May 10, 2018

Social Change and Your Next Step

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Graduation is always an exciting time for students and their families. It can also be a stressful time, as graduates sometimes struggle to figure out what's next. Commencement speeches provide soaring rhetoric about “following your dreams” and how you are the leaders of the future.

As a young graduate, I found these kinds of speeches to be pretty pointless (and sometimes boring). For someone trying to figure out “what they want to be when they grow up,” these motivational speeches—and often graduation gifts in the form of motivational books for the graduate—offer little useful advice.

Part of the reason is because none of us really know what the world of work holds for the future. Sociologists study social change: how and why changes happen, and how people, organizations, and societies adapt to such changes. Demographers use the tools of social science and can often predict specific changes that might take place due to shifts in population size and composition. Using population data, they can often predict what jobs might be in high demand in the future, as I discussed in this post from 2017.

While we might be able to predict what professions will experience growth, we can’t always predict what work might look like in the distant future. Thinking back over the past decades, much has changed that have no doubt changed the career trajectories of many graduates. At the very least these changes have altered the way in which many people do their jobs, even in fields that they remain in decades later:

If you were part of the class of 2008:

  • Facebook had only just expanded to users not currently attending college two years earlier
  • Twitter was founded two years earlier
  • The iPhone was released a year earlier

If you were part of the class of 1998:

  • Google was just invented three years earlier
  • Only 26 percent of Americans had Internet access at home
  • The first iMac was released (the MacBook was still 8 years away), signaling Apple’s comeback from financial difficulties

If you were part of the class of 1988:

Think of how the Internet, smart phones and social media are part of people’s daily lives, and how they have altered the world of work over the past decades. Graduates from just ten years ago now find themselves in a social, technical, and economic environment far different from what their educational backgrounds might have prepared them for.

So what is a graduate to do?

Choose a direction rather than a destination.

One challenge to thinking about “what you want to do” is that it can be hard to imagine what our interests might be in 10, 20, or 30 years. Rather than picking a career as a destination, the best we can do is choose a direction—a first step towards an interest or a field that you want to learn more about and that will help you develop your skills and talents. Of course you might take steps in one direction and find that it is not the path you want to continue on any longer. That is part of the process.

Often there is no way to know that you don’t enjoy being a corporate litigator, for instance, until you become one. This doesn’t mean that all other doors are closed to you and you have to start your education over, necessarily. It just means you need to assess the skills you possess and figure out how they might apply in a different context.

You might have heard the expression that the true value of education is learning how to learn. Rather than thinking about just the content of your courses, your educational experience should ideally promote taking new ideas into consideration, and thinking about things from a unique perspective. Taking classes in a number of different disciplines (the foundation of most general education programs) helps you take on new learning challenges that you would not face if you only took courses in a few specific fields.

Congratulations, graduates. No need to panic about the future; just be willing and able to learn new skills and be flexible enough to change direction when necessary.

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