I. Demise of the Standard-Issue Career Advice
What are you telling the rising generation about how to succeed in the post-apocalyptic economy? Is it something like this?
Pay attention to your teachers, do your homework, and study for your tests. Work hard and do your best in school and in your extra-curricular activities. If you earn high grades and standardized test scores, you’ll get into a good college, major in what interests you, and find a decent job that will pay your bills. You’ll be able to marry, buy a house and give your children the same opportunities you had, if not better ones. Someday, you’ll be able to retire.
Are you able to give this counsel without bursting into tears?
Parents and teachers repeated this advice to several generations because the American economy provided jobs for millions of college graduates and always, barring some ups and downs, needed a fresh supply. Although some majors were more remunerative than others (engineering versus philosophy), the bachelor’s degree opened doors. Some of us were told that we should major in whatever we enjoyed, because a degree in English, psychology, or communications could be useful in any field. We were even told that companies preferred to hire humanities graduates, rather than business majors, because we knew how to think and communicate and could be trained in the specifics of any organization’s needs easily. Some fields, such as education, engineering and computer science at the undergraduate level, medicine and law at the graduate level, were considered guarantees of lifelong employment. Quaint as it sounds now, it worked for millions.
The conventional wisdom about education and success perished among the many victims of the Global Financial Crisis. The employment statistics for new college graduates are frightening: 22.4% of recent college graduates under 25 years old are not working at all. 22% are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree, and the 55.6% that are working in jobs that require a college degree are averaging only $26,756 per year, less than college graduates earned a few years ago, and far less than they need to support themselves and pay back exorbitant college loans. The depression in their starting salaries will follow them for years. Computer science and math majors are doing better than humanities majors, but even 21% of computer and math grads are unemployed. Employment statistics for new lawyers are so terrible that law schools have been fudging their numbers. (So much for “I can always go to law school.”) While one is still far better off with a college education than without one, merely possessing a bachelor’s degree guarantees nothing. The Age of Credentials is over.
But the young are still hearing the same advice their parents heard. Perhaps fewer of them are being told the romantic lie that if you do what you love, the money will follow (always true for a tiny minority of exceptionally talented and lucky people), but they are still being told, and still seem to believe, that a good college education in and of itself is the key to a happy and successful life. Their rapidly increasing indebtedness demonstrates the sincerity of their belief. They are putting money they may never have where their mouths are.
High school students loading up on AP and honors courses, extracurricular activities, internships, community service, and sleep deprivation have certainly not gotten the memo. One told me recently with complete confidence that he planned to major in English because “English helps you no matter what career you pick. Businesses prefer to hire English majors.” I had been told exactly the same thing 25 years ago, when it might even have been true. How can kids who are so hip and attuned to every aspect of the college application process not spare a thought for what comes after college? And why is a generation reputed to believe nothing that anyone tells them so gullible in this one crucial area?
A friend who is an attorney for a Fortune 100 company and a father of two young children told me, “I’ll have no clue how to advise my kids to help ensure that they’ll be able to live self-sufficiently and comfortably.” He’s honest with himself, but I think a lot of adults are in deep denial about our inability to advise the next generation. Our mentors knew what to tell us, and we feel we ought to be able to take our place in the generational timeline, passing on our wisdom about survival and success to the young. But we can’t, because they’re graduating into a world we didn’t have to live in until very recently ourselves, and few of us have mastered it.
I don’t want to overstate the case or depress anyone, but Thomas Friedman has no such scruples. In his January 24th column entitled “Average is Over,” he writes:
“In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.”
But by definition, most people are average. If everyone were blessed with high intelligence, creativity, talent, persistence, courage and good fortune, that would be average, so the age of average will never be over. And, in any case, people don’t deserve to starve for the crime of not being extraordinary. But even if I take Friedman at face value, what shall I tell the 1,300 students I work with about thriving in this post-average age? “Kids, don’t be average”?
He goes on to suggest:
“In a world where average is officially over, there are many things we need to do to buttress employment, but nothing would be more important than passing some kind of G.I. Bill for the 21st century that ensures that every American has access to post-high school education.”
Post-high school education to do what, exactly? College graduates already struggle to find work. And when every American goes to college, won’t having a college degree then be “average”?
The future is unknowable, and unemployment will not always be as terrible as it is today, but structural changes in the American and global economy have unquestionably destroyed old systems and old expectations. Most of us know this by now, even the politicians still getting re-elected on the dream of restoring an economic system that is gone forever. But what, then, do we tell the adolescents who want to know what they should be when they grow up?
I can’t fault Friedman for not knowing how to advise young people because I don’t know, either, though he gets paid a lot more money not to know than I do. Unlike Friedman, I, along with every other educator, must look students in the eye each day with an air of confidence meant to suggest that what we’re teaching will help them make their way in the world someday. That, too, used to be easier.
So how can we really help them?