Thursday, January 8, 2009

Will Majoring in Business End Up Costing Kids Jobs?

When I was a teenager, I never imagined going into business.  I realized, of course, that in order to survive I would have to sell something, or sell my abilities, but other than that I never really thought about the B word. 

Business, I believed, was boring, and it was not at all my dream for what I wanted to do with my life. I have always been slightly off-beat, and to me, business represented the ultimate in pedestrian bleakness. I saw business as not much more than gray plastic cubicles, whining fax machines and the nauseating smell of burnt hazelnut coffee.

While I was in college, I worked at my dad’s office during the summer and holidays. I always found it tedious, exhausting, and itchy (the wearing of stockings), not to mention stomach-ache inducing (I am thinking of the greasy corporate cafeteria food). Business. Ugh.

Maybe people made money in business, but as far as I was concerned, it might be equivalent to selling your soul.  Was it worth it, I wondered, to have every day blend into the next, to never see daylight during daylight hours?

I had to compromise my principles eventually, and I worked in publishing (perhaps the most palatable but also the least well-paying business) for several years.  I still found it somewhat tiresome, though—I’m talking about the day-to-day part: being chained to a desk, mostly.

I see business as perhaps a necessary evil, although I believe most businesses can be conducted in more ethical (and environmentally-friendly) ways. But I digress.

Many of my students now (17-year-olds, for the most part) tell me that they plan to major in Business. When they say this, I always find my head spinning. Do you really know what that means? I ask them. What kind of business? Strangely enough, they never seem to know.  

Then they equivocate, or elaborate. They add, “Maybe international business.” Why? I ask them—does the “international” part make it sound better, more glamorous? And what is that, exactly--international business? None of the kids I teach ever have any idea. 

Somewhere along the way, teenagers have been told, or urged, to go into business. Yet what people, both young and old, don’t seem to realize is that business has changed, is changing more every day, and may not even exist as we know it ten years from now.

You used to be able to major in accounting and you would be virtually guaranteed a job.  Now, all those jobs are going to East India. Will today's American accounting major have the same opportunities that her father or mother did? No way. One look at any business magazine will show you this, so I wonder: why are we still steering our children towards generic business degrees?

It's all well and good to become an entrepreneur or an inventor (whether by design or happy accident), but I think we might be doing kids a disservice if we keep urging them to study business with the expectation that taking such courses, and only such courses, will guarantee them good money. 

We have to remember that if the kids in question are in high school now, they won’t be entirely finished with school for seven or eight more years. Who knows what the economic landscape, the global environment, will look like by then?

Students all over the US are still getting their MBAs, but I am starting to believe there must be other, better options that will help to guarantee future employability. 

The MFA (which I have) is supposedly now the “new” MBA, according to the groundbreaking book, A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink.  What we should be telling our children now, Pink argues, is to develop a special skill, and to follow their passions. 

Kids of the future will need to be exceptionally creative in order to survive in a world where the "regular" jobs we used to depend upon as stable, respectable careers are being sourced out to cheaper labor pools overseas.  

It's a daunting thought, but students now will need to create their own jobs and promote themselves as vital cogs in the global market in order to stay employable in the 21st century.

Some people don't want to, or refuse to, realize how drastically things in the world are changing.  When I was just about to start grad school, one man (who had his MBA) scoffed to me, “You’re getting an MFA? What is that—like getting a lobotomy?” Same to you, buddy, I think now—I may not be rich, but at least I have a fulfilling and meaningful career, not simply a boring job.  And I haven’t been made redundant. 

I feel for all the business majors who are now out of work in this painfully contracting economy. What will they possibly do next? Can they readjust? They may have to.

Being a teacher feels like a good career choice, now. And people bow down to my MFA, which I actually think is sort of ridiculous, especially when I remember all the bizarre writing workshops I attended, and my thesis defense meeting, which was more akin to a challenging psychotherapy session than anything else, but hey—I’ll take it.  Having my MFA, at this point in time, has made me nearly bulletproof.

I remember, though, applying to grad school. It took a couple of tries for me to get in. I remember a relative asking me, in a disgusted tone of voice, “So what’s going on? You’re not going to grad school?” I had to explain that I wanted to go, but I just needed an MFA program to want to accept me.

Applying for arts is much different than applying for business.  I went to a program with maybe 15 openings, not 500, as you see in business schools. The competition was far more intense, and artistic talent is far more subjective. 

That’s why I don’t gloat about my degree. I know, in a way, that I just got lucky. My stories resonated with a reader, or a few readers.

Years later, when I won a major writing award, people from my academic program said to me, “You won for that? I hated it.”  It just goes to show that you can’t please everyone, and don’t bother to try.

So when I question my students’ plans to study business, it is not because I personally find business unexciting, but mostly because--and this may seem counter-intuitive, at first--I want them to have the most opportunities available to them. I want them to open their minds to all the choices they have--for living and for earning money. I want my students to enjoy the most satisfying and productive (in terms of the greater good--even if that only applies to happiness) existences that they can. 

My advice to my students is always to become bi or tri-lingual (that will certainly be more important than ever in our shrinking world), and to figure out how they can make a difference to other people. What else is there? 

Certainly, we don't need anyone trying to sell us more disposable plastic junk, or more people trying to trick us into burying ourselves deeper in debt. The last thing we need now is more people who make themselves rich by making other people poor, or sick.

Obviously, our kids will need to make money, but I know there are many ways to earn a living while not denying healthy, happy lives to other people, other creatures. If we think outside the box, we can find ways to earn a salary while also improving our own and others' lives. Meaningful work could be, for example, designing safer, cleaner forms of transportation, or growing organic produce. It could be making art that captures the truth about life.

No one can predict the future, and some people are understandably hesitant to accept the fact that the old reliable jobs are possibly becoming extinct. We can only guess what tomorrow may bring in terms of job demands and opportunities. But my guess is that we shouldn’t tell kids to go into business if that decision will, in the end, lead them to face difficulty, not ease, in their lives.  

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