Guest post by Jeffrey Tucker of Laissez Faire Books
The U.S. unemployment rate for 19-24 year olds hasn’t moved much since 2008, and the reality of the tight job market has fully dawned on the young people I’ve spoken with about this. They know that odds are against them and that it takes extra effort to make a go of it following college graduation. They are also aware that this represents a dramatic change from every decade since the end of World War II.
I recall that no one in my college graduating class worried about jobs. They wondered if they were choosing the right profession, whether more degrees were necessary, whether it would be good to move near or far, and that sort of thing. But the notion that we would suddenly find ourselves unemployed for a long time, or even longer than a week, never occurred to us.
Back in the day, young people would graduate college and go on long trips to Europe, follow the Grateful Dead, hang out in the college town for a year with their buddies, or casually do odd jobs until the time seemed right to get serious. We had marketable skills and we knew it. We were the sellers of services and the market was buying. The “land of opportunity” still thrived.
I’ve observed two general reactions to this among young people. Some let the problem sneak up on them and melt into despair when things don’t go their way. These people have a sense that they did everything right: good schools, decent grades, graduating on time. They sent out hundreds of resumes but got back nothing in return. Now they are living with Mom and Dad, saddled with a terrible debt they can’t pay, and increasingly bitter at the world and contemplating the indignity of a minimum-wage job.
These people followed the rules but the rules betrayed them. Now they blame everyone else. They blame the system, and they are right that they system is rotten. They blame their counselors, and it’s true that older people have been blindsided by this too. They blame the 1%, and there is no question that the system is rigged in favor of the well connected. I completely understand this attitude but there is a problem: it doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Anger, excuses, and protest gets no one any closer toward actually fixing the problem.
What intrigues me more are the students who are refusing to let the problem defeat them. They have seen three classes of graduates leave the college cocoon and face the cruel world, and they have seen who succeeds and fails. Among this group, you will find not panic or worry but a strange calm and confidence that they will be among the minority who will find a good-paying position in their field of choice. Having talked to many of these people over the last year, I’ve discerned the common character traits and skills sets they focus on.
Hard Work. All the students who have confidence about overcoming the odds are extremely busy for school, work, or professional preparations. I’ve met engineering majors (talk about time consuming) who are also cross-country runners who train 3 hours per day, every day. I’ve also met students who are pre-law who work for very low pay at law firms, just as a way of getting experience. Even students who are music majors accept every gig they can.
They take internships when available. They work odd jobs. They rise early and get to bed on time. They don’t take off summers, and the weekends are full of tasks.
These students are preparing themselves for a life of very hard work. They don’t party. They watch what they drink. They avoid personal relationships that threaten to distract and bog them down. They are not members of social fraternities and sororities. Social life is way down the list of priorities. They top priorities are school, grades, work, and making and saving as much money as they can.
All of this matters for the future. The biggest annoyance that employers have is being saddled with a new employee who knows not the meaning of work. They have been through four years of partying and sloth. They long for this to continue...with pay. This is more obvious from a resume than one might think. On the other hand, a student who has references from a wide number of established people who can speak with confidence about a prospective employee’s work ethic overcomes this fear, and has a much better chance going forward.
Technical Skills. At the dawn of the digital age, I looked forward to a time when all young people knew programming skills, could fix their own computers, and had vast literacy in navigating the new world of technology. Wow, what a disappointment! It’s astonishing how widespread computer ignorance is today. And it seems to be getting worse.
What I had not anticipated is that the easier that devices would become, the fewer skills people feel that they need to acquire. It is not uncommon that young students today are only good at updating their Facebook accounts. And the following fact still astonishes me: many students today can’t even type.
This is absolutely absurd. Learning to type has never been easier. You can go to typingpal.com or any number of services and learn in the course of ten days to two weeks. It should be rather obvious that a job candidate who is one one-finger pecking is going to fall to the bottom of the list.
