Back in the ‘60’s, an interviewer asked the
“King of Folk Music”, Bob Dylan what his goal in life was. Bob answered
something to the effect of,
want to make enough money to go to college, so one day I can be somebody.”
Bob had a good sense of irony. And certainly,
he was always more inclined to think outside the box than to follow the
well-trodden path. That was part of what made him so interesting and part of
what made him so successful. A similar sentiment was expressed in a song by his
peer, Paul Simon:
I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can
think at all.”
In those days, just like today, the customary idea
of success was that you attended university for a number of years, you received
a degree, then you would be given a job where you could wear a necktie and
receive a salary that had an extra zero behind it.
Then, as now, that’s quite true for anyone who
seeks a career in engineering, medicine, law, etc., but less so for virtually
everyone else. Those who pursue a degree in Gender Studies or 18
Century French Literature are likely to find that, after they graduate, they’ve
learned little or nothing that translates into potential income.
Of course, universities value such courses
highly and professors love to teach them. After all, they never really left
school themselves. They went straight from being students to being teachers and
never had to learn to be productive in the larger world. As such, they are the
worst advisors to students
wondering what courses to take in order to one day seek employment.
This is not to say that such subjects are
uninteresting; it’s just that employers don’t hire people because they were
interested in their courses. They hire them, based upon whether they’ve
acquired knowledge that’s applicable to their businesses.
There will always be a need for engineers,
doctors and lawyers, but the pursuit of studies that stand little chance of
producing a return may be a waste of a significant chunk (or all) of your
parents' savings, or may result in years of indebtedness in the form of a
college loan. In addition, you could be wasting several prime years, at a time
when your energy and imagination are at a peak.
Recently I was asked my opinion on a young
woman who was considering university. She’s not only bright, but sensible and
organised beyond her years. My suggestion was that she enter a university
in another country (away from her
parents), and take some basic courses in business management, accounting,
economics, etc. After a year, she should plan to drop out and travel the world
for a year with a backpack. Her parents should give her enough money so that
she’d be all right if she runs into unforeseen problems, but, aside from that,
she should try to work her way around the world doing a variety of jobs. In
doing so, she should follow her own choices and her own timetable.
Were she to do this, I believe she’d return
home after the two years, with the self-confidence, self-reliance and
adaptability to take on virtually anything. Her “education” from that time
would stay with her the rest of her life. As Albert Einstein stated,
is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”
Today, especially in the US, there’s a push
toward the concept of everyone going to university, with some leaders and
would-be leaders suggesting that university education should be available to
all, for free. They don’t mention how it might be possible for the
already-imposed-upon taxpayer to pay for this enormous additional cost, other
than to “tax the rich some more”. (This is not exactly what makes up a viable
Nor do they offer an opinion on what happens
when the great majority of people have university degrees, but the great
majority of jobs don’t require them. (Could it be that they’re imagining a
society where no one accepts the job of collecting the garbage; where no one
pursues a career as a fireman, a mechanic, or a carpenter?)
In my own country, I’ve often heard parents
chide their children, “You need to study more – do you want to end up in
construction?” (Children here are generally encouraged to pursue careers in law
or the financial industry.)
A good rule of thumb regarding education is to
follow what you seem to be best at. Most of us are best at the things that we
find interesting. If we’re endowed with an excellent memory and love to study
books, we might be good candidates for a degree in medicine or law. If not,
even if we eventually manage to obtain a degree, it’s unlikely that we’ll excel
in one of those fields.
And there’s another concern that’s very rarely
discussed in the ivy halls – the future.
We’re entering what I believe will be a period
of the most dramatic economic change that any of us will see in our lifetimes.
There are many job titles that are attracting many students today that may
diminish or even virtually disappear in a few short years.
We’re presently facing an economic crisis much
like the one in 1929, but far more devastating, since the conditions leading up
to it are so much worse. After a crash, bankers, brokers and other financial
industry professionals will be out of work. Many of those jobs will not return
in the foreseeable future. New graduates, hopeful of entering the industry will
find that they have no chance of obtaining even an entry-level position.
Following the immediate loss of those jobs, an
economic wind-down will take place that will trim away jobs in most other fields
In such an economic climate, some new jobs may
appear as a result of the changed economic landscape. Auto dealerships may
close, whilst mechanic shops remain busy. Large supermarkets may struggle,
whilst new low-overhead roadside stands fare better.
However, in general, a country that’s mired in
depression is likely to be a difficult place to make a living, especially for
those who have just exited university.
One great advantage that graduates have is that
they typically are unmarried, have no mortgage and are free to travel – on a
shoestring if necessary. And, whenever there’s a depression in some countries,
there are other countries that are largely unaffected by the depression or are
actually benefiting from it.
In such countries, there’s invariably a demand
for expansion of goods and services and the provision of
new goods and services. Few of those with a degree in sociology or
fashion design are likely to find a wealth of opportunity in such a situation.
And, similarly, employment will be difficult to find for those who pursued
calculus and analytic geometry. (Confession: I took these courses and have
never benefited from them.)
But for those who have taken some basic
business and economics courses, what was learned can be adapted to virtually
any future endeavour. Those who observe a growing economy objectively are
likely to spot any number of entrepreneurial possibilities.
And this is where we turn again to our friend
Al, in the photo above. Those who have used their educations to broaden their
ability to think will be those who find themselves at the forefront of an
expanding economy. In such an economic environment, success is more likely than
in a collapsing one, which makes it more forgiving when you make mistakes. And
when you don’t make mistakes, you’re rewarded many times over.
As has always been true, education can be the
key to open up the future. Whether it does will depend, in large part, on what
definition of education you pursue.
Jeff Thomas is British and resides in the Caribbean. The son of an economist and historian, he learned early to be distrustful of governments as a general principle. Although he spent his career creating and developing businesses, for eight years, he penned a weekly newspaper column on the theme of limiting government. He began his study of economics around 1990, learning initially from Sir John Templeton, then Harry Schulz and Doug Casey and later others of an Austrian persuasion. He is now a regular feature writer for Casey Research’s International Man (http://www.internationalman.com) and Strategic Wealth Preservation in the Cayman Islands.
The author is not affiliated with, endorsed or sponsored by Sprott Money Ltd. The views and opinions expressed in this material are those of the author or guest speaker, are subject to change and may not necessarily reflect the opinions of Sprott Money Ltd. Sprott Money does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, timeliness and reliability of the information or any results from its use.