The future is a degreeless-topia
How empowerment of small-scale value creation will decentralize work and bring about the fall of the education system as we know it
Millennials these days get a bad rap for refusing to do menial labor, for getting distracted easily, for being entitled for thinking they should not have to face the same hardships as previous generations.
The problem is that such logic is based on an outdated way of thinking — a societal structure which required a person to make a living through practicing one particular skill in a given field. The entire higher education system is based on this way of thinking. But nowadays, it’s easier than ever before for people to make a living without such specialized skills, and rather by creation of small-scale value: using one’s experiential knowledge, talents, or creativity, to contribute to society in a way that could sustain a living. This is much different from the traditional “cog-in-the-machine” definition of work which has dominated since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Ultimately this will mean empowerment for young people to create value, not though contribution to a larger corporate structure, but rather through contribution to a newly decentralized value economy based on small-scale creation.
There are three major factors becoming more and more prominent in modern society that are making it easier and much more accessible for young people to create value on a small scale, therefore eliminating the need for exclusive dedication to a very narrow field and the traditional concept of education that goes along with it:
- Technologies enabling productivity, expression, and self-promotion — Smartphones are another easy target for millennial criticism; the fact that they spend all their time staring at screens rather than having real social interaction. Sure, a face-to-face conversation cannot be substituted, but this argument is simply a straw-man, a distraction from the fact that smartphones enable an incredible boost in productivity, or the potential thereof. With the processing power of a high-powered computer in the palm of one’s hand, one can now practically do whatever kind of work or study that used to be limited to an office or classroom — on the go. With apps like Evernote, Google Docs, and OneDrive, our time spent in in transit, at home, or practically anywhere can be spend reading, writing, designing, coding, and creating. Meanwhile, blogging platforms such as Blogger and Wordpress allow us to make a virtual identity, or brand, for ourselves — something of a digital portfolio to showcase our creations. And finally, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram allow us to promote our activities to a broader audience, giving exposure to unbranded content, diversifying the market and providing an starting point for commercialization, which could potentially lead to a full time occupation later on.
- Easy access to information and low-cost education — With high speed internet everywhere, high-powered laptop computers, and, once-again, smartphones, people can supply themselves with a constant intake of knowledge and education through online resources. With Wikipedia for general knowledge, Stack Overflow for technical know-how, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) hosted by Coursera and EdX among others, the opportunity for education is no longer confined to the college campus. The fact that pay structures here are either A) non-existent or B) on a course-by-course basis, means people can choose to learn a subject they find immediately relevant for a particular project or skill, making degree programs look bloated, overpriced, and filled with unnecessary and irrelevant core material.
- Shift in economic structure to reward risk taking activities –Entrepreneurship is not a just a passing trend made popular by high profile billionaire celebrities and posts on Medium. It’s a sign of a large-scale societal shift emphasizing the creation of small-scale value. With incubators and accelerators abound, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, young people have more incentives than ever to pursue entrepreneurship as a career path. With the availability of funding and resources, such activities become much less risky than ever before, allowing entry of small players into highly-competitive markets previously dominated only by large corporations. No longer is a degree a prerequisite for success; one will only be assessed on his/her creations — as an outcome of dedication, in the form of time and effort — and not by educational background as an indicator of potential value to an existing corporation.
Life is a balance of effort and rewards, no matter how we look at it, and people will always tend to pursue the activities that will reap higher rewards with the most desirable form of effort.
Let’s look at Finland’s universal base income (UBI) experiment, whose purpose to provoke motivation to work by alleviating the hardships of unemployment (which could be seen as an analogous solution to the problem of millennials unmotivated to take mundane corporate positions):
“It’s partly about removing disincentives,” explained Marjukka Turunen, who heads the legal unit at Finland’s social security agency, Kela, which is running the experiment.
For millennials today, one major disincentive is simply the unwillingness to sacrifice their personal freedom to accept an unfulfilling job which takes up most of their time, leaving them little chance to pursue their actual passion. The removal of disincentives in this case, is not to force young people to take menial jobs, as this would be an unnatural push for reverse-progress, but rather, to normalize the creation of small-scale value by eliminating the social and financial pressure to take on a full-time corporate position.
