As children grow, we ask them one question over and over again. We question them when they play as children; we prod them more seriously as they begin to study for their exams in secondary school; and we begin to demand answers with ever-greater frequency as they graduate from university and take their first tentative steps into the job market.
What do you want to be when you’re grown?
It’s a heavy issue for a young person to tackle. Our careers direct the paths we walk as adults and ultimately determine the scope of our ability to support ourselves and our families. A few decades ago, a recent graduate might have been able to pick from a laundry list of promising careers such as banking, law, medicine, or engineering. But in our fast-paced society, we can no longer say with certainty if the sturdy careers we count on today will still be present and lucrative in ten years. A study conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute projected that given improved technology, roughly 50% of the work humans do today could be outsourced within two decades. This isn’t necessarily a bad turn of events; technological innovation will likely open career paths that we can’t even imagine today. A greater prevalence of automation could free human workers to pursue paths that allow them to take advantage of their creative interests, rather than their physical capabilities. However, the professional uncertainty that precedes these exciting advances in technology is nevertheless a topic we need to address. How can we possibly prepare our children for career paths that don’t exist yet?
Simply put – we don’t.
Perhaps that’s too glib. To put matters a little more thoughtfully: I believe that preparing a child for a single career or a specific job is short-sighted, given the fast-paced business landscape we face today. After all, if the job a young adult spent years preparing for fades into the shadow of technological advancement, he would be left adrift and his hard work rendered moot. If we want to give our children their best possible shot at success, we need to equip them for our ever-changing job market and toss out the outdated notion of predefined job “paths.” As future leaders and influencers, our children will need to be agile and self-directed professionals who are willing to take risks and leap into promising but untested endeavors. They will, in other words, need to be entrepreneurs – regardless of whether they plan to start their own business.
This drive towards greater self-direction is already happening. According to a 2015 survey conducted by the online recruitment company Bayt, 64% of working-age MENA participants would rather own their own business than work for someone else’s. MENA also has more entrepreneurs under the age of 35 than any other comparable region. Importantly, a full 46% of millennial entrepreneurs in the area started their businesses while attending college or university. We are in the midst of a widespread mindset change: young people aren’t interested in simply punching a clock and corporate ladder. Rather, they want to pursue their own passions and creating their own opportunities. We need to foster this growth early – especially given that the students are starting their entrepreneurial endeavors while they are still in school.
But how do we help develop self-motivated entrepreneurship in our schools? We can (and should!) offer more classes on business development and provide workshops on everything from project funding to communication. But while those classes will help boost a student’s skills and proficiencies, rote lectures and structured tasks won’t help instill passion for entrepreneurial action. I believe that in order to allow our children to take a step forward, we need to step back as teachers and put exploration before memorization. In a wonderful snippet from a 2004 interview about how his Montessori education set the groundwork for his founding of Google, Larry Page said:
“I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world and doing things a little bit differently.”
In that same spirit, Google now asks each of its employees to set aside one day a week and pursue a project outside of their set job description. Over the years, this policy towards self-direction has led to the creation of Google Maps, Reader, and other often-used services. Now, I’m not suggesting that we all take up Montessori education. However, I think that there’s a lot to be said for the creativity, innovation, and hands-on learning experiences that a less-structured, project-based syllabus facilitates. New ideas can’t pop up in between the answers of a multiple-choice tests; students need to be able to think beyond the lines! By constraining our children to set responses and tasks, we handicap their ability to think beyond the accepted and ultimately hinder their ability to adapt to career shifts as adults.
Some might say that focusing this much on developing an entrepreneurial skill set in high school is a misplaced effort; that the projects students pursue in high school will be abandoned when they move on to college. These critics might be right about the latter – but the success or failure of a single project isn’t the point. Regardless of whether a student moves on to work in a corporate job, government position, or startup role, the innovative mindset will remain. These young professionals will be better equipped to handle setbacks, celebrate successes, and – in some cases – move on from devastating failures. Our professional landscape is set to change dramatically as technology increasingly integrates into our working lives. Some jobs will disappear, and others we can’t even imagine today will take their place in time. To succeed, our children will not only need a traditional background in STEM, but a classroom-fostered resolution to succeed and adapt to the shifting market. Not every child will become an entrepreneur, true; however, all will need the agility and creativity that characterizes the entrepreneurial mindset to navigate the turns in their careers.
All this said, perhaps we should stop asking our children what they want to become in the future and begin asking them about the passions they want to pursue today.