Some words of advice for young people
… because Bill Burroughs is out of town.
—Hey, mister – should I go to university next year?
That’s a big question, my friend. Why ask me?
—Well, you’re about to start a PhD. And aren’t you a futurist or something?
Well, yeah — but a PhD won’t make you an expert in anything but the thing your PhD’s about. Furthermore, the honest definition of the word “futurist” should be “person best qualified to tell you that the future is uncertain”, and I’m guessing that’s not news to someone starting their last year of college.
—It doesn’t answer my question, either.
I’m afraid not, but on the upside it does at least tell you why the question is so difficult to answer.
—Tells you why the… wait, why is that even an upside?
Ah, my bad: old writer’s trick. Can’t answer a question, turn it inside out, try asking why you can’t answer it.
—I don’t get it.
OK, look — you’re wondering whether or not to go to university after you leave school, right? Sounds like a simple question: go, or don’t go, weigh the pros and cons of your two options, make your decision.
Trouble is you’re in no position to weigh the pros and cons, because — as mentioned previously — you don’t know what the future holds. Unlike a lot of the adults in your life, who are presumably making cases for and against various courses of action you might take, you don’t have a lot of precedent on which to base your choices. You lack experience; this is not an insult, nor is it your fault.
The adults in your life have experience, but they have experience of a very different world. It was twenty years ago when I had to make the same decision you’re faced with. The people advising me at that time were doing so on the basis of the world they experienced twenty years prior to that: the world my parents grew up in, a world of full national employment, rising wages and expanding employee rights, the crumbling of old social structures, a welfare state and healthcare system that gave almost everyone a solid base from which to build a better life. Higher education was opening up to women, to the working classes; no longer a badge of intellectual elitism, a university degree was a certification of competence and diligence, a more meritocratic qualification. It was no utopia of equality, to be clear, but there was more educational and vocational mobility in that period than there ever had been before.
Trouble is, there was more mobility then than there’s ever been since. By the time I went off to start my undergrad course in 1994 — which I dropped out of in 1996, by the way — the UK government was phasing out the student grant system and replacing it with loans. I went to nice middle-class schools, where we were inculcated with the job-for-life narrative: do well at school, take a degree, land a solid job in engineering or accountancy or whatever, collect the mortgage, second car, wife and kids, proceed directly to retirement, then cash it in for a gold carriage clock, a little house in the country and a subscription to the Daily Telegraph.
To be fair, that narrative probably still worked for some people of my generation, but not for many — even the middle-class kids. Fast-forward again to the present day, and a would-be undergrad faces the prospect of being up to £9,000 in hock to the state just to pay their first year of tuition fees, let alone feed themselves and meet the rent payments on an apartment room in one of those stickle-brick housing towers that infest university cities like some sort of angular neoliberal fungus. The direct costs and economic risks of taking a bachelor’s degree have almost entirely been defrayed onto you, while the utility of the degree itself has diminished in inverse proportion to your burden. Doing a degree will cost you — or, if you’re lucky, mummy and daddy — tens of thousands of pounds, and there’s no guarantee of anything at the end of it. Do a spot poll in your local coffee shop; if the barista team isn’t at least fifty percent graduates or post-grads, then you’re probably in a town without a university. (Leave a copy of your CV while you’re there.)
—This isn’t very reassuring.
Well, I’m sorry about that, but I’m not big on lying. And regardless of how my own status as a PhD candidate may make me look a hypocrite for saying it, I think you’d be batshit crazy to go to university when you leave school. There are too many graduates for too few graduate-level jobs; the growing number of underemployed graduates are shunted into the retail and service industries, where the heightened competition makes it all the easier for employers to low-ball on everything from wages to how many of your employment rights you have to sign away, or even how many hours of paid work they’re obliged to give you each week. In some respects, the working class kids are better off, because they’re not saddled with the debts of studentdom… but hold your self-pity, because at least you get the illusion of choice, even if it’s no real choice at all.
—So is higher education worthless, then?
Not at all, no. But unfortunately you find yourself coming of age in a period when money is our primary and singular metric of economic value. Higher education — hell, all education — should be a basic right for all people of all backgrounds; nothing enriches individuals and the communities or societies in which they live like the possibility of learning without cost, borders or barriers.
