Education is essential. Going to university, not so much.
My parents encouraged me to go to university. Maybe yours do too. Why is that?
When I was a school leaver, only one in ten of us went on to university. A degree pretty much guaranteed pleasant, well-paid professional or managerial work, and opened a career path of steady advancement, to finish with a comfortable pension. Tertiary education was free to anyone who qualified, and local authorities paid maintenance grants to keep us alive while we learned. Jobs were not hard to find, and a house cost about five times a graduate’s starting salary. You didn’t need a degree to find this irresistible, in fact you didn’t even need to be smart, and I know this because not all of us were.
In the 21st century that calculation looks very different. Tertiary education now burdens graduates with substantial debt but no assurance of professional or managerial work, increasingly done by software. These days half British school leavers go on to university; the best argument for a degree is that you can’t get any kind of a decent job without one, but a fairer assessment is that you simply can’t get any kind of a decent job. Family connections probably matter more than qualifications.
For all this, education matters more than it ever has. It’s been a platitude for decades that the world is changing faster and that we need to be ready to adjust to it. Now it’s fairer to say that the entire edifice of Modernity is heading for collapse well within your lifetime. You will need to be quick on your feet in ways your parents and grandparents never had to be.
As the infrastructure of civilisation deteriorates the more direct your relationship with the people you help or make things for, the better. It’s well under way: plumbers already do better than young barristers.
In all this, education is your friend. But not education for a well-defined career path, because few such paths will lead anywhere good over the coming decades. Instead, you will need to know a useful amount about a range of topics wider than most formal education ever offers, and above all, you will need the habit of learning all the time. We are long past the time when you could soak up in a few years at college the basics of a discipline or profession in which you could spend the rest of your working life. As a schoolchild you got used to learning about all sorts of things. Keep at it, because for a long time to come, it will be very hard to know what it is you will need to know.
The good news in all this is that not only are the curricula of tertiary education obsolete – so too are the institutions. Colleges were established in a world in which knowledge and people with it were scarce. It made sense for them to cluster and for students to go and live with them. But that world has passed. As printing accelerated literacy and learning centuries ago, the internet has put knowledge where you can get it.
You do have to study; but you don’t have to borrow money and go to college to do it. Travel and read; work jobs in which you can learn the fundamentals of being useful to others, of managing resources, of solving problems. Study hard all the time; master a new language and learn how to conduct yourself in a different culture.
The world your ancestors made is falling apart. You will live in the wreckage, but also in the world you make from the wreckage. Going into debt to fit yourself to a disappearing world might not be your best move.
As a rule, it was the fittest who perished. The misfits,
Forced by failure to migrate to unsettled niches,
altered their structure and prospered. — W.H. Auden
Start a business. Keep studying, keep reading. Stay curious. Get on with your life. And have fun.