Go to school and get a good education—everyone tells you to do this, but no one explains why this is still your best investment in your future. Particularly in light of the onslaught of bad news for recent college graduates, this precept might be worth revisiting so that it is not just some dusty piece of advice that seems to have little relevance to our transformed—and transforming—world.
First, let’s look at how things stand now.
Student loan debt is staggering a great many students and can no longer be discharged—even if one goes bankrupt. It seems we may need to add one more item to that old saw about only two things in life—death and taxes—being certain.
In addition, new college graduates are entering a job market that is astoundingly unwelcome to those seeking a path into the shrinking middle class; in fact, average starting salaries for those new graduates who are fortunate enough to find jobs are down 10% compared with only five years ago. Given that many are further hobbled by large monthly payments on their student loans, young adults are finding the independence and advancement that was once the norm in one’s twenties is being rapidly replaced by a return trip to their childhood bedrooms and long hours of waiting tables, stocking shelves on the third shift, and scrambling to figure out how to build a future that is not an endless string of McJobs offering little potential for advancement.
Moreover, as if all this were not enough to discourage even the most optimistic young adult, our globalized and interconnected workforce means that new college graduates in the United States are often competing with peers from every corner of the planet for the best jobs. Now the battle for well-paying futures is not confined to those from the local area; Americans entering the job market with their freshly minted degrees in hand now must contend with highly skilled workers from every nation, ones who are often willing to work longer hours for less money while delivering a product or service of more than comparable value. Let’s not even get into advances in software and robotics that are eliminating many more well-paying jobs on a daily basis. This is becoming just too darned depressing.
However, even as we acknowledge the present difficulties, there is still one excellent reason to pursue a high-quality education.
As should be plainly obvious to everyone by this point in time, nothing is forever anymore. Fifty years ago college graduates—who were far fewer in number and, therefore, immediately more valued—had a pretty good idea of the career path that lay in front of them after they finished their degrees. Now fewer and fewer jobs are secure—even the financial service professionals who stood astride our world economy a few short years ago are watching their jobs being eliminated by supercomputer-driven algorithms that can do their work faster, smarter, and at far less cost.
Although few may shed a tear for the Wall Street bond traders who now have to support their families by day trading from computers in their dens, their plights are emblematic of a cruel economic truth of our time: There is no such thing as a secure job anymore. Every worker, regardless of their age or accomplishments, is now in a race with every other worker in every part of the world—not to mention some faceless programmer in some nameless place who is busy writing the code for new software that will make yet another job disappear.
Therefore, the only defense any of us has against economic forces that are daily trying to take our livelihoods away is to constantly sharpen our skills and question everything we take for granted. This will mean constantly educating ourselves through workshops and targeted coursework, updating training and certifications, and returning to school to learn new occupations when our old ones are gone. In other words, education that continues throughout our working lifetimes is the only path to a reasonably secure future. Ignorance will be an increasingly poor investment for all, and learning how to learn new skills on a continuing basis will be, in fact, the most important job skill of all.
Of course, our higher education institutions—whether they be private schools, community colleges, four year colleges, universities, or cooperative ventures that bring together the public and private sectors—must learn to be just as nimble and willing to change as the American workers who will count on them to play a role in their livelong learning. This will require educators to regularly examine and re-examine their programs and practices in order to stay ahead of the curve.
Traditional classroom learning will, of course, continue to play a part, but likely more and more learning will be delivered through methods still to be invented, and the idea that education is something that happens only when class is in session will someday seem as antiquated as chalkboards and printed textbooks. How this will factor into maintaining a payment model that allows schools to survive when content of all types is becoming cheaper and cheaper—or free altogether—is something that has yet to be sorted out.
In addition, although it might seem to some that a simple equation should be our sole criteria for what we teach—if some bit of learning does not immediately lead to gainful employment, it must be discarded—this is a reductive and damaging approach that leads to nothing but grief because we will straitjacket ourselves into yet another form of obsolescence by failing to understand that a broad range of interconnected knowledge is now the precursor of success.
Moreover, even to argue that one bit of knowledge is more “important” than another is to fall into the foolish trap of believing that the future will follow a predictable path; if we have learned nothing else in the last few years, we should at least now understand that nothing will ever be certain again. Attempting to make decisions about what knowledge will be valuable ten, twenty, or thirty years from today is impossible for the same reason that so many past predictions of the future now seem to be the work of dolts. Given that I’m not, despite the confident pronouncements of decades past, jumping into a rocket transport to race to my comfy job on a colony of the moon, I’m laying no bets on what anyone will be doing in the decades—or even mere years—to come.
That we will need critical thinkers, lifelong learners, and great communicators to build a 21st century economy is the only certainty. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century permanently changed our world; however, the seismic shifts of our modern era, one where we walk around with stupendously powerful computers in our pockets and every part of our daily lives is driven by a 24 hour global information and supply network, make the Industrial Revolution look like a quaint artifact of a time when whalebone corsets were all the rage. Our best protection against a scary and uncertain future lies in our willingness to learn something new every moment of every day of our lives.
So get out there and go to school—somewhere, someplace, and likely in some manner that was unimaginable only a few years ago. It is still your best lifetime investment, and it will remain your best protection against the upheavals that your unknowable future will surely bring.
Also published in The News-Gazette (news-gazette.com) September 2, 2012