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At Graduation Time, Sunny Teenagers vs. Glum Professionals

Relentless waves of disruption can make it difficult for people to envision a bright future in their own field.

Graduation season, that weeks-long slog of tearful, nostalgia-filled slideshows at preschools, fifth-grade moving-up ceremonies, high-school commencements, and college diploma-fests, has mercifully come to an end. Over the decades, I’ve participated in my fair share — as a bored younger sibling, as a graduate, as a commencement speaker, and, this year, as the proud parent of kids completing middle school and high school.

At the various official and non-official events I attended this year, I noticed a poignant juxtaposition. Around the backyard pool, throngs of buoyant bright-eyed teenagers, about to go off to college, the world at their feet, for whom anything is possible. Sitting on the shaded porches, clutches of middle-aged parents who were thrilled for their kids but guarded about the career prospects for the next generation.

Remember the scene from The Graduate in which Mr. McGuire corners young Benjamin Braddock with some earnest career advice? “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.  Are you listening? Plastics.” This exciting, futuristic industry, Mr. McGuire indicated, was the place to be. In 2016, the advice I heard from those in the parental class was “Avoid my field!”

Sure, the lawyers conceded, a generation ago becoming a lawyer was a great idea. Come out of a top-20 law school, and you’d be guaranteed a six-figure job at a prestigious law firm, which you could parlay into other fields. But now? Big law isn’t so big. Unless you’re at the very top law schools, there are few prospects of getting a job that can help you pay down your student loans. “An Expensive Degree, and No Place to Use It,” as the headline of a New York Times article on the struggles of recent graduates of Valparaiso Law School in Indiana put it.

The Wall Streeters, many of whom did extremely well during the boom years, openly expressed hope that their kids would seek other fields. In the last decade, things have changed in the industry: the financial crisis, consolidation, new regulation, heightened competition, the decline of leverage. It’s not as much fun, and it’s not nearly as lucrative.

The physicians fretted that medical school, once a path to a satisfying career, was a ticket into a dysfunctional system in which insurers dictate care, patient visits are measured in seconds rather than minutes, and reimbursement rates move in only one direction — down.

As for my profession — media — forget about it. Put two 40-something media veterans in a room, and they’ll instantly settle into in rueful nostalgia. Remember when newspapers and magazines were thriving? When midtown was thick with black cars shuttling highly paid editors around town? When it was easy to sell ads and everybody enjoyed a great margin? The conclusion they frequently reach: It’s too tough a business to get into today.

In my experience, this kind of angst cuts across virtually all the elite professions. Why does everyone seem to be so down on their field?

Why does everyone seem to be so down on their field?

Of course, it’s in large measure a function of age. If you’re old enough to be a parent of a high-school or college graduate, you’re probably middle-aged, which means more of your career is behind you than in front of you. All things being equal, arriving at that stage tends to make you more pessimistic about the future.

But there’s something deeper at work: disruption. For many of these occupations, the changes we’ve witnessed in our professional lifetimes have been cataclysmic. All industries have evolved at such speed and scale that they would be unrecognizable to someone from 20 years ago. For many of us, the career worlds in which we thrived literally don’t exist anymore.

Not only that, but disruption isn’t a one-time thing. It just keeps coming: the pace of change; the regularity of upheavals; the fact that competitors, regulations, owners, tools and expectations come in waves. The more experience you have in a field, the more you’ve adapted, the more time you’ve put in, the harder it becomes to keep reinventing yourself. And then it’s only natural to want to spare the next generation those woes.

But this attitude overlooks that today’s teens and 20-somethings still can take advantage of immense growth and opportunity — in these fields and in others.

There’s always a bull market somewhere, as the financial pundit Jim Cramer puts it. In finance, mortgage-backed securities may be dead in the water. But other sectors are booming and have long runways in front of them: infrastructure, green bonds, peer-to-peer lending, FinTech. The generation of doctors coming up will have a remarkable set of tools and technologies at their disposal to help them treat patients more effectively and eradicate disease. It’s even — perhaps especially — true in entertainment and media, where, as Chris Lederer and Megan Brownlow recently noted, companies are finding large pockets of impressive growth.

And, of course, there’s always plastics.

Daniel Gross

Daniel Gross is editor-in-chief of strategy+business.

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