My wife and I sat together on a wet May Thursday morning, awaiting Middle’s University Commencement ceremony. Attendance wasn’t mandatory for the graduates since they would be receiving their degrees separately at the ten individual college ceremonies but Middle decided to enjoy the moment and walk with willing others of his college. It was a moment of celebration marred only by the absence of his siblings: Eldest, who couldn’t leave work until later that morning and Youngest, who was obligated to take an AP exam that afternoon. It was no different from the other notable events that provide the milestones for our lives and the recurrent question came back to me…when did he grow up? Parenthood is a “forest for the trees” experience as you become so caught up in the multitude of activities, events, practices, concerts and games that time slips by until one of these milestones allows you to stop and climb the ridge from which you can now see how far you’ve come and how far there is to go. But instead of looking back as so many times before, I wondered about the set of ridges that mark the trail now traveled by Eldest with her own husband and small child. She and Hub will have their own valleys, forests and ridges and far ahead, standing like the earliest glimpse of the Rockies from the eastern Colorado plains, will be their own child’s departure from high school. I asked myself as we waited, what will that look like?
That question has since redefined itself into two questions: the first is simply what might have changed by the time that they reach that departure point? The second is what do they need to consider in the time that it takes to get there?
What will have changed?
The principal change – and it’s already begun – is that a college degree will no longer be the default for post-secondary education. The cumulative levels of student debt and the decline of the middle-class family are already impacting attendance levels apart from the simple fact that the demographics for young adults are now almost a decade into decline. The idea that a kid can go to college and then “figure it out” is no longer operative because the funds aren’t there to support that concept.
Second, expect a corollary increase in the demand for trade school education and a willingness by the educational system to promote it. There is a new awareness that there are decent living-wage jobs available – even in manufacturing – but that the educational requirements are technical and often not requiring a four-year degree. Several years ago, Mike Rowe noted in a Popular Mechanics article that his guidance counselor actively promoted college to the exclusion of vocational and trade school, even when he stated that he wasn’t certain that college was for him. Since I am roughly the same age as Rowe, I can attest to the same scenario in that vocational and trade schools were the proverbial red-headed stepchild…there, but unloved and often denigrated. It’s taken damned near four decades and a staggering non-dis-chargeable student debt load of $1.5 Trillion that actively hinders economic progress, but the word is now afoot to revive the skilled trades.
The economics are prompting a shift in attitudes. The youngsters see what’s happening to their elder siblings and peers and are compensating to avoid it. New and upgraded programs are becoming available as the trade schools are abetted by both businesses and unions to provide training for the jobs that are in greatest demand, locally and nationally. Employers with aging workers are individually recruiting young adults to be trained for replacing the retiring workers.
Third, many smaller colleges will be forced to either close outright or at best, curtail their program offerings and work to establish a niche. In some ways, a modern college is no different from any ill-fated big box store; each lures individuals with the promise that whatever they need can be fulfilled so going elsewhere won’t be required. As Middle wryly noted several months ago, that’s so typical of a college…they hire a single professor and market it as a department. The unfortunate reality is that the carrying cost of the product is no longer sustainable when the customers begin to shop online or simply diminish in number.
The same is now happening with Higher Ed as smaller institutions now realize that each major and program of study has a specific carrying cost and that some of these programs are financially unsupportable. Sweetbriar College, a small all-women’s college in rural Virginia, was on the verge of closing in 2015 but was saved when outraged alumni raised almost $30 million. It’s niche moving forward will be a greater affordable emphasis on STEM careers for women, which is attracting sufficient interest and attendance to support the costs of the programs. So if Little One wants to to pursue a specific course of study, it’s very possible that she’ll have to travel beyond the local state institution.
Fourth, There is still going to be a price-tag for an education. Ignore the Democratic campaign promises for free tuition and wide-spread student debt forgiveness (although Sanders paying for such via implementation of a Tobin Tax variant is an elegant two-fer that aims to put a handle on the algorithm trading that has taken over the US financial markets). This is not going to be free.
Any national election cycle is akin to the Wizard of Oz, in which we are asked to pay no attention to the man – or woman – behind the curtain.
