, Girls cannot avoid implying a withering critique of the world it depicts–one that has more in common with right-of-center social commentary than otherwise.
Two years after graduating from Oberlin College with a degree in English, the show’s central character, Hannah (Dunham), works as an unpaid intern at a New York publishing company. Her roommate Marnie (Allison Williams) has turned her art history degree into a minimum-wage job as a gallery receptionist. Even as they approach their mid-twenties, both women continue to depend heavily on their parents for essentials such as rent and food, not to mention Apple laptops and iPhones.
Today’s college graduates, caught between the rock of soaring college costs and the hard place of a recessionary economy, deserve some sympathy–but that doesn’t stop the show from skewering their entitlement mentality. Hannah is aghast when her parents finally cut her off financially. Her friends all get money from their parents, she points out, so why shouldn’t she? In trying to become self-sufficient, Hannah moves from one low-paying job to another, eventually winding up at a friend’s coffee shop earning $40 a day. Even there, she struggles to handle responsibilities such as mopping floors, taking out the trash and showing up on time.
Although Girls never fails to find humor in its characters’ haplessness, it also reflects the disturbing reality that more than half of college graduates under 25 are now unemployed or working jobs that don’t require a degree. But that’s not because there are no jobs.
Tech companies, for instance, are crying out for employees. Microsoft alone has around 6,000 positions it can’t fill. Why? Americans are attending college in record numbers, but the number of computer science degrees awarded annually has not increased since the mid-1980s. More Americans going to college has not led to more Americans acquiring the skills that fuel technological innovation and economic growth. Indeed, our graduates end up working as baristas and receptionists while high-tech companies desperately lobby for visas so that they can import more skilled workers from abroad.
By highlighting the dismal job prospects that await graduates like Hannah and Marnie, Girls unwittingly lends credence to moves by governors such as Pat McCrory in North Carolina or Rick Scott in Florida to shift higher education funding into fields that have better job placement rates. These governors want to see fewer degrees awarded in English and art history, and more graduates qualified to fill vacancies in burgeoning science, technology, engineering, and math fields.
Nobody questions the personal enrichment that comes from studying literature and art–but as Girls makes clear, graduating from college with no marketable skills can have a huge opportunity cost, both for the individual and for the wider economy.
Maurice Black is a Vice President of the Moving Picture Institute