Thursday, June 17, 2010

Today's Narrow is Tomorrow's Obsolete

When it comes to the everyday motions of the economy, some measures are stubbornly elusive:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) never has attempted to estimate the number of times people change careers in the course of their working lives. The reason we have not produced such estimates is that no consensus has emerged on what constitutes a career change. A few examples may help to illustrate the difficulty of defining careers and career changes. Take the case of a BLS economist who is promoted to a management position. Before the promotion, she spent most of her time conducting economic research. After the promotion to the management position, she still may conduct research, but she also spends much more time supervising staff and reviewing their research, managing her program's finances, and attending to a variety of other management tasks. This promotion represents an occupational change from economist to manager, but does it also represent a career change? It depends on how you define a career change.
So much for career changes -- what about job changes? Perhaps it can serve as a rough proxy for career changes -- very rough, for some of the reasons given above and more, but a halting grasp that's better than a blind guess. Some of the best available data indicates that people change jobs roughly eleven times between ages 18 and 42, though the BLS admits this, too, is difficult to measure.

We have, then, a tentative but reasonable conclusion about a particular form of churn in the labor market: one's work life at 18 is likely to differ from one's work life by 42. The proper response to this situation appears in a new report issued from what must be the self-hatred department of Georgetown University:
[T]he lead author of the report said in an interview that the report should also shake up colleges — and challenge most of them to be much more career-oriented than they have been and to overhaul the way they educate students, to much more closely align the curriculum with specific jobs. [emphasis mine]
Fantastic. Twenty-five years ago -- or roughly ten job changes ago, on average -- this advice would educate high school graduates in Michigan for work in the car industry; it would prepare high school graduates in Oregon for work in timber; it would prepare Gulf Coast residents for work on shrimping boats and drilling platforms; it would prepare people throughout the South for work in textiles; it would prepare Pennsylvanians for careers in steel production; it would prepare young people in the bigger media markets for work in journalism and advertising. And so on.

For some, these preparations actually would have worked out -- it's not as though any of the listed fields are completely dead in the places indicated. For most, they would have created exactly what we see: large numbers of people with specialized knowledge, limited skills, and narrowed horizons chasing fewer and fewer job prospects. There is no good reason to expect the next 25 years to be any different -- on the contrary.

There is clearly a place for focused technical and vocational training as changes in supply and demand wend their way through the economy, but these should not be confused with, nor suggested as a replacement for, learning -- the art of understanding, thinking critically, adapting to change, noticing the unexpected, seeing horizons for what they are.

This is not rank idealism (or not that only): what employers demand today stands to be forgotten and worthless alarmingly soon. This reality calls for flexibility and improvisation, which aren't covered in Fold A-into-Slot B training exercises.

Advising young people to select a career, immediately, and dedicate their efforts to becoming exactly what that career field demands at that moment, betrays a filthy and small idea of human flourishing -- and it doesn't work. Advising institutions of higher education to reshape themselves to fit this malpractice is an abomination.


Anonymous said...

Great post.

Dale said...

Anon, thanks!