Welcome back to the classroom. Some of you have been at it since before Labor Day. Others returned to school last week. Some of you at the college level won’t be wandering back until later this month.
Whenever you get back to your studies, you’ll be immediately inundated by exhortations to knuckle down to your work and prepare for your future lest you be consigned to years of no or low-wage employment.
You’ll also be hearing how you’re way behind your counterparts from Finland to South Korea, and that all your efforts will probably be for naught anyway, since automation or artificial intelligence or China will have taken away the career you hoped to have by the time you’ve graduated.
Geeze, that’s a lot of pressure and discouragement to foist on all those bright, shiny, eager faces, and we’re not even out of September.
So here’s a little reassurance and encouragement to those on their academic journeys, whether they’re in kindergarten and studying advanced recess or in college and tackling advanced calculus.
The future — your future — won’t be that bad.
In fact, play your cards right, do some strategic thinking now, exercise a bit of self-awareness and initiative, and things could work out quite nicely for you.
That’s not to say you’ll be exempt from studying and the occasional bout with difficult homework, papers, assignments and projects. Mastery of certain basic skill sets will still matter — like the multiplication tables or knowing the proper application of “you’re” and “your,” “there,” “their” and “they’re,” “its” and “it’s” (just being able to use those correctly will put you ahead of much of the population). Being able to fill in the names of countries on a world map is a worthwhile ability to have, so the next time your hear some dire tale of an emerging threat to your livelihood, you’ll know where that threat is coming from, and, perhaps, why. That’s the sort of knowledge schools are built to deliver.
Even more valuable will be mastery of what have been termed soft skills — showing up on time, being dependable, polite, respectful, efficient, under-promising and over-delivering. Those aren’t curriculum items, but schools can still reinforce their importance.
Most valuable of all is simply paying attention to the world around you, by talking and listening to others, by reading, by observing and experiencing. That kind of education can occur at any time, any place and at no cost.
So as not to go all Pollyanna on you, no matter how good you are at all of the above, you still won’t be exempt from disastrous events, natural or man-made, from economic shifts and technology trends that disrupt what you thought were carefully calculated plans for the future. Stuff that is beyond your control but not beyond influencing your life happens. It probably wasn’t your idea to create phalanxes of companies with lots of glittery marketing but no hope of profitability, but the resulting dot-com bust hurt a lot of people. It probably wasn’t your idea to load up banks with bad mortgage loans, but the housing-finance-led Great Recession punished even more.
Those aren’t pleasant experiences to go through, but they can be survived. That’s what your education should equip you to do.
If it does, you’ll be well positioned to capitalize on four trends that are working in your favor:
The baby boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964) is aging out of the workforce. Employers are scrambling to fill those vacancies. Automation and outsourcing will go only so far in replacing those headed to retirement. Astute students who find employers willing to take them on to inherit the institutional knowledge and expertise those older workers possess will set themselves up nicely for their own career runs.
When your columnist was a student, he was barely aware of the concept of being an entrepreneur. Now he are one, several times over. The conversion may have been involuntary, but for many today it’s an accepted and reasonable choice. The tools to go out on your own have never been more plentiful or available, and the barriers to entry in many businesses are incredibly low. You can’t operate a steel mill or an aircraft manufacturer in your garage or spare bedroom, but lots of other ventures will fit just fine in there.
Big companies will continue to provide lots of jobs, but many of today’s students are perfectly comfortable with the notion of being their own boss and employer. Given the turmoil in the modern economy, that may be no riskier than expecting decades-long tenure with one large company. Schools can provide the tools to make entrepreneurialism not just possible but realistic.
Tech gets credited with creating new careers and industries and blamed for wiping them out. The reality is that it does both, and sometimes to itself.
Some technologies blossom into full-fledged industries; others prove to be fads and fade quickly, to be replaced by something newer. Some are volatile, going through periods of maturation and consolidation, then growth.
Today’s students are well acclimated to that environment, having grown up with this stuff. The trick is not so much guessing which technology proves to be a winner, but having the skills and flexibility to adapt to the changes. Humans are going to be needed to develop and refine those technologies and to figure out how best to apply them. There’s your opportunity.
Today’s schools may look remarkably, or depressingly, like what some of us experienced 50 years ago, but education is changing, however slowly. More customized schools, teaching approaches, training tracks and credentials are evolving to keep students engaged, give them the tools they need to succeed and get them to good careers faster. It’s all a work in progress. Some of the ideas won’t work, or will be modified. But the interest and potential in doing something different is there.
Students of today, nothing will be handed to you and nothing is guaranteed, but it’s not all gloom and despair out there. Some of us older types are encouraged about the opportunities for our kids, and maybe even a little envious of what lies ahead for them. It’s there for the taking.
Have a great year.