The Great and Mighty Sanders/Warren can promise free tuition and debt cancellation to excite and motivate the base but the reality is simply that despite our national wealth, there is only a finite amount of resources and the issues confronting us are deep, structural and expensive. If you think that I’m wrong, consider what is going on behind the Congressional curtain. Members of the House and Senate have introduced bicameral legislation that will once again permit the discharge of student debt via bankruptcy while other members are introducing legislation that eliminates administrative fees in federal student loan programs. If the political class was even remotely convinced that there existed such a kill switch for student debt and out-of-whack tuition, then Senators and Representatives wouldn’t be tinkering behind the curtain.
Fifth, expect that there will be a much broader and expanded program of national service – not necessarily mandatory – for youngsters just out of high school with subsequent access to education benefits, akin to veterans. It’s an old idea put forward again by Pete Buttigieg as part of his Democratic candidacy. Why? First, it gives an eighteen year old the opportunity to gain experience and real world exposure before actually expending the resources and energy to find a meaningful path in life. Second, it provides society with a potent, vibrant and relatively inexpensive labor pool that can be utilized in needed areas across the country. Third, it’s a response to the Balkanization that is occurring across America as youngsters could be sent into under-served areas to work with populations that are increasingly viewed as those people. Such programs aren’t new to our history, it’s just that we have little recollection of that history.
If you don’t agree, answer this: what was the Civilian Conservation Corps?
What Do You Need to Consider?
While I would love for there to be a simple checklist, there isn’t. But there are some basic precepts to consider through the course of the next fifteen -or more – years.
First, expect to provide a greater attention and intentionality to parenthood than my generation. Parenthood’s first rule is that your life is no longer your own and your foremost responsibility is raising that kid. In the early years at least, minimize the screen time – eliminate it if you can – and force your child to go old-school. Get them interacting with you and others, playing outside, becoming bored and exploring their external and internal surroundings. Understand that from a communications perspective, you want the initial conversations about life to be with you and those that you trust. This isn’t about being wildly conservative and cutting your child off from the outside world; it’s about understanding both how critical these early years are and that there are others who care more about seeing your child develop as a revenue stream than as a person. They – the media and entertainment complexes – very much want to have a conversation with your child and from their perspective, the earlier the better.
Part and parcel of this as she ages is what I refer to as Parental Reconnaissance. Use the available resources to help you understand the background and options of her expanding interests. When Eldest slipped into a wider variety of music in later elementary school, I would flip to the playlist on her favored station’s website and see what was trending as popular; I then reviewed the lyrics on lyrics.com. It was likewise with Middle and his expanded music interest. Youngest has developed an avid interest in politics and policy and regularly follows certain Podcasts. On a recent trip, my wife asked him to sync his phone to the car’s Bluetooth and we spent several hours listening to segments from his favorite political commentators. Our agreement was irrelevant; the point was to understand what he hears and by subsequent conversation, what he believes.
This carries over into career interests and future livelihoods. Most kids leave behind their childhood goal of becoming a race-car driving firefighter as they mature and their horizons expand and there comes a point around the ‘tween years when they begin developing new interests. Use your evenings online to seriously research what’s involved in pursuing them as a career. If it’s marine biology, what’s involved in education and what are the job prospects? What about becoming an actor? Some foreknowledge – gained at the expense of late night free time and research – helps frame future conversations so that practicable decisions can be made. This is especially the case for kids who decide that their career goals involve new and unknown-to-parent vocations such as social media influencer or video-gamer – yep, they are real things – so it’s worthwhile to at least become even slightly conversant with the business side of things. Consider Lori Loughlin. If she truly understood what her daughter, with a six figure contract, was doing, then she likely wouldn’t have gone over the edge on college. Hell, if my kid had a six figure influencing contract by her senior year, the 529 plan would be riding a roller-coaster at EuroDisney.
Second, help your child determine his skill set. Start with what you do yourself and take it from there. If you swing a hammer, make sure that she sees you swing a hammer. If you cook, make sure that he sees you cook. On a trip to Louisiana, I met a bayou guide who discussed the locale and life in the bayou region and he was obviously proud that his children, no older than middle school age, could handle a firearm and actively contributed to his family’s annual food supply. That morning, he commented, his daughter had bagged a large deer and his wife was already in the process of beginning to clean it for the rendering process.
