Contrary to popular opinion it’s tough being a teenager or a twenty-something. Everyone is simultaneously throwing advice at you and asking the ubiquitous question, “so, what are you going to do?” It used to be a pretty easy question to answer. When I was that age, the only options I had were join the military, go to college, or curl up into a ball and die. I considered the strengths and weaknesses of each and decided my sarcastic wit and lack of sound judgment didn’t bode well for me as a military cadet (plus the only job I was really interested in was colonel -- think about it: eagles on your collar are way cooler than stars -- but I doubted they would give it to me straight out of high school).
Curling up in a ball and dying, while a viable option, presented its own issues, not the least of which was the time it would take for a healthy teenager to…what, starve to death? Eventually I decided that it wasn’t worth the effort and planning, so as a last resort I enrolled at Monroe County Community College, a haven for farm kids who knew more about birthing calves than writing a sentence with a predicate.
Apparently, 'no idea' is not a major.
Every term I enrolled in classes they gave us a form to complete, the purpose being to gather demographic information for God-knows-what purpose -- this was during the Reagan years when “just say no” was considered a viable strategy for combating the crack epidemic. Each term I would dutifully change my race, and in response to the question, “what is your main collegiate goal; i.e. why are you going to college” I would answer, to meet girls and to avoid the (nonexistent) draft. Eventually they sent a nastygram telling me to quit it.
The truth is I never wanted to be anything. Baby Boomers dropped out, tuned out, and turned on; Gen Xers became slackers; and now we have the gall to bad mouth millennials as entitled and lazy. I hustled through college and eventually graduated from the University of Michigan (where I was accepted due to clerical error). It took me 11 years to get my four-year degree, a feat immortalized in Reader’s Digest when a smart aleck acquaintance carved “Phil class of 81, 82, and 83” into a library desk.
Oh, it's called 'training, development and design.'
I took my degree in "training, development and design," a program ginned up to produce professionals that weren’t really formed yet. Some thought this new profession, “trainer,” would work in corporate America; others thought it was something akin to marketing, but my dear alma mater believed that trainers would become entrepreneurs, sole proprietors who hung out their shingles. It was a boon for me. One-third of my classes were business, another third were communication and the rest in education. The curriculum was designed to produce entrepreneurs, and in the early days, if a trainer had to be an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur or they weren’t going to survive.
What then of today’s grads who have run up six-figure loan debt learning skills that are valued at far less than that? The problem with student debt isn’t that they foolishly majored in drama, and there are only so many Renaissance Fairs out there. No, the problem is a lot harder to solve. We are asking 18-year-olds to choose a career without knowing what skills will be necessary eight to 10 years from now. My late mother wanted me to be a physical therapist, “there’s good money in it,” she said, while other adults suggested that I be a CAD operator, a trade about which they had no idea except, “there’s a lot of jobs out there.”
We're all walking backwards into the future.
So we give the millennials the same stupid advice we got -- uninformed guesses at what tomorrow will hold. John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to people making other plans,” and that was sure the case with me and a lot of my generation. And yet we feed the youth of today the same formula for success that has failed so many of us.
Therefore, my honest advice to young people is: Find a career that is propelled by fear, ignorance and stupidity. You will never go broke underestimating people’s propensity for any of these.