Why I Am Not a Barista

Rooster Coffee HouseWhy, in this age of cafés and ubiquitous barista-ing, have I never ‘pulled’ an espresso or ‘frapped’ a mocha? It’s not as if I don’t work — I have had jobs throughout school and the summers in between. And it doesn’t come from a caffeine-phobia — these days I seem to live on the stuff. And truth is, I really love most places you can get hot drinks — there’s a community hub brewing beneath those morning check-ins and afternoon catch-ups. So what’s the story? This is one student’s quest to find out why she’s missing out on the defining job of her generation.

First, the very practical: because I have never applied for a job at a coffee shop. At least, I don’t think so. Nope, can’t say I have. I have been fortunate enough to be slightly choosy in what jobs I take. Sure, there have always been other menial jobs that filled my time: camp counsellor, kitchen helper, administrative assistant, nanny extraordinaire, elementary school tutor and so on. But it makes it tough to have been a barista if I’ve never applied. But oddly, I was never struck by the urge, not that the other options were much better.

Second, because no one has ever asked me to be one. Though I doubt there’s a “Canada’s Next Top Barista” or “So You Think You Can Brew” in any network’s line-up, I can assure you I wouldn’t make the cut. I’ve never shown a particular skill at producing ‘crema’ (those swirly designs in your foamed drink) and I don’t know my way around an espresso machine. There has never been a chance for me to be declared an ‘undiscovered coffee guru’ while making (very average) coffee on a Saturday morning at someone’s house — because I struggle with even automatic coffee machines.

Third, I think, before we become a full-blown ‘generation of baristas’, we can do better. In response to a fellow student who said he didn’t take a gap year because he thought he wouldn’t come back to school, one of my profs remarked, “Oh yeah, because serving coffee for a year might be so exciting that you’d miss having to do nothing but read and write about subjects you chose to study.” And it’s true: in comparison to serving coffee, I think we can demand better, create better, be better.

While I have many barista-ing friends who profess to love the work since there’s some pleasure in the predictable routines, friendly ‘regulars’ and work ending when the shift ends, not even these friends want this to be a long-term thing. At the very least, they’d want to open their own cafés for the challenges that would bring. In the meantime, these coffee-serving jobs tend to be secondary and supplementary to real passions. The actor or photographer or web designer who works at a coffeehouse is a classic trope in cities from L.A. to Montréal. But those actors, photographers and designers do things we need; there are many more things the world needs besides another mocha-serving student.

One of those options might be starting your own café or volunteering or staying in school. But many students are spending 10, 20, 40 hours a week working in a café and why is that? Is it that they feel called to this work? Not often, unless you get the chance to break out on your own, away from the massive corporate Starbucks, Second Cup and Tim Horton’s locations. It often comes down to this being the only job they can get. And when you need money, you don’t gripe about higher callings. This is a problem, these dead-end jobs.

Quite frankly, this hourglass shaped economy, where these menial are the only jobs you can get, is getting tiresome. That’s why there are Occupy protests. That’s why record numbers of us are enrolling in post-secondary programs, in an attempt to reach the decent paying jobs, if there are any left when we graduate. That’s why we’ve been categorized as Generation Sell: equal parts entrepreneur and showbiz salesperson. Everyone’s starting something, selling something or planning on it. Because the current paradigm of what a student job is and of what we can do after we stop being students is failing us. And it tastes worse than a bitter, 3-hour old brew.

This sentiment to start out on our own stems from “the heroic age of dot-com entrepreneurship that emerged during the Millennials’ childhood and youth,” wrote William Deresiewicz in a recent New York Times article. Further fueling the small business fervour was “a distrust of large organizations, including government, as well as the sense, a legacy of the last decade, that it’s every man for himself,” Deresiewicz continued. So if we’re ‘The Entrepreneurial Generation’, what is holding us back from quitting our jobs and launching start-ups? In many instances, it’s exactly what holds most people back from quitting a job, semi-stable if nothing else, and putting themselves on the line. Sure, youth can take more risks and make more mistakes without the penalties of full-blown adulthood but it’ll still hurt if it fails. And it’s scary. But we still ought to try to carve out something new for ourselves.

And so, sometimes jobs are just what you can get (“Oh I hate my job, some day I’ll quit and be an artist”), what you fill your time with as you figure things out (“Ooops! Turns out I wanted to become a computer hacker instead!”) or what you use to fund your passions once you figure them out (“I hacked PlayStation with my new skills and gadgets!”). But while the job prospects may look bleak now, I expect all of my favourite baristas (unless it’s what they really love) to move on once this scary recession stuff blows over. Because this screwed up economy needs all the help it can get from talented people like you.  And World, I’m hoping you brew a strong pot of bold for these courageous folks. Otherwise I’m going to learn how to use those espresso machines.

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