Hands making something with clay

The Deep Value of Useless Things

At the risk of sounding like an aging baby boomer (oops, that is me), I want to put in a pitch to value highly those things that aren’t worth much. So here’s why everyone else is wrong.

A liberal arts or humanities major

There are an awful lot of parents these days who have a seizure if their progeny announce they are majoring in English or worse yet, French literature, art history, or history. This is close on the heels of recovery from the previous seizure when they saw the tuition bill. In the instant mental computation available to every check writing parent, we now know the degree will be worthless and the kid will be decorating cappuccino cups as their highest creative achievement. Particularly for female students, they’ll also feel as if they’ve betrayed feminism if they don’t major in a STEM field. In fact, tell people about a liberal arts major and they’ll immediately feel sorry for you (or your pathetic kid).

Once upon a time I majored in Sociology and minored in creative writing/English. Then I took COBOL and FORTRAN programming. Guess which choice has been more useful to my career, as well as my life? If you guessed computer skills, you’d be wrong. I haven’t made a penny off my computer skills. Technical knowledge quickly becomes defunct, A lot of specific, functional expertise can be gotten off YouTube (how do YOU do home repairs?). You can take an adult ed program or concentrated seminar for specific skills you discover you need.

On the other hand, it’s almost impossible as an adult to get concentrated time over an extended period to immerse yourself in culture, beauty, and deep background. College is very likely the only time in your life when you’ll have such an opportunity. I would have been very disappointed if my already-cosmopolitan daughter had selected some technical training field with the purpose of paying to become corporate cannon fodder at graduation.

Yes, of course we all have to work, and if your heart is in computer science, go for it. But, for most people I think not. At the music camp I just attended, instructor Kevin Carroll (a better musician and teacher than I can ever hope to be) commented that once upon a time everyone wanted to and thought they could be a rock star, and sales of electric guitars boomed. In these times, electric guitar sales have crashed. Now everyone wants to be an app developer or tech billionaire, or just play video games. Is it love, or is it the promise of instant riches? Why do the worst jobs have the best cafeterias? I wanted dearest daughter to keep her eyes on the prize—she needed to become employable at some point and probably no one hires a BA Anthropologist to do anthropology—but she isn’t a dope so she figured that one out for herself. In the meantime she learned a lot about group process, creating alternative solutions to unfamiliar tasks, and read a ton of good books which she thankfully sent home to educate her mom properly.

Playing music with no intention (or hope) of becoming a professional

An orchestra director once lamented to me that his extremely talented students, the ones whose parents were tigers, graduated and went into (pick one) engineering, computer science, or statistics because the parents felt that the only degree worth getting was one that offered instant employment, and music sure wasn’t that. But awards look good on college applications.

I’ll admit I have mixed feelings about performance majors at conservatories, not because of the near-impossibility of finding a job in the field, but because the education is so thin in any other topic. But what a supreme pleasure to play at that level. And I dearly wish I saw those same kids, or their parents, in the audience at musical events. They seem to disappear once the admission letter arrives.

I’m focusing on music here, but I could probably say the same thing about art, or creative writing, or even languages. They are all or individually worth doing because of the immense pleasure and satisfaction they bring to your life, not your work. I’ve enjoyed an obsession with music—guitar, piano, ukulele, dulcimer, Native American flute—for most of my life. I play everyone of them badly, but all I have to do is catch sight of one of my instruments from the corner of my eye to feel happy. I almost never play in front of anyone, nor do I feel I need to.

At times, being able to play or do art has been the only thing that saved my sanity in the large variety of horrible jobs I’ve wended my way through in life. I highly recommend it—and it’s often cheaper than all the stress coping activities that attempt to accustom you to a life with no other relief.

Crafts and hobbies

What I say about music and art goes just as well with crafts and hobbies, although making something may have even more empowerment than replicating someone else’s work. Carpentry, sewing, cooking, rebuilding classic cars, all these things give you control over aspects of your life that hiring someone else never does. There’s the pleasure of mastering the techniques, the lifelong opportunity to improve the technique, and the ability to have something custom, well crafted, and utterly your own.

For example, I make almost all my own clothing, (and much of my jewelry) and have done so since I was about 12 years old. No one ever asks me if I made “xyz”. I like to think it’s because what I make is so expert they’d never think it was “homemade” (I prefer “handmade”), but my strong suspicion is that no one, anymore, recognizes that objects could be handmade unless they come from Ten Thousand Villages.

If you’ve been in my office you’ve seen the stunningly beautiful Mission style “throne” that a friend made for me. He’s organized his professional work so that he can have Fridays for his beloved craft.

Some crafts—knitting, cooking—are relatively easy to learn to a competent degree. Others take years—sewing, carpentry—to reach even a medium level of expertise. How wonderful to be interested in something where there is always more to learn.