But higher education is a business now, and when an accountant prepares a report for the shareholders, the only way they can represent value is with incrementally larger figures in black beneath the bottom line. Imagine, for a moment, the university as a factory whose raw materials are school-leavers, and whose products are graduates. Graduates were initially scarce, as were the jobs for which a degree qualified you, but when the Boomers were young, the pool of graduate jobs was expanding, so the universities cranked up their output to meet demand, with the state footing the bill for developing the economic units it most required. University thus became a more viable path to long-term security and wealth for the middle class, to the point where the best excuse you could have for not going to university was not qualifying. The deregulation of the colleges and polytechnics opened up that market yet further, meaning even coasters like myself could wander into some sort of course with little effort, so long as you weren’t too picky about where you went. (The standard Fresher’s Week gag at Portsmouth in 1994 was “so, what A-levels did you fail, then?”) But hey, you were gonna be a graduate at the end of it, right?
Well, yeah, you were. But when it came to actually applying for those graduate jobs, you’d find out that there was a difference between an Oxbridge degree and one from a former polytechnic after all.
—Which was… ?
That the former would get you invited to interview at global megacorporations (or Westminster, if there’s a difference), while the latter left you overqualified for the zero-hour call-center contracts and factory-line temping positions that would actually consider you.
—So you’re saying that I shouldn’t go to university, because the chances are that if I do go to university, I’ll come out of the other end with a huge debt and still have to get the same sort of shitty job I’d have to get if I hadn’t gone at all?
It’s a statistical oversimplification, but yeah, unless you have a natural aptitude and passion for investment banking, that’s pretty much it.
—And that’s supposed to make it easier for me to choose, is it?
No — it’s an attempt to explain how you got saddled with the choice.
—That’s no bloody help at all. Thanks, mate.
I know, and I’m sorry. You really want my advice? You’re being made to ask the wrong question. The question you need to answer isn’t “Should I go to uni or not?”; it’s “What do you want out of your life?”
— … Wait, what?
What do you want out of your life? What do you want to do, where do you want to go? You’ve been taught to think of this in terms of “careers”, but that’s a legacy concept from the previous century. So ignore your parents, your teachers, all the other well-meaning meddlers — even, or perhaps especially, me — and stop thinking of university as an either/or choice. Ask instead where you want to go, whether university is going to help get you there, and whether it’s worth what it’s going to cost you.
That’s a grim calculus, I’ll grant you; as I said earlier, I’d rather anyone could walk into a university at any time in their life and stay for as long as they still had the hunger to learn. But this ain’t an ideal world, and Phaedrus’s University is still just a nice idea from a classic novel of the hippie canon.
(Though if you’re a bookish sort, reading Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance might be a good move, if only because it’ll reveal the one thing the adult world isn’t keen for you to know, namely that everyone in it is just as clueless, conflicted, broken and lost as you are.)
—The clueless bit is obvious enough. But who else’s advice can I take?
It’s your life, and I think you should start making choices on your own terms as soon as possible. You’re just as likely to screw things up that way as you are if you follow someone else’s advice, but the difference is, you’ll have screwed up on your own recognisance — and take it from me, it’s a lot easier to accept your own mistakes than a mistake you felt you were pushed into making.
I went to university because it was what I’d been told was the obvious and sensible thing for me to do. As a result, I started a course in a subject at which I was competent but cared little for, and rapidly found out that I was more interested in writing weird stories than answering questions about the topology of op-amp circuits, and more interested in playing loud music to ridiculously-dressed people in darkened rooms than I was in studying electronics. Sure, I’m back in the academy now, but in an utterly different faculty, after more than fifteen years outside of it — and I came back only once I’d found something I was really hungry to learn more about (at which point studying ceases being a chore or even a job, and becomes something more like a calling, as cheesy as that may sound).
So, look: if you’re one of those lucky people who knows exactly what they want to do with their life, and you know that a degree is a necessary condition of entry for doing that, then sure, go do a degree, graft through it, and chase down that gig.