The financial pressure I speak of is — yes, you guessed it — student loans. The average student in the United States graduates with an average of nearly 40 thousand dollars in loans, which could take up to 20 years to pay off, even with a high corporate salary. That leaves “pursuit of passion” out of the question, assuming such passion does not involve sitting at a cubicle for 9 hours a day, 5 days a week. Such loans are instruments of indentured servitude, as if young people owe something to society for the very privilege of getting an education, while many countries consider it a right. That’s why, as the awareness grows of the fact that such corporate positions are not the only option to make a living, and that one can have a comfortable life generating small-scale value, the necessity and, therefore, the pressure, to obtain a college degree will dwindle, and people will start pursuing creative, expressive, or otherwise alternative careers that match their personal values and interests.
It’s already happening.
Several new occupations have come about in recent years which reflect this shift, all of which point to the de-emphasis of formal education as a requirement in the path to career success.
Technology allowing for location independent work has led to the rise of digital nomadism — or working without a fixed office or workplace, oftentimes in a place where the cost of living is lower, making it easier to pursue a small scale, independent, potentially commercializable project, giving rise to “bootstrapping” as a full-time occupation. Bootstrapping is the ideology of building a product or company from the ground up without external help or funding.
This phenomenon is being exacerbated with the rise of co-working spaces, where anybody, anywhere, can take advantage of high speed internet and a comfortable workspace for the price of a coffee a day.
Meanwhile, sites like ProductHunt are making it easier to gain recognition through small scale value creation with their platform for exposing new products to solve problems, big or small. Such resources are making it more feasible for one to make a living from through a bootstrapped product or service, and with the plethora of online resources available to enable such activities, the incentive is becoming hard to ignore.
The same phenomenon can also lead to freelancing and consulting as a more feasible option for many people, especially those with with programming skills (which can be learned easily through online documentation and MOOC’s). Through platforms like Fiverr, or Freelancer, people can work on project-to-project basis, and earn income while working from anywhere.
Furthermore, blogs and social media are making it possible to make a living as an influencer, someone with a large following (usu. through fashion, photography, or travel) whose style embodies that of a particular product or service, making them an appropriate brand representative for a particular audience. Thus, by growing one’s brand through pursuit of any activity that can gain a following, one can potentially make a living without having to compromise what it was he/she did to gain that following, aside from a few product affiliation posts on social media. The influencer industry itself has also given rise to a new breed of startups, some of them making use of advanced AI and machine learning to match influencers with relevant brands and products — a win-win for both parties.
For a short while in recent history, it may have been better to give up one’s dreams in exchange for a stable lifestyle. The risk was too high otherwise. Following one’s dreams was a sure-fire way to end up as a starving artist or a struggling hobbyist. One needed a practical, 9 to 5 job to pay the bills. That’s just how the current university system was designed — to provide practical skills based on technical knowledge, to give people the highest chance at finding stable employment. But now, learned knowledge has taken a backseat to experiential insight — by supplementing acquired knowledge with a unique outlook developed through unique life experience, one can assess a situation and make decisions based on a broad understanding of the circumstances and factors involved. The result — ability to manage risk and increase the chances of success in a non-traditional occupation, meaning that those artists and hobbyists can now turn their passion into a profession. And it should come as no surprise that such experiential insight is becoming even more desirable in the job market, given that, with formal education, there are usually several people with the same skill set; the value of a college degree is going down the more people have them, and employees with narrow, skill based job descriptions are easily replaceable.
And perhaps it’s not just a coincidence that such kinds of opportunities for diversification of career opportunities has been made available at this particular time in history, as the global order is being shifted with the loss of many kinds of jobs to machines as a result of automation. Perhaps this is nature’s way of evening out the playing field; of revealing the other side of the coin, by empowering people to harness technology to their advantage, and maintain a competitive edge against the ever more intelligent machines — through creative expression and experiential insight, rather than brute manpower and repetitive action. Ultimately, this shift in priorities and aspirations of today’s youth might be the very counterweight needed to challenge the seemingly dire direction towards which our society is heading. Therefore, to move forward in an effective manner, we should nurture and encourage that which differentiates us from machines — the pursuit of passion and creative output, rather than condemn it as lazy, or a show of entitlement.