The Barstool Economy

Bartending is a way station for many an American Dream, but too many young people are getting stuck there

You graduate from college but find that your degree won't get you into what we used to call "a career." You might head into a graduate program but find that upon graduation, while you have more intellectual, even practical, skills for employment, you are no better off than before.

Yes, you can perhaps find a job, but even in fields that we have always associated with a profession, today you are more likely to work part time, you won't have benefits and you will be paid not much. Even some nurses increasingly find themselves doing what amount to "gigs."

Many colleges and universities, which profess to prepare you for a professional career, are hiring adjuncts to avoid adding tenure-track faculty. The American Association of University Professors reports that more than 50 percent of all college classes are being taught by part-time faculty, which means no job security, no benefits and little chance for career development.

Enter bartenders. Go ahead and view them as a metaphor for the millennial generation. These are bright, creative, young people who want to make a difference — but they chose areas of study that lead to some of these uncertain fields.

Meet your "Feel the Bern" voters.

Bartending requires the combined skills of the raconteur, conversationalist, therapist and entertainer, along with, of course, knowing how to pour every drink in the book, keeping up with the latest on microbrews (hops, yeast, barley, where it comes from), choosing the-best-for-your-money scotch when asked and being able to describe, between pours, just what is the story on rye whiskey making such a comeback. Of course, then there's wine: Why are those grapes from the Wahluke Slope so special? The bartender also needs a tactful, go-to response for the occasional self-important patron who has just returned from Leonetti down in Walla Walla and wants you to know all about it.

Many are well-read; they are millennials, after all. Gonzaga graduate Brian St. Clair may set records in the "well-read" category: James Joyce, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Leo Tolstoy? He's read every book they wrote.

Chantel Decker has a masters of social work from Eastern Washington University. She got into the field because she believed that the work was important and, for her, fulfilling. She worked for two nonprofits. As she put it to me, "I tried to save people from freezing to death under the Monroe Street Bridge." But then, she went on, "this is when the work really begins; helping the homeless is a long process — a heartbreaking, always emotionally draining process."

Yes, she was putting her education to good use, but she was also burning out while making around $16 an hour. That's all this economy is willing to pay. So she became a bartender/server and today makes between $20 and, on a good night, $36 an hour.

St. Clair majored in business and finance. He was persuaded to "get a practical degree," although he continued to read fiction into the night. Like Decker, he tried to put his degree to use. He got a job in a big bank; the loan subsidiary in the refinancing department. It was 2005 and the bank was, like most all banks, in the middle of the subprime feeding frenzy. "Here's how it worked," St. Clair says. "You buy a refrigerator, which you can't really afford. The salesman tells you that they have this six-month, interest-free loan, which goes to 20 percent the day after six months is up. I saw all the customers' credit reports; I knew how much debt they had. My job was to convince them to take on more debt, to sell 'bundling' of debt by way of a subprime refinance." St. Clair says he was terrible at his job; he actually tried to talk his cold-call customers out of taking on more debt.

Like Decker, he found that he could make more money tending bar than he could in a loan department doing work that he regarded to be unworthy, if not downright shady.

But here's the thing, and I heard this over and over again: "Bartending is a trap." While you can make good money, you can't advance. You will be doing the same thing two years from now — five years from now.

St. Clair, who is 35, would like to work as a bartender no longer than five more years and then get himself a teaching credential. He has always wanted to be an elementary school teacher — even at an income likely less than what he is making tending bar. It's a job clearly worthy of his talents, and the world needs more great teachers.

Decker, 32, would someday like to return to her calling — helping her fellow citizens. But she knows that likely means a loss of pay.

So here's a toast to their futures — hoping they can find work that at least pays benefits. And isn't that telling? No wonder so many millennials want to rewrite the social contract as it stands here in 2016. ♦

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.