Jobs for the next generation (2)

by Terence MacNamee

Last week I echoed Vancouver journalist Chuck Chiang’s complaint that Asian parents in Canada want their young to go to university, not into the trades. They want doctors and lawyers. But if we end up with a glut of young doctors and lawyers, how are they all going to get jobs? And in the meantime, who’s going to repair the washing machine?

It’s not just Asian parents who want their offspring to go to university, as I commented; it is part of a general attitude in the host society. There is another side to this, though. Young people themselves in North America want university education and think they have a right to it. But they want it for a different reason from their parents.

They want to be free for a while. They want extended adolescence. And in a way, they’re right. Leaving high school at eighteen or so, you tend not to know what you really want, or even who you are. A degree course at university is a great time, a time when you can think and discuss with other people about all kinds of things. You listen, and start to think for yourself. The informal learning is as important as the formal. That is what universities are or should be: a place where young people can hang out and explore their options – and the options of society as a whole.

Society has shown itself willing to facilitate this desire by constantly adding to the number of universities, usually by giving existing local colleges degree-granting powers. The thing is: can we really afford this? And are we doing the young people any favours by putting off the need to find a job for a few years?

In Switzerland, where I live, most young people are not concerned with the dream of university. They do an apprenticeship, get a job, and that’s it. There are apprenticeships for everything under the sun. They lead to good qualifications and a good start in the working world. Of course, these young people are missing out on something. They will never have that space of freedom in which they learn to think for themselves. Maybe one day they will regret it. But probably not. Because you never miss what you don’t know about.