There are a lot of different issues going on in your post:
- First, the fields that you mention were lucrative fields for several generations. If nothing else, during the ’80s or ’90s, a humanities major could use teaching as a fallback job (not anymore now that advanced certifications are required for most teaching positions). And employers saw value in the humanities degree, unlike now, when employers are demanding specialized degrees for employment in increasingly niche fields.
It hasn’t sunk in at a societal level that humanities degrees aren’t worth as much as they used to be in many sections of the market. And why should it have? Many of the job market conditions that have created the problem are very recent. When I was an undergrad, the common wisdom was that as long as you got a degree — any degree — someone would hire you. Of course, this was right before the drive to send as many people as possible to college.
It’s also expecting a lot of a teenager to have researched whether or not job growth is expected in her field in the future (Do students learn how to do this in school? Do their parents teach them?). Heck, I was ignorant about the employment market when I began my master’s degree. I figured that becoming a professor was a safe bet. It was a solid, middle class career with good wages, flexible hours, and extreme stability in the form of tenure. And colleges always needed more professors, right? As long as students were still entering college, someone has to teach them. What more did I need to know? Universities themselves do not advertise to students about the number of adjuncts that they hire (nor are those adjuncts’ wages publicized), and adjuncts themselves are often loathe to bring up the topic to their students (After all, “agitators” are untenured and can be easily fired, and such discussions aren’t necessarily the best use of class time.). Also, a lot of discussions of the higher education labor market happen in specialized publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education. Even informed students may not know that full time positions are rare in higher ed these days.
2. Humanities degrees are still incredibly lucrative for students in the Ivy League. There will always be students for whom those degrees will be both fun and will not pose an obstacle to employment.
3. The traditional wisdom for years has been to do what makes you happy/ follow your dreams. That advice used to be spot-on. Of course, not everyone could make a living in the field that he preferred, but for most people, there was no harm in trying. If at 24 or 28, you realized that things weren’t working out in your preferred field, you’d simply get hired in a different field, or pay $6,000 in tuition to get a new degree, if need be. It is only very recently that rising tuition rates bar students from simply jumping back into school to retrain, and as I said above, it is only recently that employers have stopped hiring art history majors with no real business experience for entry-level office jobs.
4. The recession affected the ability of a lot of millennials to get and keep work and to build up the work experience necessary to get hired in other jobs.
5. It’s one thing to tell students to go into a lucrative field (not that my engineer friends were having much luck during the recession when the funding did not exist for many construction projects), but not everyone can hack the coursework or the on-the-job work required for those fields. STEM coursework, for instance, is hard, and many people don’t have the right brain for it, either because of overall intelligence, or just because their intellectual strengths lie elsewhere. And other lucrative fields, like nursing, require abilities that many people just don’t have (e.g. the ability to deal with blood). There is something to be said for majoring in a field where you have talent, rather than flunking your second semester of college because you and biochemistry aren’t made for each other.
6. It’s one thing to understand intellectually that there are not a lot of jobs open in your field because you have been told so. It’s quite another thing to learn that there are few jobs open in your field because you’ve been on the market for nine months. Sometimes people (especially young people) simply need to see reality for themselves before they are able to understand it.
Some millennials are irresponsible, of course. But many are simply struggling to adjust to a job market that changed practically overnight, and they are often advised by parents who often don’t understand the realities of the new market.