Lena Dunham’s hit series Girls, currently in its second season on HBO, is a wryly observed comedic drama centered on four 20-something women as they struggle to establish themselves professionally and romantically in present-day New York. With its abundant scenes of nudity, casual sex, and drug use, Girls comes across as an unashamedly liberal show about young millennials embracing a hedonistic world where “anything goes.” But so astute and sharp is the quality of Dunham’s observation that she cannot avoid intimating a withering critique of the world she depicts — one that has more in common, perhaps, with right-of-center social commentary than otherwise.
Two years after graduating from Oberlin College with a BA in English, the show’s central character Hannah Horvath (played by Dunham, a real-life Oberlin creative writing alumna who also writes, directs, and produces) is working as an unpaid intern at a New York publishing company, while doing little to advance her oft-stated ambition of becoming a writer. Hannah’s best friend and roommate Marnie has done little better, having translated her Oberlin art history BA into a minimum-wage job as a gallery receptionist. Even as they approach their mid-20s, both women continue to depend heavily on their parents. “Tell them you’ll get tuberculosis in a garret if you have to — it’s what Flaubert did,” says Hannah’s bohemian friend Jessa, always eager to suggest stratagems by which Hannah can wheedle ever more money from her mother and father.
Dunham clearly appreciates that today’s college graduates, caught between the rock of soaring college costs and the hard place of a recessionary economy, deserve some sympathy — but she doesn’t let that deter her from skewering the entitlement mentality, the easygoing work ethic, or the capacity for self-delusion that Hannah, Marnie, and their friends frequently exhibit. When her parents finally cut her off financially, Hannah reacts with stunned disbelief. All her friends get money from their parents, she points out, so why shouldn’t she? Hannah later comes to her parents’ hotel room, drunkenly pleading for two more years of support so that she can finish her book, grandiosely promising that it will make her the “voice of [her] generation,” or, when her parents stare at her blankly, “a voice of a generation.” But her parents remain steadfast. Enough is enough.
The sudden need to become economically self-sufficient forces Hannah to confront her complete lack of marketable skills. When she requests paid employment at the publishing company where she has interned for over a year, her boss wishes her well, telling her he can find scores of similarly qualified young graduates to take her place. When she takes a short-lived office job, we see her flipping through a Microsoft Windows manual, trying to figure out how to use a computer that isn’t a Mac. Even when she takes a job at her friend’s coffee shop, making $40 a day, she struggles to handle responsibilities such as mopping floors, taking out the trash, and showing up on time.
Hannah and Marnie may be fictional characters — but in writing Girls, Dunham takes an unsparing look at the harsh economic reality of today’s job market, where graduates without marketable skills often find themselves working the same jobs as high-school dropouts, if they even have jobs at all. Researchers recently estimated that around 53 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 are unemployed or doing work that requires a high-school diploma or less. They are more likely to be employed as waiters, bartenders, or food-service workers than as engineers, physicists, or mathematicians. They are also likely to remain dependent on their families, sometimes for years. A recent survey from consulting firm Twentysomething Inc. found that 85 percent of college seniors planned to move back home after graduation, while ForbesWoman and the National Endowment for Financial Education found that 59 percent of parents are providing financial support to adult children who are no longer in school.
But the economy is nowhere near as dismal as such disquieting statistics suggest. Some sectors are doing a lot better than others. Notably, job openings abound in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, to the point where many high-tech companies are struggling to find employees. Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president of Microsoft, noted recently in the Wall Street Journal that his company has 6,000 openings that it can’t fill, including 3,400 positions for engineers, software developers, and researchers. So, how can it be that with more than half of recent American graduates unemployed or underemployed, thousands of American companies can’t find employees? How can it be that with so many Americans out of work, our government plans to address this structural employment crisis by importing more skilled workers from overseas?
Simply, too few college students are acquiring the knowledge and skills that our economy needs, while too many Marnies and Hannahs are pursuing degrees in fields that aren’t in demand. Just 16 percent of all U.S. bachelor’s degrees are awarded in STEM fields, compared with 23 percent in the United Kingdom, 28 percent in Germany, 37 percent in South Korea, and 47 percent in China. Demand for computer science degrees is surging, but supply has flatlined: The U.S. produces the same number of graduates in that field today as it did in 1985 (around 38,000 per year). Meanwhile, the number of students earning degrees in visual and performing arts has more than doubled since 1985 — indeed, visual and performing arts graduates now outnumber computer science, math, and chemical engineering graduates combined.
