A Generation of Students Caught Between Two Worlds

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries created a cultural shift from rural farms to factory-filled cities. Imagine the confusion of parents, trained in agricultural livelihoods, trying to understand this new future for their children. It would have been frightening to realize that the systems that were familiar to them were no longer helpful to the next generation. We find ourselves in a similar situation today. The tried-and-true pathways to employment are not producing the same successes for our children. A new world of work has emerged and our outmoded education systems have not prepared them for the transition. A generation of students has been caught between these two worlds.

To help our children, we must understand the fundamental changes happening in the workplace. As our economy evolved from the production of physical goods to services, large corporations dominated the working landscape. There was a clear distinction between white collar and blue collar work, with social status and financial security accruing to white collar workers. Higher education was the producer of these white collar jobs and the only means for moving up the corporate ladder. This proven trajectory fueled the college-for-all frenzy that permeates our education system today.

Over the past twenty years, while we have been preparing students for full-time employment, corporations have undergone dramatic change. Not only has the number declined by 55% since 1996, but technological advances and global competition have transformed those still in existence to smaller and more agile models.

According to Gerald Davis, author of The Vanishing American Corporation, “The firms that have gone public since 2000 rarely create employment at a large scale; the median firm to IPO after 2000 created just 51 jobs globally.”

The growing demand for skill-specific expertise, plus the transformation of corporate structures, has created a market made up of both full-time jobs and independent work, with independent work making up most of the net new jobs being created. As the economy continues to become more project-oriented, businesses are turning to independent workers to fill their needs and a recent survey showed that nearly two-thirds of executives “considered their external workforce essential for operating at full capacity and meeting demand”.

A report by the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and Dell Technologies forecasts an acceleration of this change by 2030 as human-machine partnerships redefine the workplace.  Highlights from the report include:

• 85% of the jobs that today’s learners will be doing in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.

• Today’s learners will have 8 to 10 jobs by the time they are 38, many joining as freelancers.

• Already 50 million strong, freelancers are projected to make up 50% of the workforce in the United States by 2020.

• Not only will workers have many jobs, the tasks and duties of the jobs they’ll perform will be markedly different from what they studied.

Even a full-time job does not guarantee the longevity it once did, with 4.2 years being the average length of employment overall; 2.8 years for those age 25-34. According to IFTF, the skills needed to navigate this new economy will include an entrepreneurial mindset, personal branding, networking savvy, and automation literacy.

Our education system is not adequately preparing students for this future. Its standardized methods of ensuring conformity are limiting students’ ability to gain the skills they need. Exposure to the real world and time to develop essential relationship skills are not part of the curriculum. Truth be told, the system hasn’t been working well for decades.

Federal data shows that fewer than one in five students smoothly navigate the high school to college to a career pathway.

Forty years of reform, accompanied by a doubling of per-pupil spending, has failed to improve this picture. Standardized test scores haven’t budged. SAT scores have declined. More students enroll in college, but the share of 25-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree did not increase from 1995 to 2015, and it stands barely above the 1975 level.

We are so focused on the goal of getting students into college, that we are not critically evaluating what is happening once they are there or looking at whether the outcomes make sense for the investment. Given the rapid pace of economic change, we should be alarmed at the fact that a four-year degree now takes between five and six years (for those who make it to completion) and a two-year degree now takes at least three years–or in the case of California, 5.2 years. This means students are losing valuable time in the marketplace learning new technologies, as old ones quickly become obsolete.

This mind-boggling rate of change was reflected in a recent study of 4,000 senior decision-makers around the world. It showed that half of those surveyed didn’t know what their industry would look like in just three years’ time, 45% were concerned about becoming obsolete in 3-5 years and 73% believed they need to be more ‘digital’ to succeed in the future.  By digital, they mean incorporating robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual reality, augmented reality, and/or cloud computing.

Additionally, the disconnect between college teachings and the world of work has resulted in the need for what Ryan Craig, author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, calls “last-mile training”. This is the industry-specific technical skill that degree holders need for employability–after spending all that time getting a degree.

Another indicator is the 70% decline in MBA school applications. Although tuition costs are a large factor, its generalized training is not always appropriate to industry needs in the new economy.  The value of managerial advancement works in corporate structures, not in decentralized networks. Technical expertise and experience are the valued currency, which is why certificate holders and associates degrees can earn as much or more than degree holders.

Old systems break down before new ones are fully formed and we find ourselves in this in-between place. What now? How do we help our children through this transition when the clear-cut pathways of our experience are no longer applicable? It is scary to be in the midst of economic and educational disruption, but it is bringing much-needed change that I believe has the potential to benefit more people than ever before.

As digital natives, our children have the advantage of growing up using the technologies that will shape their future. They see the world differently. Forcing them to adhere to old ways of being won’t help them prepare for their journey. Just as parents a century ago had to do, we must be preparing our children for the road ahead rather than relying on the road to prepare our children.

8 Replies to “A Generation of Students Caught Between Two Worlds”

  1. Thank you, Susan! The economy is already forcing the much-needed change. Rather than focusing on the masses, we can begin by focusing on ourselves. Starting in our homes and neighborhoods, we can support and inspire each other. My next blog will discuss ways to broaden our children’s sphere of influence so they can engage in real-world learning.

  2. Wow, what an insight! Thank you for sharing, Pam. As a classroom teacher, I fully agree that our methods are built to push students to higher education, yet I often wonder what the point of that is given the current landscape. You’ve given me something to think about. Thank you.

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