Preparing Our Children to Pioneer a New Frontier

For most of my years as a parent, I subscribed to the college-for-all mantra like the rest of my generation. I saw it as a basic degree needed to operate in the world similar to what a high school diploma once represented. I differed in my focus on the importance of social skills and family time rather than grades and test scores, but college was the end goal nonetheless. Then, a series of events happened to change my thinking.

First, my concern for the rapidly deteriorating health and wellness of students inspired me to pursue a master’s degree in school counseling; next, I became aware of a large number of seemingly “prepared” students in my community struggling or dropping out of college at great financial and emotional cost; and lastly, I picked up Thomas Friedman’s book, Thank you for Being Late which opened my eyes to the transforming economy. Having made my living as a market researcher, I began to explore pathways that would help students navigate this period of dramatic change.

In many ways, it feels like the Wild West again. A new frontier has opened and opportunities abound. Rather than moving across a physical landscape with covered wagons, this frontier moves across time and space, enabled by technology. New virtual communities made up of people with similar beliefs, interests, training, and work have sprung up seemingly overnight. Whereas we were once limited by geography, this new frontier allows us to connect with people all over the world, exchanging ideas, money, goods, and services.

The similarities between this virtual world and the physical one where pioneers moved west are uncanny. In addition to spreading out and establishing new communities, there has been the creation of Robber Barons (or if you prefer, Captains of Industry); those few men who garnered most of the wealth by creating new industries. Instead of J.P. Morgan, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Mellon, we have Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, and Bezos. And, there is even a gold rush. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin have obsessive followings and rampant speculation similar to the gold nuggets frantically mined by the ’49ers.

The seismic economic shift that is occurring is akin to the Industrial Revolution, only it is bigger because it is global, affects every aspect of our lives, and is changing how we relate to one another. Who could conceive that we would spend billions of dollars to ride in a stranger’s car (Uber) or sleep in a stranger’s bed (Airbnb)? Who could have seen that seemingly solid corporate structures would dissolve and new forms of person-to-person commerce would emerge? How do we prepare our children for this new frontier?

One thing is for sure, the content-based education they currently receive is of little use and the hours devoted to memorization, homework and organized activities are restricting their ability to develop the skill sets needed to navigate this economic transformation. Their future success is dependent on adaptability, collaboration, self-initiative, and resiliency. Our current system of education was set up for a different era where conformity, content knowledge and individual achievement were the hallmarks.

It is ultimately our children who must lead the way into this new era because this is not a world most adults know or understand. As digital natives, they are well equipped. Our insistence that they prepare themselves for the world we grew up in is not only creating missed opportunities for them to prosper in the new economy, but it is causing untold stress, anxiety, and depression. They already sense the irrelevance of what they are taught in school and the lack of connection it has to their lives.

The significant disengagement they feel moving through the school system is a key indicator. A recent Gallup study showed that while 75% of students are engaged in school in 5th grade, by 8th grade it drops to 45%, and by 10th grade, it drops to 33% and remains in that range until the end of high school. Not only are they disengaged, but ACT says only one in three is truly academically prepared for college–the cultural mandate of their generation.

Recognizing the profound change we are experiencing is an important first step in helping our children position themselves for future success. Our idea of white collar, full-time corporate employment as the pinnacle of success doesn’t work if there is no corporate ladder to climb. Since 1997, the number of corporations has declined 55% and their structures have gone from hierarchical pyramids to flattened wheels with spokes. The character of corporations has changed to include a smaller number of managers supported by outsourced back-office functions like bookkeeping and human resources. Alternative “independent” workers, often called freelancers or gig workers, are brought in to work on projects or provide skill-specific expertise.

Almost all of the net new jobs created since 2005 have been in this alternative worker category. Further, the number of freelance workers, currently estimated to represent 36% of the workforce, are growing at a rate that is 3 times faster than the U.S. workforce overall. They are expected to represent 50% of all workers by 2027. For millennials especially, freelancing is a lifestyle choice allowing flexibility and work/life balance. The average income for full-time independent workers in 2018 was $69,100 and 3.3 million earn over $100,000.

It is little wonder that many are now questioning whether a college degree is worth the investment. Not only is the time commitment significant–5-6 years for most students–but the cost and uncertain outcomes make it anything but a sure-fire road to success. The debt alone can carry well into their adult years. Although many employers still ask for a degree as a sign of discipline and certain professional fields require it, key leaders like IBM, Google and Ernst & Young are no longer using it as a gatekeeper to employment.

For those students who thrive in academic settings and have the maturity and focus to graduate in four years or less, the college experience can be a worthwhile endeavor–if they have financial and emotional support. But while the benefits of attending college used to be as much about growing up and making connections as it was about academics, the price today in terms of both money and time is too high for most students. Not to mention the structure of college has dramatically changed with less opportunity for professors to nurture and guide undergraduates. There are fewer tenured professors (who are largely focused on research rather than teaching) and an increased reliance on part-time, adjunct professors.

The technical skills gap created by the changing workplace is now at such a crisis level–over 6 million unfilled jobs–that states are investing in their own technical training schools and apprenticeship programs in an effort to gain workers. The 2018 Workplace Learning Report by LinkedIn highlighted the issue:

In today’s dynamic world of work, the path to opportunity—for both individuals, and organizations—is changing. The short shelf life of skills and a tightening labor market are giving rise to a multitude of skill gaps.

While a few colleges are piloting programs that add technical skill training for students, shorter-term “new collar” (between white collar and blue collar) training programs have rapidly expanded to fill the niche at a much lower cost. A New U by Ryan Craig offers a guidebook to these “faster + cheaper alternatives to college” which began emerging in 2012. Students gain in-demand skills through online learning, during extensive hands-on training or a combination of both. As new technologies are introduced, new collar students can easily re-skill while working in order to keep up with the evolving marketplace.

We have increasingly relied on schools to handle all aspects of our children’s education, but true education that is applicable to the real world cannot be learned in lab-like settings. Exposure to varied experiences and relationships are critical to the learning process and essential to our children’s ability to effectively function in the world they will enter. Schools, while playing an important role, should only provide one slice of the educational pie. Within their slice, cultures of innovation and real learning must be created by teachers such as those described by Ted Dintersmith in his book, What Schools can be.

With compulsory attendance and guaranteed financial support through tax dollars or private investment, schools have had little motivation to adapt to the changes surrounding them. The layers of programs and testing mandates geared toward an outmoded economy have made them like supertanker ships, unable to turn quickly. The current is now flowing in a different direction and to help our children, we must broaden their experiences outside of academic-related content and balance out the burden we have placed on schools.

Adaptability, the cornerstone of pioneering, is difficult to learn from institutions that require conformity to ensure order. Many of the most important skills our children need, such as self-initiative, collaboration and resiliency, are best developed in unstructured settings that allow for relevant problem-solving. Working together, parents, schools, and communities can put boundaries on the number of hours allocated to schooling (both in and out of school) as well as trim down the 5-6 days a week now required of extracurricular involvement. With the time gained, students can explore interests and develop perspectives about life and themselves through exposure to community-based interactions and enterprises. As they chart their path on the new frontier, we must create the conditions to support their success.


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