Back to sewing—as with most crafts, no, it doesn’t save any money with the cost of fabric and the time spent. And, thanks to cheap clothing available everywhere, there’s no real possibility of making finely-made, quality-fabric garments and realizing any money selling them. But oh, the satisfaction, not only in the finished project but in the pleasure of the activity itself!

Less cash, more human interaction

Just about every night we walk our dog past a house in the neighborhood where we see a family sitting in their expensive house, in front of their bay window, eating out of boxes. I wonder how hard and long they work to pay for those boxes because earning enough to do so means they don’t have time to cook. They are well and truly trapped on the treadmill.

I love that we can learn so many things online (it’s how I learned to crochet), but maybe, just maybe, we could spend time with our kids, or an older relative, getting the fine-tuning that interaction with another human offers. But that would mean we’d have to take some time off the moving sidewalk. Maybe then, we could think not of enduring “getting older” but call it living longer (with so much worthwhile to do).

Cabin with family

Financial respect: Young folks at home

Young adults living at the parental home after college (or grad school) have become very common phenomena. For some reason, every media piece on the subject (or the social media comments afterwards) either has a derisive tone toward slacker kids and their pushover parents, or a resentful tone by the parents who feel they’re being exploited.

How to avoid that? Since an awful lot of the problem comes down to money and who pays, I’d like to suggest some guidelines on how this really could work to everyone’s advantage. After all, two (or three or more) can live more cheaply than 1 (+1+1).

I’m all for parents having respect for their offspring, and young adults having respect for themselves and parents. But all respect needs to be earned. So, if the young adult is going to live at the parents’ home, I think there should be some principles adhered to.

  1. Everybody has a job.

Part A: Everybody has a job or some source of income. For parents, this can be earnings or pension or whatever. For the young adult, this means some sort of job—even if you’re still searching for the career position, or are in grad school, you need some sort of pick-up job earning some cash. No exceptions unless you’ve accumulated savings from a previous job.

Part B: Everybody has household tasks equivalent to at least the minimum expected of a roommate. That means, for example, the young adult does their own laundry, cooks at least some meals, cleans a bathroom, vacuums/dusts some of the time, washes floors, mows the lawn, makes repairs, and keeps their own room clean enough not to draw bugs or vermin. This is reasonable for any roommate and core competencies for adults.  I will personally never understand how anyone not disabled needs a lawn service or housecleaner when teenage children (or older) are living in the house.

Part C: If the young person doesn’t earn enough money to pay their reasonable share (see below), they need to take on regular significant jobs that would need to be paid for—power washing the house, painting the house indoors or out, cleaning out the basement, you get the idea. This needs to be regular, scheduled, and not credited until completed. Get some estimates if you don’t know what it would be worth.

  1. No one comments on anyone’s sexual behavior unless it is visibly embarrassing to others. IMHO, parents have no business commenting or restricting the dating lives of anyone else in the house who’s an adult. An adult who wants to stay out all night should arrive home in time in the morning to let out the dog. If people would have safety concerns about a missing person, the people at home deserve a brief call notifying them that someone will not be home that night. Families should agree on the overnight guest policy. This may be the biggest source of friction between parents and adult children. Discretion is the watchword here.
  1. People are entitled to set drug and alcohol rules in a home, just as roommates would agree on the policies. If you make a vomitrocious mess, you clean it up.
  1. Anytime the young person feels they don’t like the rules, methods, or costs, they are free to move out with no resentment or subtle feelings of abandonment.
  1. No one does the saving for anyone else. I hear a lot of parents tell me they’re saving the (paltry) $300 or $500 for the kid’s wedding or first down payment. Um, no. The kid is costing you money and furthermore should be choosing, saving for, and accomplishing their own goals. It’s that pesky respect again. With the deal they’re getting, they ought to be able to save a lot more.
  1. Young adults pay their fair share. To parents: respect your children enough to believe they can pay their way. Millennials: don’t be a sinkhole to your parents. He or she who pays the bills, makes the rules. I constantly hear parents tell me they don’t charge their kids anything, or what they charge is minimal. They usually smirk after this, or tell me they’re waiting breathlessly until the kid moves out. Charge your kids what they cost; pay your way.

How to calculate what a young adult should pay:

Here’s the method I used. Look at 3 years’ worth of expenses and average them (okay, one year if you’re not an obsessive bookkeeper, but adjust each year). Figure out all costs in which the kid participates:

  • Housing including property taxes, homeowner’s fees, and insurance. Wear and tear is hard to quantify.
  • Utilities
  • Internet, cable, and landline service
  • Cell phone (I think this should be the whole bill, not just what an extra phone costs)
  • Shared car cost—payment, insurance, gas, maintenance
  • Food (including booze if freely available and grilling charcoal if used)
  • Veterinary bills for shared pets
  • Gardening
  • Average home repairs (1% per year of home value if you need a rule of thumb)
  • Health insurance if on a family plan
  • Whatever else you can think of

Paid for by the individual incurring the cost:

