I see it in my son…

My son is 19. He’s taking a gap year to figure out what to do about further education, and at least he’s working almost full time (at McDonald’s, where he’s worked part time for three years previously). But he’s worried, angry, confused, and doesn’t know how to deal with the future.

Evidently he’s not alone. Similar emotional distress permeates the offices of counsellors on college and university campuses, as the line of students outside their door grows daily. My daughter spent three years as a volunteer in a crisis centre and heard it in the calls nightly. And last weekend, at the Beyond Earth conference held on the campus of the University of Toronto, those at the tertiary education point and beyond were the depressed ones, while those still in junior high or high school had the sunny optimism of youth.

What’s going on? What is it about the transition from high school to university that triggers this kind of response?

Awareness. There may be options to select in high school, but by and large everyone’s taking the same basic core. Colleges and universities, apprenticeships, and just striking out into the workforce, on the other hand, are decision points. The right institution has to be entered (let’s face it, like it or not, there’s a quantitative difference between having Regina or McGill, Mississippi State or Harvard, Ipswich or Cambridge on your diploma), followed by a course of study that will “pay off”.

These young almost-adults aren’t stupid. They know that none of the “job readiness” in their education is mattering at all.

They’re also presented — daily — with the evidence of the two economies discussed here on the Personal Due Diligence blog. For (as one commenter to “Dealing with the Dual Economy of Today” noted on Facebook yesterday, “how would you apply this to health care, education, and government”) they’re smack in the middle of the most resistant to change parts of the first of the two economies.

At one time my son considered becoming a teacher. He’s now sure he wouldn’t want to — and not just because there’s a current surplus of teaching graduates. He’s convinced that the system itself is creaking, groaning, and that all the effort is going into maintaining it exactly as it is, instead of moving on to something that might have legs.

Much like the large corporate world, the world of the big banks, insurance companies, trans-national retailers, global mining and energy concerns, etc., our health authorities, school districts and the many ministries, departments, agencies, boards, and commissions of government seem more concerned to “just keep it all going” than to begin thinking about real change.

Yet my son is equally fearsome of the second economy. Part of that is the glorification of the risk taking entrepreneur to take on the world. We all hear so much about how Bill Gates, or Larry Ellison, or Rupert Murdoch, or Steve Jobs, or Larry & Sergei at Google, or Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, pole-vaulted to the top that the idea sinks in that unless you’re deeply technical and can build something really exciting you can forget it sinks in.

When your choices look like “go through and have no security preparing for a world that’s endlessly compressing, or be a ruddy genius and break through in technology”, it can become immobilizing. Perhaps my friends with thirty-something children still living at home might agree.

As parents, we want our children to do well. With today’s world, that means telling them the journey’s gotten a lot more complex.

My advice to both my children has been simple:

  • Pay cash for your education. You have full flexibility and mobility if you’re not burdened with debt.
  • Since you’re paying cash, take what you want. Education isn’t training, and it shouldn’t be about “a job”. It’s about expanding your mind and preparing you to do many things.
  • Ask yourself about your skills, and all the different places you could use them. Even working at a fast food outlet gives you more skills than following their procedures would suggest, but only you can ferret them out and know how to present yourself with them.
  • By the time you’re ready to stop working, nothing will be the same, so be prepared to live a life of constant change. There’s no safe industry, no safe job, no safe place. On the other hand, it’s raining opportunity, mostly because of all that change.
  • Technology, wiz-kiddery, etc. isn’t half as important as doing something well and with a smile. If you serve coffee, make it good coffee. If you check peoples’ expenses, don’t be a petty bureaucrat when you need to question them. If you cut hair, give good haircut.
  • Always be learning, but also, don’t only look to one type of learning. (My daughter went to work at a museum as a guide so she could learn about Chinese culture.) Play, active work, these are all part of learning.
  • Oddly enough, if you’re worried about security, you’ll find more of it working for yourself than you will working for someone else, although there can be some very scary moments when you’re heading up your own venture.
  • Last, and most important, don’t look at my career. My CV represents a by-gone era. Half the companies on it are gone. Half the jobs don’t exist any longer (or in the same form as they did when I held them). Pay attention to “now” and don’t try to repeat “then”.

I’m not sure if my son will find his way sooner or later. But at least he’s not stumbling through a degree in something he doesn’t care about toward a job simply because it’s “security”.

2 thoughts on “I see it in my son…

    1. Bruce Stewart Post author

      Thanks, Lynne. My daughter has done this, taken the archaeology she loves without worrying about whether she’ll be an archaeologist or professor in the field afterward. (She’s also self-funded her BA at Durham [UK], and now her MPhil at Cambridge.)


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