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November 11, 2018
Every year there are tens of articles across the internet about the hottest careers. The only problem with these lists is that they are in industries that need work done now. Our own children won’t be entering the workforce for at least 10 years, probably more like 15. The careers that are hot now will certainly be not in 15 years. So what can we teach our children now that will serve them well in 15 years, or more ideally, for their whole lives?
I always attempt (and often fail) to be systematic in my thinking, so rather than just spew out a list of skills I think are valuable, I’m going to try and build a scaffolding of criteria for deciding whether skills are valuable.
What kinds of things do humans need to survive? Food and shelter are the basics. So farming and construction. Those skills will always be in demand. The big problem with farming is that unless you live on a big farm, it’s difficult to teach a child to farm in a way that will provide them with a great living (unless they plan on homesteading). But I think more small family farms shut down every year because the economics of small farms are brutal.
I think there’s a real dearth of skilled blue collar workers, so that will probably continue to be a good choice into the future. Unless you have family or close friends in the trades, though, it’s hard to get young kids much exposure to skilled blue collar work.
It occurred to me as I was writing this, that there are two different reasons you might want to know these skills. The first is to do them for yourself for survival. The second is to do them as a job to earn a living.
As survival skills, farming and construction are of first importance. However, for them to be really useful, you need to live somewhere where you have neither food nor shelter, nor can you buy them from someone. That means that either you need to choose to go somewhere where you can employ these skills (be a homesteader), or there needs to be some sort of apocalypse. Thinking about the apocalypse can be an interesting exercise, but it seems a stretch to assume that there will a) be an apocalypse, that b) you will survive, that c) will leave the environment intact enough to allow you to farm. In the event of an apocalypse like that, there will also theoretically be lots of housing available, which makes construction much less useful. It seems just as likely that the environment will be compromised in a way that you have to learn how to farm inside, in which case, knowing about, say electrical engineering and aquaponics may be more useful than traditional farming.
As jobs, the story is a bit different. Farms are always looking for employees, but the pay and conditions are generally pretty bad and the work is seasonal. Construction is less seasonal, but at the entry level, the pay and conditions are often pretty tough.
Clothing is also a necessity, and making it is a valuable survival skill, but the apocalypse reservations apply. Making it for a living is brutal, unless you make luxury clothing. Lots of people make and sell clothing on sites like Etsy, but you need to build up a solid brand and quite a bit of demand to make decent money.
I’m sure there are more necessities, but I think most necessities follow the same pattern above. They are super useful in a homesteading or survivalist situation, but by virtue of their being necessities, the industries are dominated by lots of big, old companies, and most of the available work is fairly lowed skilled and poorly paid.
I think teaching children these skills as part of an arts and crafts curriculum is great, but it’s equally important to teach them about the business realities so that they understand what it means to pursue a career in these fields. Wanting to be a rich seamstress is probably a lot like wanting to be a professional athlete.
Our second criteria can be generality.
As I mentioned above, the major problem with the lists of hot careers is that the careers will cease to be hot in a few years. Even the people who were able to acquire the knowledge and change careers will often be on to something else within a handful of years. But some skills are more general than that. Some skills remain relevant, even as the economy changes.
Typing, for example, will be a useful skill as long as computers are a thing (until it’s not, I suppose, but keyboardless data entry seems like it’s quite a ways off). Even people who grew up typing on typewriters would have seen their skills transfer to the computer.
Understanding computer science in general is useful. Even if programming languages change, the principles of computer science remain the same. Something like computer science has the opposite problem of the “necessities” from the previous section. In an apocalypse scenario, computer science is almost worthless, unless the apocalypse is cause by a malevolent artificial intelligence and you happen to specialize in post-apocalyptic malevolent artificial intelligence.
Despite that, I think it’s far more realistic to assume that the world will continue roughly as we know it. Even in the worst wars in history, life continued more or less regularly wherever there wasn’t active fighting and most people in the world didn’t die in the wars. Even in catastrophes like the black plague where the number of deaths was truly staggering as a percentage of the population, the nature of jobs following the plague was much the same.
One step more general from computer science is something like electrical engineering. This happens to be well-paid and something that kids can get started learning at a relatively young age. It will continue to be important for as long as we use electronics. The downside of this is that having credentials is very important. You can be a farmer without credentials (though I know there are lots of degrees available from Ag and Tech universities related to farming so even there the credentials are important). You can sew your own clothes without credentials. You can also design your own electronics without credentials, but it’s very difficult to get a job designing electronics without credentials.
One step more general from electrical engineering would be something like physics. In the land of pure science, the jobs are few and academic. The pay depends greatly on the institution you are at. Being a professional physicist is probably a lot like being a professional athlete. Honestly, there are probably more professional athletes than professional physicists. Though there are probably more still high school physics teachers.
I’m not sure what the lesson from this section is. I think it’s something like “Taking a bunch of e-courses to become whatever is the current version of ‘data scientist’ is probably not the best use of your time, so take a step back and pick skills that are likely to still be relevant 30 years from now, but don’t go too general, or else there won’t be enough practical applications and you’ll be competing for money and status with people who are literally the next Albert Einstein.”
The third criteria is popularity.
This is perhaps a good way to choose little web businesses to build, but probably not a good way to choose educational topics for your children.
I chose to include this topic because I think it is super important to teach your children how to identify whether things are popular because they are important or whether they are popular because they are popular. It’s not always easy to tell the difference. Sometimes it’s impossible and only history can show us the difference in retrospect.
In another blog post, I’ll write more about teaching kids to make this distinction.
I’ve often said that most people really only use literacy and basic arithmetic in their daily lives. My parents, who are CPAs, who you would think would need to know quite a bit of math, like to joke that they only need to know addition and subtraction.
It may be a tautology, but unless you work in a profession where you need a specific kind of math or science, you don’t need it. Though my children are still young, I imagine you can see these professions coming from a ways off. My friend who is a computer programmer seemed like he was going to be a computer programmer from a young age. My friend who is a civil engineer seemed like he was going to be a civil engineer from a young age. Not everyone is like that, but kids have certain interests and it’s easy enough to give them the resources to learn that specific math and science if they seem interested in a certain field.
Other than that, we can focus on helping kids being really literate and really good at arithmetic. This sounds kind of silly, because if you can read, you’re literate, right? But there are a lot of stages of “able to read.” Every kids who takes the SAT can “read,” but some kids get perfect scores on the reading sections and some kids do terribly. Math is the same way. Most of the math on the SAT isn’t that hard. Theoretically all of the kids who take the SAT know arithmetic, but kids record vastly different results on the SAT. There are lots of questions that aren’t arithmetic, but there are a lot that are, and I’m betting there’s quite a distribution of outcomes across just those questions as well.
I have a personal theory that learning is immensely easier when it’s easier for you to read and write and when you have built up a certain number of intuitions about numbers. I’ve written before about important I believe it is to build a scaffolding of knowledge that makes it easier to learn things in the future, and the very foundation of this scaffolding is literacy and arithmetic.
Literacy and arithmetic are some of the most general things you can learn. Other excellent early parts of the scaffolding are things like understanding the life cycle of energy (from the sun, to plants, to us or animals, to waste, back to the plants, etc) or the life cycle of water. Those things don’t require much scientific knowledge, but they plant the seeds of a solid intuition about how the world works.
Naturally, as the kids get older, the lessons will be more specific, but we don’t have older kids yet. I’ll think more on the topic of what I would teach middle schoolers and high schoolers. I was one of those, once upon a time, so I should be able to come up with something…
Raising Abundance is mainly a daily personal journal to look back on while we live our unconventional lives with the additional hope of helping others do better and get more out of life.