But it takes more than typing skill. Database management, photo editing, video making, website management, basic code -- all of these are important. A candidate who can speak Geek is in a much better position than one who cannot, even if the job in question doesn’t seemingly involve computer skills. Young people who can’t navigate essential software with some competence are essentially advertising their lack of drive and their unwillingness to add value to the great enterprise of the digital age.
Low Debt. True, it is not long possible to work your way through school, and this is tragic. Unless the parents have a substantial income or savings, there is a good chance that a student today will have to take out a loan. But minimizing that is essential. Smart students understand this. The more debt you have when you leave college, the fewer choices you have when you leave. You want to be in a position to accept relatively low pay and work your way up, without having your finances crushed by debt obligations.
The horror stories here are legion, and the alert students know them all. This is why they look for every scholarship opportunity, ever work/study program, every chance to make a few bucks. Also important: spending as little money as possible. Social spending is the great bane of a student’s existence. Decline to go partying if it means being stuck with a big and pointless bill at the end. There are ways to date that do not involve breaking the bank. Doing without a car is a luxury that pays returns later. It all comes down to frugality. This is an essential financial skill that can and should be cultivated in college. It will be needed all throughout life.
Network Building. As regards Facebook and Twitter, let’s just say that many students in the past have made mistakes. Smart kids know this. They learned to use social tools wisely. They watch their privacy settings. If there is any image that shows drinking or partying in a crazy place, it is untagged. All status updates must be intelligent. And they should be relatively few on Facebook. It can even be advantageous to make your name unsearchable, though that alone can raise suspicions among future employers.
A tool that smart students have started using that most students do not is LinkedIn. This is the professional network, and here you can start forming contacts in your field and generally cultivating a professional online personality. This requires careful thought and some elbow grease but any applicant with an impressive profile and a large network immediately becomes more attractive to the job market.
These tools are there to help people navigate the tight labor market. It is never too early to start doing what is necessary to build up a well-thought-out digital profile and presence. These tools can be your best friend or your worst enemy, depending on how you use them. But they should be used. An applicant who is invisible to in the digital realm might be suitable for a position in the national security apparatus but it is increasingly strange in a commercial world.
Practicality. I love liberal arts and the cultivation of broad and highly educated minds as much as anyone. But the smart set of students understands that this alone will not cut it in the marketplace today. Practical skills cannot be neglected, whether they are in accounting or engineering, and math and science generally. The last generation that could get by in life without having actual technical skill in practical areas of life graduated two decades ago.
To be sure, some people are called to a serious vocation as a professor in literature, philosophy, and the arts, and that’s fantastic. But these are pretty much the only people who can completely neglect hard sciences and practical skills in life. The smart set understands that the liberal arts are essential to have a broad view of the world, but that these alone are not enough to make a go of it in today’s world.
As much as we talk about the trials of young people today, we all know that some will make it through and thrive in the future. This is true even in the hardest of times. And for graduating students today, these are indeed the hardest of times. To be sure, the lack of opportunities today is not the fault of its victims; it is the fault of terrible public policy that has raised the cost of hire, distorted economic structures, and punished entrepreneurship. Because there is little chance of this changing anytime soon, it pays to get on the right side of history and start preparing for the tough road ahead, so that you can face it with confidence.
Primus Inter Pares Laissez Faire Book Club
P.S. Another problem among students today: they don’t take reading seriously.* The Laissez Faire Book Club is devoted to changing that. We are providing the tools people need to start the process of self education, which is absolutely necessary given the curriculum in today’s colleges. We provide the books, the tutorials, the community, and more. Might you consider giving a gift subscription to a student you care about? Register them here and send the logins their way when you receive them.
