We’re back from a summer respite in the mountains, where the tribulations of Egyptian democracy, American democracy and (gasp!) ARod’s plunking seemed temporarily far away, indeed.
We did, however, have other serious issues on our minds. You see, my daughters are both on the cusp of major changes in their lives. The Elder, who has studied overseas, taught heartfully in the wilds of both Brooklyn and post-Katrina N’awlins, and recently achieved admission to the NY State Bar finds herself lasso’d toward Texas by insistent, unanticipated heartstrings. The Younger, deeply values-driven and also well-traveled in places like the UK, Russia, Tanzania and Brazil, scored very well on her “MCAT” boards – high enough to put her squarely into the conversation for medical school admissions.
I am thrilled and fortunate that they’ve persevered and navigated themselves thus far in their lives, but that’s not why I’m bragging on them (honest – they will both probably read this, so equal time was called-for). The credit is Theirs. I do, however, want to try to counsel them on their directions and next moves – and the state of the economy and its various sectors gives me pause.
I’m aware that every elder generation since Socrates has known that the world would suffer irretrievably under the inadequate care of the next generation, but I work with young people routinely, and they are not The Problem. The value propositions of various kinds of American work have deteriorated, and that’s what has me concerned.
What do you say to a kid about a career in corporate America, which, by recent experience, seems to have traded the value-adding slogan ‘Better Things for Better Living’ for some other trendy tagline, more like ‘Screw Your Customers to within an Inch of Their Switching Costs.’ An inverse Peter Principle seems to be at-work, where responsibility is pushed downward – to the point where jobs cannot possibly be done competently. In general, there’s a particular coldness to contemporary capitalism, which has lost sight of its primary function: serving human needs, at a profit.
Workers are faring no better than customers – the contrast between today’s tenuous settings and the relatively secure, benefited environment of this Boomer’s early career is stunning. Employees as a group have migrated from the ‘corporate asset’ column to ‘overhead expense,’ on the way to becoming a ‘variable cost’ that can be jettisoned upon the first bad quarterly profit. It’s an immediate financial focus run amok; I don’t think it’s good advice to recommend ‘plastics’ or any other large scale industry as a place in which to prosper over the next several decades. The late, lamented middle class continues to hollow-out, to everyone’s detriment.
Perhaps the financial sector varies that theme, as ‘Wall Street,’ banking, tax and other money magicians have reaped increasingly out-sized rewards over the past few decades. There are riches to be made in that field. That said, I have difficulty recommending it. Fundamentally, it consists of moving money around rather than adding sustained value; in my view, finance ought to be the servant, rather than the master, of economic activity – we can’t all make a living cutting each other’s hair (albeit the banksters have given us all a pretty severe haircut recently).
Several years ago, it appeared that government service might be a good choice. Due in no small part to unionization, pay seemed to at least keep pace with the private sector, and both security and pensions (what a concept!) were better. Trading-in the higher upside potential of the corporate career crapshoot seemed like it might be a pretty good bargain.
That, too, has changed, as taxpayers have awakened to the long term implications of their absence from the bargaining table. The deals struck in that recent era are not sustainable, especially at the state and local levels – where many governments are precariously close to following Stockton and Detroit into insolvency. Re-negotiations and givebacks must be coming over the mid-range future, among teachers and public safety personnel, in addition to other public occupations – maybe even BART?
The non-profit sector, too, offers very mixed prospects. Whether in academia or ‘do-gooder’ organizations, the work can be psychically, intensely satisfying and rewarding, but wages have been under severe pressure and have failed to keep pace with other careers. Fund-raising is a huge priority – and hooray for those who do it -- but it’s not the reason most folks choose those occupations. Further, the politics and insecurity are, per reports and in my own limited experience, (even) worse there than in other sectors of the economy.
Given the gyrations of the past thirty years, the one unassailable truth is that any prediction about the next thirty is bound to be wrong. Uncertainty itself is the most reliable thing on which to count. Accordingly, the best advice may be to embrace it as the norm, and maintain as much independence from its vicissitudes as possible. That means self-reliance – taking responsibility for being the CEO of your own skill sets. It’s a bit like driving – attending to immediate details of work while keeping an eye on the road far ahead.
That self-reliance extends beyond the routine of keeping skills current that are likely to be in-demand. It also means consciously relying on others – people or organizations -- as little as possible. The ultimate security in uncertain times is to command capabilities or a following that are both sustainable and renewable over time.
For my kids, professions look like a good place to seek such independence, albeit law is more business-like every day, and the medical arts are bound to continue convulsing over my kids’ career horizons. The most successful practitioners of each profession are those who’ve consciously built a “custom” – ongoing books-of-business or clientele that put them in-demand regardless of many other risks. For others, it may be developing a business they can own and develop as they see fit.
Of course, this has been all about their economic well-being – the baseline of Maslow’s Need Hierarchy. My terrifically wise niece-in-law (in case that’s a proper familial designation) recently put me onto an article that is well-worth perusing. It’s about the lifelong ‘Grant’ study of 267 Harvard man chosen in the 1930s for their potential to achieve “successful lives.” It’s titled “What Are the Secrets to a Happy Life?” – linked here: Web Link# You may be surprised, and any well-meant parental advice probably ought to include that study’s learnings. (The Beatles were right, after all, dot-da-dada-dah.)
Anyway, I know that many readers are parents, and Danville Independent made a similar comment to another item on this board just this morning. Folks, what can you tell me to pass-on to my kids – and what are you discussing with yours about their futures?