In the past, specifically, before the advent of new technologies like the internet, people made a few big decisions in their life, and those decisions steered the course of their entire life, for decades. In this article, we look at how this trend is changing, and how technology has made the lives of undergrads today, into a continuous stream of small decisions, instead of a few big ones.
The big decisions
If you were an undergraduate woman in the 1950s, you had a few big choices to make. The big ones were: Who you were going to marry, how many children to have, and what kind of work you were going to do in the meantime. You might have been a typist, or you might have worked at a diner or other part time job while you studied. After university, you had a choice of career ahead of you, and whether jobs were plentiful or scarce, it was understood that sooner or later you would become a homemaker, and have children. Things were so different then. Can you imagine the stress and the pressure on that young woman, around the topic of how many children to have? And on the expectations of the parents that you stop studying to have children? And even further, that your career as a professional secretary should take a back seat to the demands of family raising. Back then, stay-at-home-dads were rare and often frowned upon. Those few big decisions completely changed the course of your life. And even more so, when you had a job, you kept it for years and years. Decades, even. Imagine if you had a horrible boss, or one of your co-workers had bad body odor? You’d be stuck with them for decades. And if it was bad enough that you wanted to quit, it would be a huge decision. You’d have to be really certain that you had another job that would take you on, and even then that would be a huge life choice, akin to a divorce or other life-altering event.
Since then, a lot has changed, to say the least. Primarily, technology has changed the way we live, and society has followed. Technology has meant that food and housing have become cheaper, meaning that there’s less need to marry early and have lots of kids, in order to tend the crops and animals. We’ve transitioned from a primarily rural country of farmers, where the family unit grew and ate its own produce, and sold the rest, to an advanced economy where adults work at companies: the job has become the main thing. So without the need for kids, and more importance placed on jobs, we’ve started marrying later and later, and studying more and more. People now often take on a PhD and take much longer to study. When they’re finished, they have less children than in the past, partly because there’s less need, but also because the mother of the children is expected to work in a job, more than they’re expected to stay at home and raise the children. Technology has enabled all of these changes.
From “a career” to “many jobs”
With this huge change in focus and importance from family raising to jobs, you might expect that choosing your career, choosing your job, would become an even more important decision. But actually, what has happened is the opposite. With more women in the workforce, and more access to international labor, companies have been able to hire and fire employees much faster. This means that it’s less important what job you take on, because you probably won’t be stuck there for 10 years. It’s more likely that you’ll have many jobs over your lifetime, and though you might spend a few years at each, you’ll move on.
Undergraduate students today are therefore faced with many choices, all coming up one after the other, in a continuous fashion. People decide what skills to learn and how to become an expert at an industry that didn’t even exist a few years ago. The undergraduate of the 1950s would have been tossing up “Should I become a metallurgist, or should I become a machinist?” There were fewer metallurgists needed, but they were paid better. Machinists were everywhere, but there was always demand for them, even though the pay was lower. This kind of decision wouldn’t be out of place today, but in the other direction, people of the 1950s would have no idea what young job seekers today are thinking about. For example, a marketing student might be asking themselves, at the start of a summer break, “Which is better for marketers to learn wordpress or drupal“? And I can guarantee that neither a machinist or metallurgist would have much familiarity with these decisions at all. So in this way, the speed of decisions required has gone up, but the importance of each decision has gone down. Ultimately, I think this means that there is less acute stress on people on a day-to-day basis, when they’re making their thousands of life choices. Which is a good thing for the world.