My son is now at that age where every adult asks him, “What are you planning to study?” or worse, “What will you become?” It’s a stressful period for his age group – there’s a lot of pressure to answer these questions, and many don’t have a clue how to. Sadly, I also don’t see a lot of helpful advice and most career counselling falls miserably short of helping them understand what their options are for the future.
Throughout my career, I have worked with successful people from many different backgrounds; people who have accumulated wealth in many different ways. In my work, I also research future trends which has given me insight into the world of work and material success, which may be useful to parents and young people when they’re making their choice of undergraduate studies.
Before I delve into my thoughts, I want to emphasize that I value education. I believe a classical education, across diverse subject fields, sets you up for a good future as a person, not just as a worker. Yes, the education system can improve and modernise, but education in mathematics and languages, arts and history, and natural and physical sciences is a valuable and beautiful thing.
Pursuing a tertiary education, in particular, is worthwhile. It is not the only path to success, but it is a proven path. Even if the future proves us wrong, I still prefer my children to have learnt the principles of mathematics, the history of the world, the wonders of science, and the beauty of poetry. And importantly, the discipline of critical thinking.
What I share here, are some thoughts, not a thoroughly researched and complete piece of career advice. Just thoughts that may help people with their decision-making process.
Your first degree does not determine the outcome of your life
In some countries, it doesn’t matter what course you start with. In the UK, for example, you can study a liberal arts degree and still qualify for the auditing profession through articles and board exams. However, in South Africa, our tertiary education is more geared towards a particular outcome, especially for specific professions. An undergraduate degree in accounting is a requirement for further studies to qualify in the auditing profession.
There is a disadvantage to this. The fixation on a predetermined professional outcome for undergraduate studies forces teenagers to choose a specific path at a time when they are not qualified to make these choices. In addition, a chosen path to a pre-determined outcome is not ideal for the changing world we live in. However, choosing a degree that will qualify you for further studies towards a profession isn’t a bad choice – so long as you realise that your professional qualification is not a destination, but the start of a journey.
I started my studies in actuarial science, thinking that I wanted to qualify as an actuary. However, I soon realised that I disliked the dry and theoretical side of the degree and veered towards economics. It led me to a career in stockbroking and investments and a professional qualification in investments. In time, I understood that it was the people side of the business that interested me most. This lead me to further studies in financial planning, and finally to start a business in financial planning.
Understanding that a specific professional qualification is not an end goal and is unlikely to secure professional success over the next forty years, is crucial.
Don’t look back to work out what will work in the future
One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to look back to ascertain what our young people should study going forward. What worked for the parents’ generation is unlikely to secure financial security for this generation of students.
Because the world is changing at a more rapid pace than ever, we need to look at the nature of these changes and their impact on the world of work to ascertain the best fields to get involved in. We need to take a long-term view of where the challenges are likely to emerge, where capital is likely to flow, and where opportunities and gaps are likely to emerge if we are to help young people make sensible decisions. The biggest global challenges will provide the biggest opportunities. Climate change, ageing populations, global economic inequality, and artificial intelligence are just some of the forces that will shape the future of this generation – as is helping humans cope with these changes.
It will mean that financially lucrative jobs of our generation, like auditing and investment management, may be replaced by machines in our children’s lifetimes. What we should be looking at, is where amongst these challenges there is an opportunity where they’d want to play.
Studying the impact of climate change has varied opportunities across diverse fields: investment solutions for climate change may involve data analytics for environmental studies, agricultural studies for food and water security, and risk management studies towards calculating or managing the impact of volatile weather patterns.
Think of the ageing population. Caring for the aged, in all facets, is a sector of rapid growth, and helping people age well and afford a long life, is likely to only grow in demand. Which new fields are opening in this area?
Also, helping humans cope with these changes will be an area of growth. Psychology, psychiatry, coaching, career guidance for people of all ages, relationship coaching, and or, transition management are all areas of expertise that are likely to see a huge increase in demand.
