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April 04, 2013

The Job Market, Now and In the Future

This story about the current job environment for twenty-somethings is a good jumping-off point to talk about one of the dangers our society faces in the coming years: we're eating our seed corn.

It's not just the size of the Gen-Y/Millennial demographic, or what their job skills (or lack thereof) are when they're young -- everybody has crappy jobs when they're young. That's part of the process. The bigger problem is the lack of upward mobility and a mismatch between the demands of a high-tech workplace and the skills in the adult workforce.

The problem is rooted in the failures of our educational system. Primary and secondary education is mired in the same wasteful bureaucratic morass as other public entities these days, and the university system has pretty much transformed itself into a collection of Marxist political seminaries dedicated not to promoting knowledge, but to advancing the "progressive" cause. Businesses, who had turned the college degree as a stand-in for the aptitude tests they were forbidden to administer, now find that even a degree is a poor signifier for a job-applicant's knowledge, skills, and talents. It's quite possible for a young person to pass through twenty years of schooling (or more) and come out the other side nearly as unsuited for the working world as when they entered the school system.

But still: most young people can adapt and learn, given the proper motivation. I'm not worried about a 25-year-old who can't figure out what he or she really wants to do for the next 20 years. I am worried about a 35-year-old who can't figure it out. I am worried about an unmarried 35-year-old who still has a mountain of debt from school loans, two or three useless liberal arts or humanities degrees, and still lives with his mom and dad.

Part of the problem is the skills mismatch -- a poli-sci or humanities major isn't much use in a world that is demanding ever more engineers and computer programmers. The world can only absorb so many social workers and latina studies majors and even astrophysicists.

But ithe issue is bigger than not having enough SQL database administrators or mobile-app developers or engineers. The entire work environment is changing as technology relentlessly drives forward. The old model where you drove to a building and worked the same job for 8 hours a day and then went home has been dying out for a long time now. Forget working for the same company for your entire career except in a very few cases. You probably won't even do the same kind of job for your entire career. (I've been, at various times, a shipping clerk, a line cook, a laborer, a cowboy, a computer repairman, a software developer, a technical writer, a teacher, and a farmhand. And that's only the paying jobs that required filling out a W-2.)

The problem with America's (and Europe's) workforce is twofold: it is unsuited for the workforce now, and will probably be even more ill-prepared for the future workforce. To be successful from here on out is going to require a broad-based set of skills, a high level of mobility and flexibility, and a willingness to do hard and unpleasant work for relatively little pay. That's the "new normal" that everybody's talking about. Freelance and short-term gigs are going to be far more common as firms strive to keep their core payrolls low. As automation and other forms of technology continue to drive down materials and manufacturing costs, the price of human labor is going to continue to fall -- not just in the low end of the job market, but in the trades and professions as well.

The reality is that we've chosen the European social model of social welfare at the cost of high structural unemployment at just the time when this model is failing all over the world: in Japan, in Europe, and here. At exactly the time young people need to be entrepreneurs, jacks-of-all-trades, and self-starters, we're turning them into under-educated, over-entitled, helpless, unskilled wards of the State.

All is not lost. The world still needs people who can carry a plate of food from the kitchen to the table.

I've often said that "follow your dreams" is, in most cases, bad career advice for young people (or anyone, really). Find a job that you can make a decent living at and that you don't hate. You don't have to love it -- if it was fun they wouldn't call it work. If you are one of the lucky ones who can find a paying job doing something you love, then be happy, because most people don't have that option.

Ultimately, the core truth is that the world doesn't owe anyone a living. We all have to go out there and find one. It may not be the one we want, but that too is just reality asserting itself.


UPDATE: Gee, it seems like only a week ago that all the news outlets were trumpeting that we had turned the corner on jobs. As it turns out...not so much.

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posted by Monty at 08:49 AM

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