Thinking About The Future

 The question and acknowledgements


The question posed in this posting is what type of educational background and other experience should school students have in order to be in a position for the world they are likely to grow up and live in over the next 5-10 years. The other experience may be as important as the formal education.

This question was posed to a number of former students I taught over the past 30 years in the School of International Affairs at Carleton University. All were first class students and have had interesting and varied careers and experiences since graduation.

What follows is my edited summary of the input they provided, at times quoted verbatim, as well as some input from myself. I am not suggesting that all agree with all of what follows. I am most grateful to Helena Borges, Ole Bredberg, Kim Furlong, Paul Henry, Mar Hurtado, Helgi Maki, Killaine Sharman, Brent Sutton, Arwen Widmer, Judith van Walsum, Larry Willmore, and Gillian Zacharias for participating in this exercise. I have found that when this topic is discussed with others who are thinking about the future for their children, relatives and friends, it generates a lively exchange of ideas.



The stages of life and education progress from kindergarten to primary and secondary school, university and/or community college to the workforce. Some may go direct from high school to the work force. Lifelong learning takes place in a formal sense when adults engage in programs of continuing education of various kinds. Online courses make it easier and cheaper to undertake learning both in earlier and later years. How this will affect existing institutions is unclear.

There is an extensive literature on this general topic, and I am no expert, but we have all had the personal experience of the various stages of education, and may have children, grandchildren, relatives and friends who are going through the process.

While details of the present are fairly clear, looking ahead ten years is like looking into a mist, and may be as reliable as a weather forecast three months hence. As technological, political and economic events are moving very fast, continual updating of the present and near future is necessary.

Passion and employment

  1. A recurring comment is that a person may decide to pursue their passion or employment opportunities. Pursuit of passion can lead to employment but often in a highly competitive environment where the financial rewards may be slim. More certainty is associated with taking a path towards an occupation or profession where the initial steps are more clearly marked out. But the general advice given is to pursue what interests you.
  2. By passion, I mean someone who may want to become a musician, singer, composer, actor, athlete, writer, academic or artist of different types. Many of these activities can be pursued as a hobby throughout life, but rewarding employment is more difficult. Some arts and sports may be subsidized by government, but the reliability of a steady income is not great. This is not an argument against following one’s passion but to realize the likely impact on future livelihood
  3. Less risk is associated with a university degree which leads to some type of recognized certification – for example, lawyer, doctor, dentist, nurse, accountant, engineer, architect, economist, programmer, and business executive.  An MBA degree is one popular option. If pursued, it should be taken at a first rate university, and on a full-time basis. It can provide entry into the first job, and the program may be subsidised by an employer. After any initial job, personal performance will determine advancement.
  4. Each person will have to find out and decide what their skill-set is. Don’t be surprised if you end up pursuing some discipline or activity about which you knew very little when entering university. While still in high school you have limited knowledge about the different job opportunities and disciplines. (I went from agriculture to commerce to economics in university. Perhaps an example of a slow learner, but I did not appreciate what each occupation involved until I became more familiar with it, and what university had to offer.)
  5. A BA program which does not lead to some professional certification has little employment value in today’s labour market. Only the truly exceptional are likely to have the same job chances as those following a more professional program.  Many service sector jobs, such as in fast food and retail outlets now require a university degree. This is not because the job requires a degree but because labour market conditions allow employers to require this qualification.
  6. A valuable comment about universities is:

Go to the best school you can:  This matters for three reasons.  First, you will be judged by the university that you go to.  The better the school, the better the first impression. Second, many opportunities arise later in life through the network of friends that you met at university, and higher-ranked universities tend to produce more valuable networks. Third, at better universities you are often (though not necessarily) exposed to and competing with a higher calibre of student.  You will learn early what standards need to be met in order to compete. 

        7. High school marks should be evaluated with care. There has been grade inflation, at least in the Ontario school system, and some of this carries over to early university years. Some argue that first year university has become a continuation of high school, or what should have been learned in high school. Graduation grades often fall one or two letter grades (A to B or A to C), between high school and university.

8. In school and university, become involved in extracurricular activities, sports, clubs, newspaper, radio. These will widen your knowledge of what awaits you after university, and creates a network of contacts which can be valuable for the first job and throughout your life. Today, it is much easier to stay connected with former friends and colleagues.

