The Pursuit — of Happiness and Work

As we prepare to celebrate America’s 2010 Independence Day, I’m drawn again to those inspiring words from the Declaration, that all men and women are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Of course, there is no hard and fast definition of how an individual should pursue happiness.  But works I’ve perused lately by Daniel Pink (“Drive”) and Malcolm Gladwell (“Outliers”) confirm the intuition that work is part of the equation of happiness.  Work that is of value to others, that requires and enables some level of autonomy and creativity, and provides adequate remuneration — this kind of work provides a sense of accomplishment and contribution, and those are ingredients of inner worth and happiness.

So with that send-up to liberty, and the right to meaningful, happiness-inducing work, I want to talk about the future of work and education in the United States.

A few weeks ago (June 15), one of the nation’s most respected labor economists, Anthony (Tony) Carnevale, with his colleagues Nicole Smith and Jeff Strohl at he Georgetown Univeristy Center on Education and the Workforce, released an important new report: “Help Wanted, Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018.”

This report provides the most up-to-date and clear analysis of where the workforce in the U.S. is headed.  Yes, jobs are becoming more and more skill-rich and knowledge-driven, and the rising generation of American workers need to be well educated to have a good shot in the knowledge economy.  Carnevale forecasts that by 2018, “63 percent of all jobs will require at least some postsecondary education.”

Now, perhaps you may have heard numbers in the past that said 80 percent of jobs would (or do) require postsecondary education.  That common factoid is really the result of data-driven “sleight of hand.”  When you look deeper, the data really said that about 8 in 10 of the “fastest growing jobs” required postsecondary education.  Of course, those fast growing jobs in high tech and biomedical and health could be relatively few in number compared to the overall number of jobs in the economy.  This Georgetown Analysis looks at all jobs in the economy, not just the fastest growing sectors.

Also, be aware that this analysis does NOT say that 63 percent of jobs in 2018 will require a bachelor’s degree.  The projection is that about 17 percent will require some postsecondary education, 12 percent will require an associate’s degree, 23 percent a bachelor’s degree, and 10 percent a master’s degree or better.

Carnevale also points out that different occupational clusters will have different concentrations of postsecondary.  “In 2018, 75-90 percent of jobs in the following industries: Information Services; Private Education Services; Government and Public Education Services: Financial Services: Professional and Businesses Services and Healthcare Services will require postsecondary education or training.”  What is interesting is that these industries will represent about 40 percent of all jobs in 2018, but since they are heavily oriented toward postsecondary education, it raises the overall average of jobs needing postsecondary learning.  The forecast says that 10 percent of jobs will be available for high school dropouts, and another 28 percent will be available for those with just high school diplomas.  That’s about 3 percent fewer jobs than were available in 2007, so those downward wage pressures on low-skilled work are likely to continue and the wage gap between skilled and non-skilled to stay very large (of course, the recession and prolonged unemployment will probably skew those earnings numbers significantly).

Another interesting finding.  In thinking about these higher demand industry sectors, individual career choices drive wages more than just the level of degree or certificate earned.  “That’s why 27 percent of people with certificates and 31 percent of people with AA degrees earn more than the average BA.”   We need to get away from those simplistic analyses that say, BA holders earn xx dollars more than associates degrees, and xx more than certificate holders.  It’s all about the specific skills and the occupational choice, not just the generic level of education.

Thank you, Dr. Carnevale and your colleagues for conducting and sharing this valuable analysis.  As you indicate, education and skills matter a great deal.  This message to our young people is more important than ever.  But educators, business partners, parents and other interested adults need to more carefully craft our messages to young people.  The message needs to move beyond the very simplistic, post-World War II message of “college for all” to a more nuanced and accurate message something akin to “Get Smart, Get Schooled and Get Skilled.”

And just as important as a basic package of learning skills and motivation toward meaningful work, we need to help our youth take advantage of tools so they can make a series of thoughtful, reasoned and informed career navigation decisions over the course of their life journey.

The pursuit of meaningful, value-producing work goes hand in hand with the Pursuit of Happiness, as well as taking full advantage of Life and Liberty.    I hope we can keep facilitating the convergence of education, employers and the economy with tighter linkages and connections among these.  This convergence is essential to helping the next generation of Americans be more successful in its pursuit of meaningful, valuable and happiness-producing work.

Happy Independence Day!

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4 Comments on “The Pursuit — of Happiness and Work”

  1. Carol Folbre Says:

    This is very inspiring as we enter the 4th of July weekend! I like the “get smart, get schooled, get skilled” quote and agree with how you articulated that specific skills and occupational choice drive wage levels rather than generic degrees.

  2. Natalie Prim Says:

    This is inspiring…especially as we go into the Fourth of July weekend. I am excited about the convergence of education and business and making it a meaningful opportunity to create a capable and skilled workforce. Hope we see you soon!

    Natalie Prim


  3. Our children are really our “social security”. They need a constant message from family, school, church, and community that meaningful work is probably the most important key to a healthy, happy, and long life. Winning the lottery, becoming a rock star, or marrying rich are not the best bets for success. Our children need a structured, consistent, and engaging K-12 education to lead them into America’s wonderful post secondary world of academics and technical training. Statistically, educated people not only have better lives for themselves and earn more, but they also contribute to society rather than cost society. America is producing over 7,000 drop outs a day, many of whom occupy expensive slots in our over burdened welfare, homeless, abusive and abused, and incarcerated populations. If we could just recognize the cost/benefit of an individual in prison at $50,000 or more a year as opposed to a certificate or degree career at $50,000 a year plus benefits. We cannot afford to not spend the up front dollars required for prenatal care, preparing children for school, keeping the school work going, and re-engaging the ones who fall through the system. My own work is as the principal of Desert Rose High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Rose serves students 17-88 years old who have not completed high school. During the 2009-2010 school year, the school graduated 518 students who completed all required credits, passed their proficiencies, and participated in career preparation programs. 50% have college plans, 25% are considering military service, and the remaining 25% are entering the workforce or post secondary career training. The graduation of these 518 students will spin off into success for themselves, their children, and their communities. When I asked my students what things helped them succeed after multiple failures, they say that someone took an interest in them, someone cared, someone went the extra mile to share their passion for learning. We can all participate in the re-education of America. Read to and with children every day. Get your own education in order, and show our young people that “school is cool” but it also is “work we must all do”.

  4. Rob Franks Says:

    I really like the “get smart, get schooled, get skilled” as compared to our state’s “education: go get it” campaign.
    I have complained for a number of years about the reality of “x number of jobs will require a postsecondary degree” statements. This opens the door for many students following a liberal arts degree with the expectation of it being the key to future success and happiness. Yes, the liberal arts advocates use that statistic to fill their classrooms.
    I have been watching the new Jeep commercial about what made America great. Essentially “we make things with pride”. We have effectively given away most of our manufacturing and the jobs that are left (or will come) are going to need smarter, trained workers I see an urgency to get the message out if we are going to turn the current economic crisis around and restore America to where it needs to be in the world economy.


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