Plan for an uncertain future


You’re heading to college, and now it’s time to choose some courses. After college, you will likely work for 40 years, more or less. Will you be 60 with much in-demand skills and experience, or will you be a has-been pushing a broom? The path you take in the next semester will influence this result.

Be skeptical of the advice

This is an advice article, starting by telling you to be skeptical of any advice, including mine. Advice on the web will not reflect your uniqueness, and advice from people who know your uniqueness may be biased.

Before considering general advice, think about yourself. A good place to start is the Big Five personality traits. Each of them is a specter, not a yes-no trait. They have proven to be very useful in psychology and business:

• Extraversion: sociable, energetic, assertive

• Pleasantness: sympathetic, kind, cooperative

• Consciousness: organized, meticulous, persevering

• Neuroticism: excitable, moody, anxious

• Openness to experience: broad interests, curious, imaginative

Online assessments are available in short or long form, but most of us can start with the self-assessment.

Take the time to think about how your personality relates to the type of work you might be doing. Some jobs will require you to interact with other people all the time, while others will allow you to be left alone. Some will allow you to take on new challenges, while others will allow you to apply skills you already have mastered. Some will be very stressful, while others will be more relaxed. Some career paths offer high reward with high risk, while other careers have much lower risk, but with less upside potential.

You can certainly test yourself outside of your comfort zone, such as when an introvert accepts a sales job that involves cold calling to strangers. In fact, college is a good time to take some testing, like when that introvert goes to a party without knowing anyone.

Generic advice, like this article, ignores your unique personality. And people who really know your unique personality can be biased. One of my sons was considering a risky career change, which I discouraged. My other son said to his brother, “Mom and dad are not as concerned about your career development as they are concerned about coming home.” I have to admit he succeeded with this insight.

Listen to your parents, but be courageous if you believe in a different path.

Sketch a plan

I see students taking one of the following three approaches to their college education:

1. Take college courses intended for their first job

2. Take college courses for a long-term career

3. Just take what looks easy and interesting without a plan.

Review these approaches and identify the one that is least likely to be successful, regardless of your definition.

I like plans which are sketches rather than detailed. The person who can identify the first job, the next three promotions and their partner’s jobs in 20 years will be nothing but disappointed. Your plan should fit on a single sheet of paper, with room for marginal scrapes and scribbles.

Your plan may include water testing in different areas. As I headed for graduate school, one of my undergraduate professors suggested that I try both academic work and corporate / government work after I got my PhD. I was a teacher for three years, then I joined the business world and found my home. The advice to try both sides of the profession was great. There may be several options to consider.

Think about long-term skills

What skills will you need in 20 years? College is a great time to start building them. But start with the humility of forecasting. What now looks like a great career field can become stale when you’re only halfway through retirement.

It’s a great topic of conversation with your grandparents. Ask them for careers that looked good when they were young, but no longer exist. My grandfather made a living in arithmetic in the 1920s to 1950s, before computers took over. Humans have added columns of numbers, subtracted, multiplied, and even made long divisions without calculators.

It is an obsolete skill, even in the poorest countries of the world.

Certain skills, or broad areas of skills, are likely to be useful in a very uncertain future. The most obvious area is data analysis. Start with data analysis for artists, then consider the distant world of machine learning.

Data analysis for artists? Our house has two paintings of businessmen turned artists. Their business background probably did not add to their artistic talent, but it did allow them to make a living as artists. Putting paint on a canvas, throwing clay or composing music is a step. Selling art is another. Is it better to use a gallery, which will take a 50% commission, or exhibit in local art shows, or have a studio in a prominent location with walk-in clients? This is just one of the many dollar-and-penny decisions that can make the difference between making a living as an artist or having to do a routine job.

The courses in finance, economics and statistics will be useful for eternity, as far as I know. Many students avoid classroom work that involves numbers, but life involves numbers. Even if it’s outside your comfort zone, spend some time pushing the numbers.

At the opposite extreme of data analytics for artists, we come to artificial intelligence and machine learning. Right now it’s the hottest area of ​​tech, and I think it will continue to be hugely important. A strong mathematical aptitude is now required, as well as excellent programming skills and in-depth statistical theory. But computers are used to making the work of programmers easier. Machine learning can become quite easy for non-programmers and non-mathematicians alike. College is a good time to familiarize yourself with the concepts needed for this field.

I see economics as building analytical skills. Key concepts include trade-offs, decisions taken at the margin, incentives and interdependence. However, too many courses focus on public policy, as if students are likely to go to Congress or the Federal Reserve – or as if faculty fantasize about running the country. Instead, focus on business applications of economics, which will also apply to nonprofits and many government agencies.

The second area of ​​skill that will be valuable for many years to come is understanding people. We are complex creatures, with hopes and fears, tendencies for different behavior, a desire for great reward and a loathing for risk. And each of us is unique. Many careers are built on the ability to understand others. I am thinking of sales, but also of the helping professions, such as counseling, ministry, primary medicine, anyone who has to translate a person’s comments into a coherent vision of the personality. The best managers motivate different employees differently. Take a look back at these Big Five personality traits and think about how best to motivate people based on these traits.

Machine learning will be very slow to understand a person’s hopes, fears, aspirations, risk tolerance, sentimentality. Because each of us is unique, analyzing a large number of people says little about me in particular. With enough data, the bots might be able to understand me, but I am making conflicting decisions, and some may seem contradictory but actually have an obscure justification. And machine learning works best with millions of examples the computer can learn from. But I don’t make millions of decisions. The machine will have a hard time understanding me, but a lot of humans have a pretty good idea of ​​who I am.

People’s learning is obviously aided by psychology, but also by history, literature and art. The humanities may not help in getting that first job, but a good background in the humanities can facilitate many jobs. But as you study, keep coming back to people. What does this work of art say about people and their aspirations? What does this novel tell us about the differences between people? What does this story tell us about people’s fears?

The third area that will likely be important decades from now is biology. Advances in genetic engineering will continue. Right now, however, that may not be great for many young college graduates. The grunt work absorbs a huge part of the total effort. Many people love to learn science, only to find themselves in tedious lab work. Salaries are low compared to other science and engineering.

Due to huge uncertainty about the future, I recommend against highly specialized majors, such as sports marketing, equestrian management or international business. It may put you in a box that is too small for the long future. For example, ten years from now, the best marketing job opportunity for you might be outside of sports. You could take a specialization in marketing, adding a few sports marketing courses for immediate employability, and having more flexibility in the future.

Short-term plans to support yourself

There are many paths to a long term career with an uncertain future. Supporting oneself in the first years after college is an early challenge. Consider using your college years to create immediate employment opportunities, even if they don’t match your long-term aspirations. Computer programming and data analysis is the most obvious route, but consider non-academic approaches as well.

The construction trades pay well and are currently in high demand. Your professors who told you to go to college discouraged the supply of people in construction and manufacturing. As a result, there are good opportunities in blue collar work. You will need a long term plan that involves leaving the field, or being the person with the clipboard, before the age of 40. The job can be too physically demanding for a 50-year-old, and the wages are much higher for managers than for workers.

Health is a field with many opportunities, some of which are accessible with six to 18 months of training. If you’re not yet in college or early in your career, talk to counselors (especially at community colleges) about options for earning professional qualifications while earning an undergraduate degree. The radiology technician is the kind of position that can be part of an undergraduate program and also provide a good first job outside of school.


Whatever plan you develop now, it will need to be changed as you go. But having a plan makes sense. Think both short and long term, recognizing that the economy and technology will change in ways we can’t imagine today.


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