9. Another comment made about university study,

 As to implications for university studies, it is not so much what you study that matters, but that you study.  What matters are the following skills that normally you will find in a proper university study: problem solving and analytical skills, ability to strategically think about given topics, ability to communicate well in English and at least one other language  (the better you can express yourself, the better you can convey your message), moderation/negotiation skills, numerical/financial awareness (always good, even if in a non-financial area), exposure (to different disciplines, cultures, etc), ability to manage projects. The latter is really important – irrespective of the level at which one is in a job as it requires very good planning, target orientation, analytical skills, communication skills and a lot of direct/indirect leadership plus team work. Universities can also stimulate the latter through group work on given topics (versus only individual work).  


What subjects should be studied?

  1. This is a topic on which there is a wide variety of views often made by those who have pursued a particular career path, and now look back on what they would have liked to have studied. I studied economics and now wish I had studied more history, demography and geography. This is not the stage that teenagers are at. They have to decide how to allocate their scarce time at university before they enter the labour force, so they need to know what line of work they would like to pursue.
  2. Before giving my list of subjects, note the emergence of online learning by way of MOOCs supplied by firms such as Coursera, the Khan Academy, and Singularity University. While lifetime learning has always existed through correspondence courses, the Open University in the UK and courses provided free by MIT, it is now more readily available together with sites like TED talks which we have used in this survey. There is now even less reason why formal education cannot be an ongoing process rather than being compressed in the first years of life. MOOCs will also change the operation of universities, a topic for another time.
  3. At high school, the study of English, Maths, Science, History, Geography, the Arts (dance, drama, music, the visual arts), health/sports would be on my priority list. A second language (French, Spanish or Chinese), statistics and computer studies would come next.
  4. Maths is important in itself but also for undertaking research, writing reports, and for interpreting and understanding other people’s research findings.  An ability to write well in English includes writing clearly, grammatically and with correct spelling. Nothing undermines the value of a piece of written work more than if it is poorly written and presented. Even if work is submitted as a draft, it should be carefully edited before presentation, as a first submission of any kind leaves an impression which tends to stick.
  5. In my view, there are certain subjects which can be left to university. These include amongst others, psychology, sociology and economics. If taught in high school they are often taught poorly. In economics my experience was that first year university students performed better if they had not previously studied it in high school.

Curiousity and creativity

  1. These are two words which frequently arise in the discussion, especially the need to encourage both of them. Kenneth Robinson (in a TED Talk) makes the case that the traditional educational path destroys the innate curiosity with which children are born.  He uses the metaphor of Death Valley in California where there is typically no rainfall and nothing grows. One year there was seven inches of rain and the desert blossomed with flowers, suggesting that life is dormant until stimulated. The same he argues is the case with the educational system, which destroys the creative juices of children.
  2. Referred to as cognitive development, some suggest that curiousity and creativity can be addressed in part by exposing children to a wide range of experiences, including travel, learning a second language, developing a hobby, having a mentor, and providing an environment in which the child is encouraged to raise questions.
  3. Research on and answers to many questions can be undertaken now with the push of a button by accessing Wikipedia or using a search engine. The published volumes of encyclopedias and the World Book have been replaced by easily accessible online sources. TED talks are another way to expose students to researchers working at the frontiers of their specialty, and often have intriguing displays such as Hans Rosling on statistics. Programs like GIS for geography, Sketchup for land use planning, Tableau for maths and economics are available and necessary for those entering certain occupations.
  4. One implication of the foregoing is that parents and friends, as well as teachers, are needed to stimulate these forms of curiosity and questioning. Parents often say that teachers appear to be downloading teaching responsibilities to the home. This may be the case but education requires the input of both. How this is managed is a subject for discussion.
  5. Community colleges now play an important role in preparing people for rewarding occupations. Sometimes people can attend colleges after university, sometimes instead of university and sometimes the two are combined (as occurs now at Carleton and other universities). Earnings in the trades taught at colleges like electrician, plumbing, carpentry, heavy equipment operator, and cooking can be substantial.

Communications media and hiring

  1. In hiring, employers use the internet in two ways. First they hire firms to look for talented people, in the same way that athletic teams use scouts to search for future stars. They may find a person who has started a business, written a program or authored articles which have been published. Some firms specialize in identifying people with certain skills.
  2. The downside occurs when information is found on the internet which compromises the candidate because of items appearing on sites like Facebook and Twitter. Nothing can be deleted from the cloud. A rule of thumb is never to post anything on the internet that you would not want your parents or grandparents to see. This is true for emails. You cannot assume that any posting is deleted forever.
  3. The big software employers like Google, Amazon and Microsoft run their interviewees through day- or days-long processes to determine how well they can express themselves, solve problems, brainstorm and organize information and results of research.  This means the loner tech geek still has to be able to work in groups and engage in confrontational creativity.
  4. This approach ties in with the concept of emotional intelligence or political astuteness meaning learning to understand what motivates people and organizations, and learning to judge how people are going to react and interact with each other. One example is a colleague who gives talks to government officials about their economic policy performance. He starts by telling what they are doing right and then proceeds to what needs to be changed. If he reversed the order or told them that many of their policies were self-defeating, he would lose his audience… and not be rehired as a consultant.

