Education as a Hedge Against the Future
We like to worry about what we'll be doing decades from now. "Ten New Jobs of the Future!" or similar headline formulations constitute a familiar trope in foresight—imagining the strange new roles we might play, or familiar ones that may disappear and leave us with no means of support. Whatever the prognostication about tomorrow, most industrial societies do a poor job of preparing their young for those futures through educational choices. This problem is compounded when employment decisions are so closely tied to faulty educational options.
Susan Cox-Smith has just written about these education nightmares in a piece for Medium, "What is the Real Value of a College Degree?" In it, she asks a basic question, "Is the narrow binary of go to college/don’t go to college, really the best option we have to offer students of the twenty-first century?" Focusing on the US case, she points out that while a four-year degree has remained the primary way to signal a standard level of educational achievement, both what constitutes that achievement and what the world really needs from a young working person have shifted. As a result, a college degree is, in many cases, becoming a hollow signifier, reduced in an increasing number of cases to parsing of semantics on a CV by machine, a kind of expensive SEO for people:
Companies seeking “rock stars,” “unicorns,” and “purple squirrels” have become commonplace. The problem is, most entry- and mid-level positions do not call for a unique set of abilities, but HR departments thrive on creating endless, bullet-pointed lists of required skills and experience, with a college degree often topping the agenda.
More critically, however, continued focus on this signifier means educators, employers, and governments are failing to provide meaningful options for education that align with the need for a range of applied knowledge and skills, different interests and life paths, creating a dangerous delta between what people can or could do and how they are judged in the market. The risk we are running is that, as we can already see today, fewer and fewer people will be properly educated and trained for these "Jobs of the Future," while the both the stockpile of indebted graduates with vague degrees and a large sector of unemployed who hold valuable knowledge and applied skills continue to grow.