Two columns that were just pages apart in yesterday’s New York Times illustrate what’s missing in our national dialogue about the lousy job market and the future of the American middle class.
In one column, Tom Friedman rightly points out the potential of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Regardless of your line of work, the half of your occupational expertise is now down to less than a handful of years. The only way to stay employed, therefore, is to stay “in school” all the time, and MOOCs make that easy and affordable.
But, here’s the rub. The Associated Press points out that over half of all recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. In other words, keeping your skills and knowledge up-to-date won’t keep you working. Occupational expertise is essential, but not sufficient to hold onto a middle class standard of living.
Why? That’s where the second Times column comes in. Erin Hatton writes about the rise of the “permatemp” – a condition she says is brought about by the decline of full time jobs in America. She’s wrong about the workplace becoming a haven of temporary workers, but she’s right about the profound change that is now roiling the workplace. And, it’s that reality which undermines the effectiveness of traditional academic education, whether it’s delivered through a MOOC or in a classroom.
How can the two columns be reconciled?
In today’s rapidly morphing world of work, you must be always at the state-of-the-art in your field AND in the management of your own career. You must be an expert in your profession, craft or trade AND in building and sustaining “career fitness.” You must be able to perform at your peak on-the-job AND protect yourself from the constant and unpredictable changes in the modern workplace. Both are essential to job search and career success and to a middle class standard of living. And until we start talking about that, we’ll have neither.