The U.S. has a particular problem with attracting women into STEM fields. Women began to outnumber men on American campuses around 1980, and the gender distribution has now shifted to the point where 57 percent of undergraduates are female. But even as the proportion of women on campus has grown, the proportion of STEM degrees awarded to women has remained stubbornly stagnant or has even declined. Women earned just 18 percent of computer science degrees in 2010, down from 37 percent in 1985. Women also made up a smaller proportion of math majors in 2009 than they did in 1985. The proportion of engineering degrees awarded to women fell below 18 percent in 2009, a 15-year low. Naturally, women’s low uptake of STEM subjects in college translates to underrepresentation in the STEM workforce: Women make up 48 percent of the American workforce, but hold 24 percent of STEM jobs and just 14 percent of engineering jobs — even though women who do enter STEM fields earn 33 percent more than comparably educated women in other sectors.
So, where are women to be found? Traditionally female-dominated fields such as healthcare and education continue to attract large numbers of women students. But women also make up an overwhelming majority of students in rapidly expanding majors such as psychology, social science, visual and performing arts, communications, and liberal arts, the very majors that are more likely to lead to unemployment, underemployment, or lower lifetime career earnings. Again, we encounter the “too many Hannahs and Marnies” problem.
Girls doesn’t address America’s educational crisis head-on. It doesn’t show us the quarter of students who start high school but never graduate, the 40 percent of college freshmen who never receive a degree, or the millions of Americans who remain hamstrung for life because their schools failed to impart more than rudimentary literacy and numeracy skills. But it does contribute an important missing piece of America’s educational puzzle, showing that even articulate, intelligent graduates of a prestigious, expensive private college like Oberlin (which currently costs almost $60,000 a year for tuition and fees, room and board, books, and living expenses) can wind up working as baristas and receptionists because the economy is glutted with more liberal arts graduates than it can absorb.
Probably unintentionally, Girls lends credence to moves by governors such as Pat McCrory in North Carolina or Rick Scott in Florida to shift public higher education funding into fields that have better job placement rates. These governors want taxpayers to subsidize fewer BAs in English and art history, and produce more graduates qualified to fill vacancies in our burgeoning STEM economy. College faculty have blasted such moves as an attack on the liberal arts and even on academic freedom itself — but the uncomfortable statistics on graduates’ unemployment and underemployment rates speak for themselves. With the U.S. languishing in 27th place in the OECD in the number of STEM degrees awarded as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, it may be time to rethink where we invest our educational resources.
Dunham doesn’t hesitate to connect her characters’ economic shiftlessness to irresponsibility in other parts of their lives, too. By the middle of the show’s second season, Hannah has slept with six different men and has contracted an STD. She has spent half an episode stumbling around in a cocaine-induced haze, her breasts covered only by a see-through mesh shirt, before ending the night in bed with a drug addict, all in the interests of earning $200 for writing a website article about her experience. She and her friends repeatedly fall for wealthy older men (including a successful artist, a financier, and a doctor) who seem to promise tickets to the lifestyles they imagine they deserve — but who wind up using them for casual sex before dumping them. This portrayal of economically vulnerable young women vacillating between “enlightened” hedonism and wanton self-debasement will cause everyone, no matter what their political inclinations, to wince.
It’s not just that Hannah and her friends are contradicting their own college-acquired feminist beliefs by failing to secure financial independence and self-respect — it’s that they are passively participating in the creation of an overeducated, underemployed underclass that can’t grow up, can’t care for itself, and can’t contribute to the rapidly evolving economy that is the engine of America’s future prosperity. There is no doubt that studying the liberal arts can be a worthy, self-enriching pursuit — but as Girls implicitly shows us, one’s choice of college major can have a huge opportunity cost, both for the individual and the wider economy.
Clearly, Dunham is no right-wing social critic; she is a staunch liberal who produced ads for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. She’s also no struggling coffee shop barista in real life: In recent months, Girls has won a prestigious Golden Globe award for best comedy series, while Dunham has signed a book deal with Random House for a reported $3.7 million. Hannah could only dream of being the voice of her generation (or a voice of a generation), but Dunham now has a legitimate claim to that title. And by showing that a creative writing major can become a self-made multi-millionaire by the age of 26, she has demonstrated that one’s college major is not the only determinant of success in life. But, as Dunham surely knows, exceptions do not prove the general rule.