Two articles came my way via Twitter on Friday,
The first one discusses how society and marketing change our perceptions and expectations in ways that we often don’t realize. The second one describes how members of the Occupy movement have begun to rally around a shared point of suffering, the increasing personal debt burden.
A comment by one of the San Francisco Occupiers caught my attention,
“In a very neat trick, our future is now owned by them, as we are forced to make decisions about our existence in light of our debt. We take a job we wouldn’t otherwise want because it pays well, has good benefits, et cetera.”
An obvious reaction to this kind of remark is to attribute the situation to a series of failures: failure of parents and counselors to help young people make wise choices about college, failure of young people to think and listen, and failure of lending institutions to adequately evaluate requests for student loans and refuse requests with poor prospects for future success.
A recent study, Hard Times: Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal points out which college majors afford the highest and lowest chances of finding a job after college. Although unemployment rates for college graduates are much lower than unemployment rates for those without a degree, students who major in Architecture or Art may have more trouble finding a job than those who major in Health or Education, for example.
In an ideal world, anyone could make a living doing whatever he or she loves to do. In a world where over 5 million children die every year in part because they simply don’t have enough to eat, where almost one in six of all Americans is on food stamps, someone who has a job that “pays well” and has “good benefits” should probably consider themselves damn lucky, even if it’s not the job they hoped to find.
Not to say anything about the merits of any particular field of study, if your major is Anthropology and Archaeology, Philosophy and Religious Studies, or Linguistics and Comparative Languages, you may have trouble finding a job in your field. In this case remember that the world doesn’t owe anyone a living doing just any job, so either quit complaining or get over it, find a job doing something else and keep up with your passion in your spare time.
Something about this argument has always bothered me. Perhaps it’s because I wonder if too much focus on practical studies will limit the pursuit of fundamental knowledge about ourselves and the world, and I firmly believe in the importance of such understanding. Perhaps it’s because I think this knowledge should not be the exclusive domain of those born well-off. Perhaps it’s the distaste of knowing so many people I disagree with so fundamentally in other ways also voice this opinion. After reading about the Nanny State, I wonder if my unease came from an unrecognized but nagging reminder that I’ve certainly been conditioned to react this way.
Not so long ago, kids worked their way through college when they couldn’t afford it. Realistically, do they still have that option? College tuition was more affordable then. Universities were run more like non-profits. People still had some notion of responsibility. It wasn’t easy, but those who were motivated to get a college degree could find a way to do it without resorting to indentured servitude to a heartless master: the banks.
A few weeks ago I missed my bus stop reading a brilliant blog post by Tom Morris.
Tom gives advice that parents, counselors and loan officers should tell young people. They don’t. If you are interested in this topic, I strongly encourage you to go read the whole post. If you know kids who will soon be thinking about going to college, have them read it too. At the least they must hear this,
That’s the advice I’d give you young’uns: know what the fuck you want. If you don’t know what you want, work that out before you commit yourself into £50,000 worth of student debt. Your school will want you to go to university. Your parents too, especially if they didn’t go to university. Do so if you want to. Because your school teachers aren’t going to pay off your student loans, and unless your name is Rupert Poshington III, your parents probably won’t be paying it off either: you will be.
That is what young people today need to hear when considering whether to take out a loan to finance studies before they even start their working life. After the home mortgage crisis, should it be any surprise that unscrupulous lenders will jump at the chance to sign up new debtors for loans with onerous terms, especially when that means they have a whole life of payments ahead? Soon we’ll be a society of debtors from the day we’re born until the day we die, a lender’s paradise.
Ironically, with the emergence of open education, young people should have more opportunities for affordable access to learning than ever before. Unfortunately, while an unprecedented amount of knowledge is freely available on the Internet including university-level course material, the cost of getting a diploma, which is still what counts on many resumes, has ballooned over the last decade.
As Tom said, “It ain’t what grade you get, it’s what you do with it.” I’d say, it isn’t what diploma you have, it’s what you’re capable of doing with it. I’d hire a bright, motivated kid who taught himself on the Internet over one who’d run up thousands of dollars of debt to get a degree without realizing what he was getting into. Values and beliefs about a good education and job qualifications belong to what Grant McCracken describes as slow culture; they evolve much less rapidly than technological innovations and trends. We’re adopting new technologies that change our behaviors long before we’ve internalized the societal implications of these changes and adjusted our value systems to take them into account. The jobs of tomorrow are going to be challenging. How many are really prepared for them?
It will take time then for diploma systems and hiring practices to adapt. We need to rethink what is important for students to learn and come up with ways to measure their skills that don’t rely on antiquated pieces of paper and don’t require them to commit to a lifetime of debt. Someone will come along to spur this change, but rather than sit back and wait, we could all think about what we might do to help make it possible.
In the short-term, we need to regulate private lending institutions practices for student loans more closely. Loans need to be better qualified and limited to shorter terms, with more reasonable payment guidelines. It’s not fair for financial executives to get insanely rich on the backs of young people just trying to get a good start in life. That’s not progress, it’s vulturism. In a healthy system, banks must assume the risk of their loan decisions: a poorly qualified loan means a loss: no bailouts, no passing the buck to other institutions.
We also need to undertake real education and workplace reform. However it’s not only education and hiring practices that need to evolve, we’ve got to understand that something is profoundly wrong when someone with a full-time job still can’t make ends meet. For all the progress and promise of decades of innovation, we still haven’t worked out the basics: decent wages for honest work and affordable food, housing and healthcare. Nothing will go farther in helping mankind to achieve its true potential.
Suggestions for further reading: