If not even an Ivy League education is a guarantee of success, then what is? Well, the employment rate among neurosurgeons remains encouragingly high, if you have the hands for that kind of work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics generates lists of high-demand occupations, if we can still trust expert prognostication. Anyone willing to choose something off the BLS list may still manage to follow some version of the algorithm of success without too much difficulty, until the competition from everyone else trying to do it, too, spoils the game.
No particular philosophy of K-12 education guarantees success, either, although every group with an educational theory, from the standards-driven reform crowd to the techno-utopians, traditionalists to constructivists, whether in public, private, charter or home schools, argues that their own methods best prepare students to meet the challenges of the future. But since the future is unknowable, how can anyone be confident that a particular pedagogy yields the desired effect? We don’t (and can’t) do the kinds of comparative longitudinal studies that would reveal which educational methods lead to success. We can’t even agree on a definition of “success.”
Trying to predict the skill-sets students will need to get a job in five, ten or twenty years is pointless¹. The only timeless skill is the ability to keep learning forever, combined with the wisdom to know that you must.
Additional capabilities may also be helpful. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an organization of business and educational leaders, has created a framework of skills and orientations they believe best prepare students for life and work in the 21st century. While some have criticized P21’s overall approach to curriculum, as well as its corporate origins and motives, the Life and Career Skills outlined really are necessary to survival in a post-apocalyptic economy in which those corporations refuse to hire anyone. Flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity and accountability, leadership and responsibility are as useful in a garage-based start-up as they are in the mailroom of the World Wide Wicket Company.
A different, broader model of necessary attitudes and dispositions is Habits of Mind, created by Art Costa, which defines sixteen characteristics intelligent people display when approaching difficult problems. The Habits of Mind are:
- Communicating with clarity and precision
- Managing impulsivity
- Gathering data through all senses
- Listening with understanding and empathy
- Creating, imagining, innovating
- Thinking flexibly
- Responding with wonderment and awe
- Taking responsible risks
- Striving for greater accuracy and precision
- Finding humor
- Questioning and problem posing
- Thinking interdependently
- Applying past knowledge to new situations
- Remaining open to continuous learning
Educators around the world are working with the Habits of Mind in the belief that the habits are teachable to students of any age and applicable to any challenge those students may face in their lives and careers.
The bright college graduates I discussed in Part II, shut out of the job market, but starting their own cooperative ventures, are applying the Habits of Mind, whether they know them by that name or not. I admire their willingness to think analytically, to work creatively and collaboratively, to imagine ways to survive and thrive in a world for which their education and upbringing did not prepare them. With older adults unable to guide them, they are figuring the new rules out for themselves, which might be summarized like this:
The future is unknowable. Change is permanent. In the absence of that clear, predictable path to success, we have to make the road by walking–but never alone. Credentials are crucial, but they are only a foundation. People want to know what you can do, not where you went to school. Every job requires an entrepreneurial orientation, not just the job you create for yourself. Band together–it’s too ugly out there for an individual to survive alone, and not much fun. Pool resources with like-minded friends. Expect less materially. Pursue your passions–if there ever was a reward for giving up the work that you were born to do, it’s certainly gone now. Don’t ever let the job market define your worth–you are not your job. Learn forever.
High school students deep in the weeds of SAT prep, application essays and College Prowler might want to look up for a few minutes to see what people just a few years older, who have already collected their shiny college prizes, are doing on the other side. It is that older cohort, rather than parents or teachers, who possess the best available wisdom for coming of age during hard times. If you need some real post-apocalyptic career counseling, ask the experts.