We in higher education are frequently told we should study something that will yield us high pay, stable employment and opportunities for career development. There are frequent debates of which specific degrees fulfill this conception of worthwhile job training. But there are many purely practical reasons to disregard this life advice. It implies that the economy is stable, rational and predictable, and that we can determine which jobs will be in high demand decades from now.
We live in particularly perilous times. The threat of devastating nuclear annihilation remains over half a century after the cold war. Environmental destruction and resource scarcity could lead to social collapse in the next few decades. And the smallest instability could trigger a global recession at any moment. In the midst of these factors, we are unable to predict which jobs will be secure and well compensated any amount of time in the future.
In addition to the futility of choosing a secure line of employment, we have to consider the ethics of limiting our education choice criteria to expected compensation. Our wages as educated workers are determined by a (complex) market. As in all markets, the price is set by the supply and demand for a given commodity. Like in most other markets, the demand for labor is determined undemocratically because wealth is unevenly distributed. This is to say that the best paid jobs are not necessarily such because they are the most valuable to society.
There are many examples of jobs being compensated inverse to their social value. For example, emergency medical technicians have a median salary of about 16 dollars per hour, barely a living wage. By comparison, corporate lawyers make a median salary of over 55 dollars per hour. Nobody would argue that society should prioritize defending corporations before giving people emergency medical transportation.
This incongruence exists because most buyers in the market for educated labor — employers — are either corporate or government representatives, groups which in the United States mainly exist to serve the wealthy. Most of the time, we’re being paid based upon how our labor furthers their agenda, not the value it provides to society. If we blindly give ourselves to this system of compensation, we sacrifice our dignity as workers and human beings, possibly compromising our values in the process.
Furthermore, we must recognize that this economic system is not immutable. It changes over time and has the potential to be replaced entirely. Years from now, there may be a completely different method of compensating workers, should we be imaginative enough to develop another one. When that time comes, we will thank ourselves for not simply choosing well paid or secure employment under our current economic model.
So if we can’t successfully look for a high paying and secure career, what should we study? There are plenty of times it seems we are unable to do both the most fulfilling and well compensated work simultaneously. But we must reject the notion that there is a simple choice between the two options.
Education should be about pursuing one’s own interests in an autonomous manner. We face enough barriers to this being forced to earn basic necessities through wages and taking upon a lifetime of debt simply to participate in higher education. In spite of these, we have an opportunity now to develop ourselves intellectually and creatively as human beings, and we have a responsibility to rise above the demands of the status quo and our expected financial gain. We must study the subjects we enjoy which will develop ourselves personally, and which we expect to prepare us for rewarding, fulfilling work regardless of how well compensated it may be today.
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Harrison Raskin is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.