  • Health care deductibles and prescriptions
  • Health club and any other club dues
  • Lessons, musical instruments owned by the individual, and cost of hobbies
  • Entertainment and eating out
  • Gifts
  • Charitable donations
  • Clothing, grooming, makeup etc.
  • Individual car and all costs associated
  • Craft supplies
  • Debts (including student loans)
  • Savings (retirement, goals)
  • Vacations (their share if taken as a family)

So, add up everything in the first set and divide by the number of people in the household, then divide by 12. That’s the reasonable living cost the young person should be paying. In our case, I also have a home office where I take business deductions, so I arbitrarily allocated 1/3 of those deductible bills to my roommate. You have my permission to modify these—for example, it’s my car so she doesn’t cover the payment, but if she damages it, she’s 100% responsible for repairs. Sure, the fewer the people in the house, the more individual cost, but also the more space, access to laundry facilities, etc.

These are all reasonable costs associated with living a life. If you can’t pay for them, you can’t afford the choices you’re making. That’s basic budgeting—and by the way, if you as a parent don’t have sufficient savings for emergencies and retirement, you can’t afford to bankroll the kids. Same goes for grandchildren gifts, free child care, and huge lump sum transfers.

In our case, that came out to about $1,200/month and in trying not to be the meanest mom in the world, I knocked it down to $1,000 so she could pay extra on student loans, but half the vet bills. I’m not sure she’s coming out “ahead” on that.

When I tell other people what I charge, they’re invariably shocked. So much! But not really—there’s nowhere in Evanston or the Chicago area that you could have all these services, rent, and food for that price. Yet, since we both know that’s what it costs, she is indeed paying her way and can have respect for herself. I don’t feel resentful either. And I most definitely see her as a responsible adult. It’s win/win.

Financial choices in a weird job market

I keep hearing how the job market is at full employment, yet I’ve written before how insecure most younger workers seem to feel in their jobs. But yet again a few days ago someone commented to me, “Oh yeah, in (XXX industry) they’re just begging for people”. Well, “they” may be begging but I can tell them why they can’t fill the positions:

  1. The location is horrible: oil rig, frozen tundra, windowless cubicle, crazy hours, or crime infested neighborhood with a perilous journey to get there. So, basically, they’re not paying enough to make the risk worthwhile (as with any other investment).
  2. There’s a completely unrealistic set of requirements. Either the employer is requesting more education and/or experience than the job could conceivably require, or their requirements are so specific and demanding that two people in the world have those qualifications, and they’re not paying enough to attract them, or to encourage anyone else to invest in such specific training.
  3. Employers are thinking of the old days, when you could work your way through college. Millennials have heavy debt burdens—they’ve financed their careers long term. Requiring a masters’ degree in an urban area and offering $50,000 a year is so unrealistic as to be almost breathtaking. Couple that with the gig economy of “staffing companies” who offer no retirement benefits, no health insurance, and minimal vacation and sick days (and no paid holidays or overtime for working those or weekends—it’s all coming out of your “personal days) and, well, they’re not paying enough. Interestingly, staffing companies and recruiters often think they’re offering a higher hourly rate and I’m sorry to say that some people are dumb enough to fall for that. But if you calculate the value of benefits, cost of health insurance, value of paid time off, etc. you are almost certainly being screwed—because when did an employer ever have your best interests at heart?


Under capitalism, the market should be responding to these shortages by raising wages, right? Right. Instead, they’re offloading all responsibility for workers and directing ever more in the CEO’s pocket. We need someone creating an equally strong pressure (such as unions, government regulation, and new legislation controlling egregious corporate behavior). Will this plunge the value of companies and non-profits to operate? No, I don’t think so—just cost the 1% their ability to take everything. And great, offload responsibilities for workers–but then let’s put corporate taxes in place that fund government provision of those services.


It’s particularly troubling in areas that are critical to health, well-being, and education. These fields are supposedly “desperate” for trained people, yet many trained people can’t readily find jobs. I know of one situation where someone was being interviewed for a position at a fragile-medical rehab center. Although the candidate had absolutely no experience in the field, they offered a job after a 20-minute interview, if said candidate would accept an outrageously low salary, no extra compensation for weekends or holidays, high cost employee paid health insurance, no training, no mentorship, yadda-yadda.   They were obviously desperate for a warm body to fill the slot. But if you landed in the place after being in ICU, would you want to be treated by that new hire? And why was that job going begging? Because they’re not paying enough.


I’ve been amused lately by the practice of employers not disclosing the salary range for a position, and I’ve actually seen millennials comment that it would be “impolite” to ask that when being interviewed (either by phone or being asked to take time to interview in person).  Seriously? Why would you not ask—because you might offend an employer by being interested in working for money? As Samuel Johnson said, Nobody but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.


And why would an employer be offended by an applicant asking about the salary range, especially so as not to waste anyone’s time? Because they know they’re not paying enough. And for them, your time is free.

So go ahead, tell me why I’m wrong (politely, please). I’m open to changing my perspective.