This week FrumForum.com ran a series called “The Young and the Jobless.” The series gave 20-somethings an outlet to discuss their unemployment situations. Stories ranged from the inability of a University of Chicago student to secure a job at Starbucks, a teacher who believes the American dream is for “suckers,” and another who was left pondering the use of a college degree.
Most of the contributors, it appears, enrolled in top-tier colleges or graduate programs only to find themselves living at home or barely scraping by on their own.
Our current 20-somethings not only find themselves doing an about-face on everything they expected career-wise, but they also find themselves unemployed on the cusp of significant technological changes that they never anticipated in their K-12 years, which prompts the need for changes to the curriculum.
Understanding why the 20-somethings seem at a loss becomes essential to both make sense of who they are and how to prepare future generations. Let’s first explore why the current crop of 20-somethings expected high-paying jobs upon graduation.
Back in the 1990s companies routinely recruited graduates by offering them exceptionally high salaries. Why would the recent graduates expect anything less, particularly because the economy was still booming when they entered college?
Perhaps even more astounding is the cultural reinforcement, from parents to schools. Larry Druckenbrod, assistant director of career services at the University of Connecticut, describes the cultural expectations in Don Peck’s Atlantic article from last March: “This is a group that’s done résumé building since middle school. They’ve been told they’ve been preparing to go out and do great things after college. And now they’ve been dealt a 180.”
Parents and teachers reinforced the idea that hard work and a good college education yield a substantial paycheck and a stimulating job. It’s not that 20-somethings expect something for nothing; they just thought they had already done the hard work to secure that amazing entry level job.
Still, so many securely employed folks suggest to my peers that we start our own businesses. As Don Peck put it, “Some laid-off employees become entrepreneurs, working on ideas that have been ignored by corporate bureaucracies, while sclerotic firms in declining industries fail, making way for nimbler enterprises.”
It sounds great, but so many of the graduates now fail to secure an entry level position that the point is moot. Without any practical experience inside corporate America, how should the recent graduates expect to change it?
Further inhibiting the creation of start-ups or switching fields is the rapid pace of technological and skill set changes. Being laid-off now means starting over, not just transferring skills from one company to the next.
The 20-somethings who spent their time programming for fun as teenagers are much more likely to secure work than those who spent time reading, playing sports, or participating in some other hobby, which is why computer programming should become something we all learn at a young age in school. The technology world can no longer be a hobby for nerds, but an integral part of our educational system.
The future needs a new curriculum because of the rapidity at which technology becomes obsolete. Moreover, the closest thing our generation received in regards to technology training was how to use Excel or PowerPoint, if the high school you went to was even fortunate enough to have computers. But that doesn’t mean we learned how computers function. It makes that switch into the tech world problematic.
Understandably, this recession dispelled all previous conceptions of what graduates expected upon their entry into the marketplace. They have reason to despair.
One of the contributors to the FrumForum series cites Yale economist Lisa Kahn, whose research on lifetime earnings and recessions found that all else being equal, a one-point increase in unemployment correlated with a starting salary decrease of 7 percent. Graduates of the 1981-1982 recession started off making 25 percent less than those of the boom year, and the gap persists over a lifetime.
It seems that the only thing 20-somethings are entitled to now are the prospects of significantly diminished lifetime earnings compared to those who graduated in the 1990s. Twenty-somethings worked just as hard as their predecessors and found the world didn’t want or need them.
To combat these startling findings, we must ensure that our students can manage and adapt to the new technological world. This doesn’t mean students take classes online. It means we teach our students the basics of programming and design. We teach students how computers function, not how to use them because they know how to use them, oftentimes better than us.
Just as one learns a language better at a younger age, so too must we add computer programming or design to the curriculum if we want our future children to possess the ability to adapt to changes in technology and the economy.
You can reach Tucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @Tucker849.