Post-Apocalyptic Career Counseling, Part I


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?

(Read Part II of Post-Apocalyptic Career Counseling here!)

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About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon. You can email her at perfectwhole@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @juliegoldberg.
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13 Responses to Post-Apocalyptic Career Counseling, Part I

  1. fransiweinstein says:

    We need to teach and encourage young people to become entrepreneurs. Innovaters. Self-employed. We also need to accept the fact that not everyone is University or college material and there is nothing shameful about learning a trade. And we need to have good, interesting, innovative trade schools that include some academic courses — and introduce kids to trades that are in demand and highly valued. We need to change curriculums to keep up with our changing world (and we have to embrace the changing world) instead of trying to force-fit the past on the future because it won’t work. In fact that is really what the American dream is all about. As Steve Jobs taught us, we need to “think different”. It is scary. It is daunting. But it can and should be very exciting — and full of possibilities — albeit possibilities we create for ourselves.

    • Jonathan B. Horen says:

      I’m not at all certain that I’d put Steve Jobs up on that pedestal, or suggest him as a role model; but I would counsel young people to not “think different”, and to not “become entrepreneurs, innovators, or self-employed”… at least, not for many years to come.

      Until then, become good at working as a team member, learning how to share in developing, nurturing, and manifesting an idea — a concept — that might not be one’s own, but which is adopted and “owned” by all. In other words (unabashedly mixing metaphors), before jumping in with both feet, make sure the safety net is firmly in place.

      There are no solo acts. Not even Steve Jobs. One (wo)man shows are best left for Broadway, or off-Broadway… or off-off-Broadway. But in the real world even a laser-focused visionary requires dozens, hundreds, thousands of others to make that precise vision a reality.

      And money. Lots of money.

      • Thanks for your comments, Mr. Horen.

        I think the problem for young, educated people is that they would like nothing more than to join a team and not have to worry about being self-employed until they really felt ready for it, but that it’s simply impossible for them to get that first opportunity. They’re competing for unpaid internships in the hopes of getting the smallest chance at any opportunities that may come along some day. Even the smartest among them worry that they will never be hired.

        They don’t see entrepreneurship the same way we used to see it. Risky as starting one’s own business is, it feels less risky than sending out hundreds of resumes with no result or spinning one’s wheels in dead-end, low-wage labor and it’s psychologically more satisfying, too. Entrepreneurship takes up a lot of brain cells, passion, energy and enthusiasm, all of which the young have in abundance. They want and need jobs, but those who have the money and the ability will make their own if no better offers come along.

  2. Thank you. I’m looking forward to the next part! I was reminded about an article called, “Be a Drop Out” where I read: “Success is the rare gift of living the way you want to live. That doesn’t mean living without sacrifice or compromise; it means living without so much sacrifice and compromise that you become incapable of joy. You know, like your parents.”

    http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/be-a-drop-out/Content?oid=12087

  3. Ruth Hansen says:

    My personal thoughts – and I can’t wait to hear more of your personal thoughts – involve:
    – discover what you love (and do it)
    – discover what you’re good at (and do it)
    – discover what is needed (and do it)

    Convergence between these three is not guaranteed. Neither is the wisdom of the person posting.

  4. Ceil Kessler says:

    I think what you end up doing is collecting skills, so that when opportunities arise, you can take advantage of those opportunities. Go to college, have a base of knowledge, get a degree. But learn a skill that perhaps not everyone will have. Learn Chinese. Learn about computer networking, or learn a computer language. Read business books. Learn how to read a 10Q, and learn stock market terminology. Be versatile. Network. These are the survival skills for the 21st century.

    Sometimes, if you find a company that you really want to work for, figure out what would make you a unique asset to them, and then go and get that knowledge. Look at where their headquarters are based, where their manufacturing is based, and learn something about those areas and their languages if need be.

    Very little of my job-related knowledge came from school. My marketing knowledge came from a job that started as a marketing analyst job. My analyst knowledge came from an IT job that I got. My IT skills were gotten when I had to support 10 stores on their then-new computers as the operations manager. And my operations manager skills came from my time managing a CD store in Raleigh. And I became a store manager because I had been a part-time assistant, earning 7.50/hour.

    But I believe what made me valuable was my ability to be professional, my ability to work very hard for long hours, and the ability to write well and express myself, and to be a good part of a team. I often say that my path is unconventional, but I’m not certain that it is. I do think you need at least a bachelor’s degree now, because not having one will often exclude you from opportunities that people require as a matter of course. Advanced degrees in business are also becoming the norm.

    • Right: the degree itself is a baseline, but you need to have a number of skills you constantly update in addition. It used to be that a company (like the bank I used to work for) would take on a fresh class of college grads every year and teach them the business, with the assumption that college had weeded out the ones who weren’t smart or diligent enough, and that the BA or BS meant that they came equipped with certain skills and attitudes. Perhaps some companies still do that. I don’t know.

      I told the boy who wanted to major in English that he would need to show potential employers that he had skills that would contribute to their mission or bottom line in excess of the amount of money they would pay him, that the analytic and communications skills an English major possesses are not reason enough to hire him. I didn’t try to talk him out of the English major because 1) He really loves it and 2) That’s not my place and 3) People should study what they love, but I really wanted to disabuse him of the notion that a BA in English, in and of itself, was going to get him anywhere. I think he understands it on some level, but needed to hear it anyway.

      It’s funny how different the job of school librarian is from what I thought it was going into it.

  5. OGRe says:

    I extract this important point: the future is unknowable. I add Ruth Hanson’s excellent advice. Then I propose that ‘what is needed’ is to shape the future. We can say goodbye to the idea that some authority will take care of us if we play by the rules. Instead, we have to really look around; see what the world needs and then begin to deliver it. How this will sustain us financially I’m not really sure, but I think risk is unavoidable now. The kids in the Occupy Movement are taking it together.

    • When I think of the bill of goods this generation has been sold, how some of them really exchanged their health and happiness in childhood and adolescence for that dream of getting into a great college, and how there is now almost no reward at the end of that process except unpayable debt, I think we’re very lucky that they’re merely Occupying places and not burning them down.

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