Miscellaneous remarks

  1. Seize any opportunity to engage in public speaking, this includes acting. Making posters as notes for giving a talk is a great way to start becoming comfortable talking to groups. Evaluating the talks of others teaches you the things that impress or annoy you. Ask your friends for comments, and do the same for them. Don’t be afraid of being critical in a positive manner. Travel is a way of rounding out your education at any time.
  2. Paid and unpaid work at a young age is an indicator of a person’s willingness to become involved and active in a community. This has a positive payoff in later job interviews.
  3. Careers to avoid include any activity which is likely to become automated or outsourced abroad.  Assembly line work has and will continue to be automated; 3D printers will make possible parts production in small batches; online courses will displace teachers especially at the university level. Opportunities will exist for those giving the courses and making the machines which substitute for labour.
  4. Governmental bureaucratic organizations have a different work environment than the private sector. The military, schools, universities, non-profit organizations, NGOs, charities, religious organizations all have particular work environments. One way to learn about these is to read about them, and talk with people in these organizations and those who have retired from them. The best way to find out about a particular school, university or program is to talk to people who are in the program now and to those who have recently graduated from the program. For example, a university’s general reputation will often be based on the past rather than the current situation, and it is the current information which is needed.
  5. Graduates in law, economics and other disciplines are found to be strong in theory but with little understanding of the application of their disciplines to the real world. Thus emphasis is needed on simulations, negotiations, mock trials, report writing, and use of technology to aid application of the theory.
  6. The last is not just the use of existing programs such as Power Point and spreadsheets, but some ability to write programs – in Estonia all children are taught to “code” starting in primary school. Unless involved in a computer program, students in Canada tend to learn how to use existing programs but not how to write programs to solve particular problems.
  7. Universities enroll too many students in arts programs which have a dead end as far as student employment is concerned. Universities cannot tell students what to take any more than they can tell them not to smoke, but they can and should advise them of the consequences of alternatives.   High school counselors can play a role here by being familiar with the job market.
  8.  Select people whom you see as mentors or role models. Practice observation and asking questions about things you see. Drawing, painting and photography are activities which train people to be observant.

Future postings on this topic will focus on:

1.     What will the workforce look like in ten years time in terms of jobs?

2.     What to think about in Junior School, High School, University, and College regarding future occupations?

3.     What is meant by lifelong learning and how will it affect people?


2 Responses to “Thinking About The Future”

  1. . Says:

    I really enjoyed the post.  Having 2 young sons, I often think about this question and what their world will look like in 20 years.  When thinking about this question I try to imagine a “bad” case scenario.  I edited out “worse case scenario” because if sci-fi has taught me anything it is that this is all going to end in aliens, zombies or post-apocalyptic wasteland. 

    So I think a “bad” case scenario will be a tumultuous economic climate and maybe a tumultuous environmental climate.  A study of evolution (read: me watching the nature channel) may show that species that do well in tumultuous times are ones that are adaptable and can process a wide range of resources, species that are less flexible and acquire resources from one source, no matter how well they do that, tend to fall away. 

    To translate that analogy to future employment advice for my sons I would tell them to learn a skill, or set of skills, that can be applied in numerous ways and that you can get paid for in numerous ways. 

    For example, I’m a physiotherapist, and with the rise of the designation of independent practitioner I am able to work at several clinics, teach, do research, run classes, provide expert opinion, do ergonomic evaluation in addition to numerous roles within my profession, hospitals and businesses.  This in not only a way to diversify my income (protecting from swings in the economy) but also protects me from burnout, enriches my skill set, and encourages me to engage in lifelong learning.

    I think that this may be a trend that we continue to see. Rather than professionals being very specialized and doing the same job for numerous years I think we may see people diversifying their income streams, working free lance and receiving income from multiple fields of employment.

    Thanks again for the post, I took the part about editing and grammar to heart and this has been sent to you after a couple runs through, which may not have been enough to straighten out all my grammatical kinks.

  2. cmaule Says:

    Thanks for your comment. An adaptable skill set is an obvious advantage and is one aspect of gaining flexibility in the work place so that one can either use existing skills in a number of places, or gain new and perhaps related skills over time with lifelong learning. Some firms encourage the development of new products which will put their existing products out of business. In this way they anticipate the likely future competition and prepare for it.

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