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* George Reisman reckons reading is something students should take very seriously. For a genuine education, he argues, a student should finish their university education holding in their mind “the essential content of well over a hundred major books” in their field of study. The emphasis in modern education however is decidedly against this:
With little exaggeration, the whole of contemporary education can be described as a process of encumbering the student’s mind with as little knowledge as possible. The place for knowledge, it seems to believe, is in external sources—books and libraries—which the student knows how to use when necessary. Its job, its proponents believe, is not to teach the students knowledge but “how to acquire knowledge”—not to teach them facts and principles, which it holds quickly become “obsolete,” but to teach them “how to learn.” Its job, its proponents openly declare, is not to teach geography, history, mathematics, science, or any other subject, including reading and writing, but to teach “Johnny”—to teach Johnny how he can allegedly go about learning the facts and principles it declares are not important enough to teach and which it thus gives no incentive to learn and provides the student with no means of learning.
The results of this type of education are visible in the hordes of students who, despite years of schooling, have learned virtually nothing, and who are least of all capable of thinking critically and solving problems. When such students read a newspaper, for example, they cannot read it in the light of a knowledge of history or economics— they do not know history or economics; history and economics are out there in the history and economics books, which, they were taught, they can “look up, if they need to.” They cannot even read it in the light of elementary arithmetic, for they have little or no internally automated habits of doing arithmetic. Having little or no knowledge of the elementary facts of history and geography, they have no way even of relating one event to another in terms of time and place.
Such students, and, of course, the adults such students become, are chronically in the position in which to be able to use the knowledge they need to use, they would first have to go out and acquire it. Not only would they have to look up relevant facts, which they already should know, and now may have no way even of knowing they need to know, but they would first have to read and understand books dealing with abstract principles, and to understand those books, they would first have to read other such books, and so on. In short, they would first have to acquire the education they already should have had.
Properly, by the time a student has completed a college education, his brain should hold the essential content of well over a hundred major books on mathematics, science, history, literature, and philosophy, and do so in a form that is well organized and integrated, so that he can apply this internalized body of knowledge to his perception of everything in the world around him. He should be in a position to enlarge his knowledge of any subject and to express his thoughts on any subject clearly and logically, both verbally and in writing. Yet, as the result of the mis-education provided today, it is now much more often the case that college graduates fulfill the Romantic ideal of being “simple, uneducated men.”
Contemporary education is responsible for the growing prevalence of irrational skepticism. The students subjected to it do not acquire actual knowledge. They have no firm foundation in a base of memorized facts and they have not acquired any solid knowledge of principles because their education has avoided as far as possible the painstaking processes of logical proof and repeated application of principles, which latter constitutes a vital and totally legitimate form of memorization. Such students go through school “by the seat of their pants.” They are forever “winging it.” And that is how they go through life as adults. It is impossible for them to have genuine understanding of anything that is beyond the realm of their daily experience, and even of that, only on a superficial level. To such people, almost everything must appear as an arbitrary assertion, taken on faith. For their education has made them unfit to understand how things are actually known. Their failure to memorize such things as the multiplication tables in their childhood, makes it impossible for them to understand whatever directly depends on such knowledge, which, in turn, makes it impossible for them to acquire the further knowledge that depends on that knowledge, and soon. With each passing year of their education, they fall further behind.
Ironically, their failure to memorize what it is appropriate to memorize ends up putting them in a position in which to pass examinations, they have no other means than out-of-context memorization—that is, memorization lacking any foundation in logical connection and proof. Because they have never memorized fundamental facts, and thus have no basis for developing genuine understanding of all that depends on those facts, they are placed in the position in which to pass examinations they must attempt to memorize out-of-context conclusions. It is because of this that a growing proportion of what they learn as the years pass has the status in their minds of arbitrary assertions. They are chronically in the mental state of having no good reason for most or almost all of what they believe. Thus, in their context of actual ignorance masked by pretended knowledge, they are prime targets for irrational skepticism. To them, in their mental state, doubt of everything can only seem perfectly natural…
(Excerpted from page 108-109 of Reisman’s book Capitalism)