Skip to main content
gen y

You're graduating from a liberal arts program – now what? Many graduates have neat trajectories laid out before them: Medical students become doctors, engineering students become engineers, education students become teachers, and business students become business owners.

But what about our liberal arts graduates? What do they become?

To be on the verge of graduation and realize that there is no formula for your future is a predicament made even more daunting by the fact that your vast potential is highly underestimated – by just about everyone.

What is the value of a liberal arts degree is a question that stumps many of our leaders from government to business. We live in a world where questions with murky answers are too often avoided at all costs. We would like our next generation to follow defined paths leading immediately and measurably into the workforce, becoming, as we would say in economics, factors of production.

For that reason, a trend has emerged of swinging the education pendulum away from intellectual exploration towards technical training. It is one that I believe we pursue at great cost to cultivating a culture of innovation, ingenuity and meaning.

What a postsecondary education in the liberal arts offers is experience in critical thinking about messy, complicated concepts. It offers a platform for the generation and evolution of ideas, and a safe space to take risks and develop the kind of courage that defines our greatest innovators, entrepreneurs and world-changers.

I posit that for every one example of a liberal arts grad working as a barista at Starbucks (and convince me that weaving human psychology, anthropology, addiction and economics into a $50-billion empire built on $5.00 non-fat lattes isn't a compelling pursuit), I can tell a story where the baseline skills of a liberal arts grad are vital to understanding how our world works – across sectors, industries and disciplines.

Take the ultimate success story of our generation: Apple Inc. Steve Jobs believed that technology is more than circuit boards and programming; Apple turned it into a way of life. An understanding of the humanities made those links between technical prowess, usability and joy possible.

From history grads with a deep understanding of the way that civil unrest affects the market, and subsequently the world economy, and who can turn that understanding into market predictions and sound long-term investments; to literature grads that can turn a good idea into a captivating vision – simply through skilled and purposeful communication that resonates, sells and motivates behavioural change, disciplines often considered fluffy and impractical are teaching students how to make the intangible, tangible.

Yes, we need the technically trained. But we also need interdisciplinary liberal arts graduates to bridge gaps and make sense of incredibly complex systems all around us that aren't necessarily powered by numbers, science and logic.

The case for liberal arts education needs to be reframed – by government leaders, by business, and by students themselves. There is undoubtedly an economic return to be made, but more importantly, a massive societal return given that the root causes of our local and global challenges are grounded in human behaviour. It has never been more important to understand how people live, think, co-exist, network and interact.

So what is a Gen-Y arts grad to do? First, refuse to apologize for your liberal arts degree. Put it to work instead by asking the right questions. "What will I become?" is the wrong question. "How can I make a difference?" will get you a lot closer. Share your ideas, take risks, and if you fail, have the courage to start all over again.

If they have any hope of enjoying success in this globally competitive world, companies and organizations will need to re-orient toward these attributes or risk being left behind in the dust of those who do.

All across this country, cities, businesses and organizations are trying to get the edge over their competition, and they're not doing that by sticking with the tried and true. Getting the edge means embracing people with fresh ideas who challenge the systematic barriers holding us back from doing the impossible. That is you, Gen Y arts graduates.

Brad Ferguson is president and CEO of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation. On April 1st, The Globe and Mail and Gen Y Inc. will co-host a webinar on Gen Y in the workplace, featuring a panel of Gen Y entrepreneurs: #GlobeGenY on Twitter for more details.

Interact with The Globe