Skip School, or Skip Career?


In Don't Go to Grad School, Penelope Trunk argues for skipping grad school because it will not help your career:
"This is why millionaires have stopped leaving their money to their kids—it undermines their transition to adulthood. But instead of making the transition, you are still in school, pretending things are fine. The problem is that what you do in school is not what you will do in a career. So if you love school, you’ll probably hate the career it’s preparing you for, since your career is not going to school."
I've got four honors students planning their "transition to adulthood" right now, so seeing them exposed to this advice gets my attention. I agree that schools offer terrible career preparation, but I'm not so sure they waste the time of people who enjoy and can afford them. I am also skeptical of Penelope's advice not to seek a career doing what you love. I think Penelope's understanding of adulthood is growing old-fashioned (it reminds me of slavery).

I used to think my kids have to get a good job, because I will die before they do, and therefore I can not feed them forever. That logic breaks down as labor efficiency goes up: Technological advances (not just robots) will allow a single human to accomplish the labor of two, or three, or four, or one hundred humans. Eventually, that means 99% of us won't need to work, and, let's face it, at least 1% of us are workaholics who will happily support the rest.

College admission officers tell my kids that tuition is balanced by higher life-long earnings, but those calculations are based on historic availability of jobs.  I expect higher-paying jobs to continue to be awarded to applicants with higher education, but I also expect increased efficiency to make those jobs more scarce. I can understand risking debt for a chance to avoid a bad job, but there is a third option: Don't get a career at all. The day is coming when work will be optional, and my kids are welcome to bide their time living with me in the meanwhile.

You can argue that our next golden age is not so close at hand. You have a lot of control over whether it is or not--you participate in deciding how much we invest in automation, and how much of a market we create for unnecessary labor (e.g. labor devoted to fighting--think lawyers, advertisers, security officers, etc.). I think about half of the American labor market is devoted to unnecessary labor right now. If enough young people boycott the labor market, however, you may be more inclined to accelerate automation, and to reserve labor for necessary tasks. We could get very efficient very fast, if we wanted to.

Anticipation of a golden age puts pressure on employers to pay for education. Even Penelope Trunk would not object to education paid for by employers. If employers instead expect job applicants to get educated before they apply, then they will find more and more talented young people disqualifying themselves by following Penelope's advice. Industry can function with less, but missed opportunities are wasteful, and an economy run by the less-talented would be a market failure.

Reserving the final jobs for the elite matters, because the people with the last jobs will make important decisions: How will they ration resources among the other 99%? Will they penalize the fools who took on college debts they were not fit to pay? Will they penalize people in careers that disappeared early? Will they penalize people who hoarded careers expected to disappear late? Or will they penalize people who lived with their parents, and hoarded no jobs at all?

Penelope Trunk seems to think there are rules to career planning, but social change is so accelerated that those rules are no more reliable than those of love and war. If skipping school is a viable option, I'd say skipping career is a viable option too. I want my kids to be happy, and there's no time like the present. If you like school, go to school. If you like a career, work. If you don't like either, find something you do like to do. I've got good kids--if they do what they love, the world will be better off.

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