If someone is set on a traditional profession, then also consider including studies in computer science, data analytics, or coding, so that the student can pivot into the digital side of their profession. A medical practitioner, for example, can become involved in the machine learning and diagnostics of the profession.
Do the hardest degree first
I also believe that we should encourage young people to challenge themselves with their first undergraduate degree. Often, bright students have difficulty choosing their field of study because they excel in all their school subjects. So when you then have a choice between a major in social studies or mathematics, and you enjoy maths, choose maths first.
You are unlikely to tackle applied mathematics or a medical degree later in life. It is not impossible, just unlikely. There is sufficient evidence that aptitudes in mathematics, for example, are best developed in young adults. These skills deteriorate as we age. Skills in reasoning and philosophising, on the other hand, improve with age. The best time to be a history professor or philosophy writer is probably much later in life.
This does not mean that I consider social studies a ‘soft’ degree or unimportant for the future. I think they’re very important, but being strategic in what you study when – if faced with an equal choice - makes sense.
It’s not all about maths and science
The world needs well-rounded people who can reason, communicate effectively and build strong relationships in their homes, communities, and workplaces. And they need to come from a diverse spectrum of wealth, gender, and race. Typically, the skills that create well-rounded people are gained by training in languages, history, and the social sciences. They are important skills, and we should know by now that there is nothing ‘soft’ or easy about mastering them!
However, even when choosing these fields, consider the future rather than the past. Think about what future problems may require solving through social science. For example, how might artificial intelligence affect family structures? Or, how does immigration impact societies with ageing populations in developed economies that need younger immigrants to fill the workforce?
Furthermore, studying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) may seem the most obvious choice when looking at global changes; however, if a student doesn't have a strong ability in these subjects, it is better to excel in social sciences. This is preferable to struggling through a STEM degree or, worse, them hating their eventual job.
Undergraduate studies are the beginning of life-long learning
This may seem obvious, but undergraduate studies are not just to prepare you for a career or to provide you with a means to an end. Undergraduate studies should be the beginning of lifelong learning. Over their lifetimes, current students are likely to need to continue their studies in many fields across many different careers. So rather than think about a first career choice as the ultimate choice, consider it the first of many choices to secure and further your career.
I have continued to study and learn throughout my life. After my initial studies in the financial field, I continued to study and learn in less formal ways throughout midlife. I enrolled for courses in writing, coaching, personality assessments, behaviour psychology, management, leadership, and transitional management. I expanded my field of reading to include philosophy, psychology, and even physiology.
Some of my midlife friends have ventured into more formal studies of environmental management, future studies, or the arts.
We should encourage a love of learning. Sometimes the best field to study after school is the one the student loves to learn about.
Financial security will be increasingly important
We will continue to see significant global challenges, particularly with the rising inequality worldwide. As a result, competition for top positions will intensify, with competitors coming from all corners of the world. A student is no longer competing for the top positions with others in their country but with the increasingly brilliant education systems from previously disadvantaged countries like India or Malaysia.
In addition, globalisation and social media have made the lifestyles of the top 1% more desirable, and even more attainable. However, the uncertainty created by these same global forces will mean less job security than ever in our generation - jobs can, and will, appear and disappear at a more rapid pace.
Fortunately, financial security is not just attained by earning more. It is also attained by curtailing lifestyle expectations. Many young people are likely to opt out of the race to the top as they consciously choose to create slower, sustainable lifestyles. They may either choose careers in sustainable agriculture or fashion or build a business around their lifestyle. Careers in the tourist or travel industries or even crafts or traditional trades like carpentering also come to mind.
Whatever, the choice of career, the ability to save and adjust lifestyle choices around the many challenges and changes that our children will face, will be a key skill to learn and master. A seemingly secure lifestyle in the suburbs is not a sign of financial security. A healthy investment balance, a lifestyle within your means, and the ability to adapt to changing financial conditions will be the invisible marks of financial security.
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