Be careful, however. The college-degree-over-all approach of the past four decades created a thundering lemming herd as everyone did it simply because that’s what was sold by the business and educational systems. The reality is that it will take significant time and effort to help her determine that skill set and it’s possible that the skilled trades aren’t the best fit. Don’t be a lemming in the other direction.
Third, you can disagree on whether the youngster makes that post-secondary decision alone. But it is inarguable that the process on arriving at the decision is not an individual one; it is a family process. Even if you cannot help fund it, what matters is your on-going and serious input in helping her reach the best decision. The past two decades are littered with the wreckage of young adults who received little or no guidance on their path and honestly, I have never heard of a college telling a youngster, we’re too expensive so don’t come.
I recently encountered the mother of one of Middle’s childhood friends and we chatted about their individual whereabouts. She commented in the conversation that she had sat down with her son and outlined loan repayment scenarios – she had only just finished repaying her own student debt – given the various athletic scholarships he was being offered. The upshot was that he decided to live at home and attend the local state university. My personal What the ****? moment from that chat was her statement that multiple parents had advised her to say little because it was her son’s decision to make. Seriously? They’re willing to let a teenager, a nascent adult-in-training, take on potentially tens of thousands in debt that will dictate job and life choices for the next two decades because it’s his decision? You aren’t an 18th century father arranging a smithy apprenticeship for the youth. You are however, helping culminate what should be an on-going conversation built upon years of talk, exploration and effort that helps set her upon a path leading to a self-sufficient adulthood.
Remember: If you aren’t having the conversation, someone else will.
One other note about this process. It’s been more than two decades since the typical American family was saddled with financial burdens not wholly borne by the grand and great-grandparents. Retirement was largely shifted to the family as pensions disappeared; likewise with increasingly expensive health insurance and higher deductibles. Sustainable wage jobs were shipped overseas wholesale. Couple this with the stratospheric rise in the cost of education and the result has been that burden of funding that education has, in many cases, shifted from the family to the youngster herself. It’s possible that you will be one of many young parents unable to pay for the entirety, or even part, of her education. No matter what feelings that might stir, understand this: as a generation, you are the first in our history to have to raise the children in the midst of a complete reversion to a lower standard of living most reminiscent of our great-grandparents. Recognize it and make the changes necessary to assure that your own children have the upbringing and skill sets to allow for the adjustment to a new normal.
Finally, you are going to have to become more aware and engaged in the political realm than your parents and grandparents ever were. Things didn’t just screw up this completely accidentally and overnight. We – your preceding generations – became complacent and tuned out of the political process. We literally adopted the 1960s hippie acid phrase – Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out – and adapted it to our entertainment and electronic lives so that we didn’t pay attention while the economically and politically connected few rigged the political system to their benefit at the expense of the average American family. Warren Buffett commented in 2006 that there had certainly been a class war and that his side was winning. What has happened to the American Middle Class isn’t just the tide of history. It has also been the victim of a decades-long mugging by a wealthy class that has usurped the political process via poorly controlled lobbying, uncontrolled political contributions, a lucrative revolving door between public and private sector, and a heavily dosed financing of talk radio sock puppetry inciting both conservative and liberal angst. You are going to have to pay attention to the issues and proposed laws. You are going to have to find that singular issue that incites you and follow it, spreading the word to peers via conversation and social media. You are going to have to be willing to make life unpleasant and uncomfortable for politicians at all levels.
Frankly, since you are busy dealing with small children, it’s now incumbent upon my generation to take this task forward. But you are still going to have to be better than we were.
There is no single right way to prepare your child for adulthood. My wife and I have been through the process twice thus far and both times had significant differences. It is likewise for the third child. But what each has had in common is an early attention to coming adulthood and much conversation over a long period of time.
Oh, and one final remark before I shut up. If you think that today’s politics are unpleasant, consider the royal Hell that your younger Gen Z siblings are going to unleash when they fully involve themselves in the political process.