The rise of humanities in the new economy

Skills from human and social science are asked for because they produce value. Export companies ask for students with language skills and cultural knowledge, consulting companies ask for project managers with great communication skills, food producers hire cultural analysts that understand consumerism.

Est. reading time: 5 minutes

Do humanity students graduate to unemployment with useless disciplinary profiles? Or do they actually contribute to growth and might be the core of our future economy? A recent survey among newly graduated students from Danish universities point at some profound changes in the European labor markets. The findings might be the first indications of a changing power relationship between different occupations and disciplines in our economy. Soon we may have to think differently about our whole economy and give larger attention to the role of social and humanistic graduates. The survey revealed that graduates from humanistic disciplines are central to creating value in the private sector and that the graduates were highly wanted by so-called growth companies. Unemployment among students from humanity is now lower or similar to newly graduated engineers and law students. Even the financial crisis has not altered the fact that graduates from social and human science are now hired en masse in both the private and public sector.

Double profiles

The results from the survey is a much needed voice as a response to the strong conservative attitudes in the general public as well as in influential industry organizations; namely the believe that humanity students graduate to unemployment with disciplinary profiles of no use in “real life”. Contrary to this, the survey reveals that the students from humanity graduate with a so-called double profile, that is, they can take work in their respective traditional occupations as well as more general jobs relying on their skills to manage projects, cooperate, analyze, communicate and build relationships. In other words, the graduates of today can follow their traditional paths and aim at jobs in higher education, research and museums, but also just as well take jobs in the private sector, civil society or in public offices. Here, their skills are just as much needed and asked for.

A new kind of value

This is of course good news for the humanistic departments, some of which have expanded their admissions heavily the last decades, but also a sign of a profound change in the international competition and production. Skills from human and social science are required because these are skills that produce value. Export companies ask for students with language skills and cultural knowledge, consulting companies ask for project managers with great communication skills, food producers hire cultural analysts that understand consumerism, and governmental organizations take in people that can communicate and facilitate cooperation with their local municipalities. In a knowledge-based economy this is becoming the new central kind of value and production, and which gives companies the necessary competitive edge. On the other side the disciplines that currently rank high in the hierarchies of occupations might be on the edge of a downturn. How long can European engineers compete with their Chinese colleagues, and for how long will farmers and industrialists be able to survive their own rationalization schemes? Jobs that were previously safe and high in status might be in a totally opposite position in a decade or two as the global distribution of production keeps changing our labor markets. Those occupations, which were once considered the “real” productive ones, might turn out to be the “unproductive” in the coming economy. According to the survey what the newest generation of humanist graduates work with is structuring projects, communication, information gathering and analysis, project management, text writing and innovation. In the future labor markets, these skills and the sensitive knowledge to cultural and social processes might be the right mix of qualities to produce value. However for the humanistic university departments this change is also an immense challenge.

The double conundrum

Whilst getting graduates into jobs is a clear success for the humanity departments, it also represents a great challenge. How can universities balance the production of the many new professionals workers for the knowledge based economy, and at the same time also educate dedicated high school teachers and critical researchers? How can universities produce broadly to the many sectors and offices while at the same time produce a critical stand to the mainstream development? This is not at all an easy task. Students ask for more cooperation with private sector companies, concrete computer skills and more training in doing presentations. Faced with these demands from students are the lecturers and professors trained years ago and with little training in the skills that will be central for 95 % of their students’ everyday. The expansion of humanities and integration of graduates in to the wider labor market has been taking place over a short number of years, and we have not yet seen the effects. One risk could certainly be that universities introduce too much general project management and leave out the traditional education, and thereby loose the qualities they have today. On the other hand both the public and private sector can be enriched from the depth and skills of humanities. Perhaps in a few years, the popular image of social and human science graduates will have changed, and no one will even think about the humanity graduate as a person following a narrow personal interest, and as one without future job perspective.

Facts from Denmark: One year after graduating one out of ten students are without a job. Of the remaining group 60 % work in the public sector and 40 % in the private sector.

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I am a post doctoral student at the University of Copenhagen and currently engaged in a research project examining societal changes in the last three decades. My specific focus is cultural complexity, cities and rural development.


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