If you don’t know what you want to do, then wait and find out. Don’t convince yourself that competence is a suitable career guide; it may well be that the thing you’ll end up best at and the thing that’ll bring you more joy than anything else in your life is something you’ve not even tried yet, let alone that you’re good at.
—So what should I do in the meantime?
I am a serious advocate for experiencing the shitty end of the job market early and at first hand, because nothing will ever do a better job of motivating you toward something you care about than a few years of doing something utterly tedious and dehumanising. Get some temp work in a factory or a call-center, on the bin lorries, in a (non-student) bar or a restaurant kitchen or corner shop. You will learn more about life and people in just six months than you’ll learn in four years at university, guaranteed.
You’ll also know what you’re up against, and where the bullshit stops.
To do this nowadays, you’re probably going to have to stay living with your parents for as long as they’ll have you there, because the housing market is just as screwed as the education system, and the amount of work you’ll have to do to cover the outgoings on your own place will leave you little time or ability to do much else. So make peace with your parents as best you can — which, to be clear, should involve making a few concessions from you to them, in explicit exchange for some concessions from them to you, because your generation gets the unfortunate burden of renegotiating the social semantics of the extended family household. Learn to cook, do housework, maybe some gardening; contribute to the household, and you’ll hopefully get treated like a fully enfranchised member of it, as well as picking up a whole bunch of skills that are considered too simple for school, but which I for one wish I’d had explained to me a bit more thoroughly before leaving home. (Honestly, if Washing Machine 101 was a university module, it’d be a two semester unit with a fifty percent fail rate. I had no idea how many different ways there are to ruin your clothes in the process of trying to clean them.)
Then get whatever work you can with the qualifications and experience you’ve got so far, and spend the rest of your time treating boredom like quicksand.
Boredom is life’s way of telling you you’re doing the wrong thing right now. Whenever you’re bored and no one is paying you to be bored, go find something else to do until you stop being bored; if someone will pay you to do a less boring thing than the boring thing you’re paid for, then go do that. After a while, you’ll find that you’ve found a thing or things that don’t bore you at all. Maybe you’ll even have stumbled into a job that’s something to do with it. Chase after it; navigate not by the advice of others, but by always keeping boredom behind your back. At worst, you’ll end up with a hobby or passion that makes going to work less of a burden; if you’re lucky, you might end up in a job where you get to do the thing you love all the time, or even find yourself returning to the academy on your own terms, sure of both what you want and your ability to get it.
You may never be rich or powerful. You may never own your own house, or even a car. My generation grew up suspecting that the job-for-life was a mirage, but your generation knows it for certain, as well as knowing you’re highly unlikely to be better off than your parents, or even equally as well off, and that you’re going to inherit a planet that’s been scarred, fucked up and fought over by the same greedheads who built the debt-powered Skinner box you’re currently trapped in. That breaks my heart, because you’re also the first generation with the tools and knowledge to hand to fix it all, but the Boomers aren’t gonna let you (or us) touch the steering-wheel until their longevity sciences and compound interest policies crap out on them, and there’s little sign of that happening yet.
Well, welcome to adulthood: life isn’t fair. Buy an umbrella.
If you want stability, then I can’t help you — you may do one thing for your entire life, or you may end up with a CV that makes Hemingway’s novels look like a week-long work experience report.
If you want certainty, then I can’t help you — but nor can anyone else, no matter what they may claim to the contrary.
If you want money — and I mean wanting money for its own sake, rather than wanting to be able to pay the bills, which is a very different thing —then I suspect you’ll find a way to get it, because you people always do, somehow. Good luck to you, and I hope it makes you happy.
But if you want your life out of your life, then it’s yours to go and find, and no one else’s. There’ll be bruises and heartbreak and failure along the way, of course, but that’s true whatever route you take. And if all the routes are rocky, then you might as well pick your own, if only to avoid the tourists.
—Thanks for nothing, Doctor Doom. How did you end up as a writer, anyhow?
It was something I loved to do that didn’t cost much, and which took me out of the tedium of the other stuff I had to do to survive. And my application to do vocational guidance counselling was declined for some reason.
None at all. Good luck.