Whether you were paying attention or not, the future began circa 1990. It began with the personal computer revolution and the internet boom; but you already knew that. But what you don’t know – unless you were really paying attention – is that education changed there as well, and with it so did the future.

I had this minor epiphany several years ago but the more complete narrative of this future didn’t begin to coalesce until today on my run when my singular intellectual boil finally burst and the pain and pressure exploded into a huge gouty virtual puddle of blood and green and yellow colored pus. The infection started 2 weeks ago when I began reading Tyler Cowen’s soul-suckingly useless anti-opus ‘Average is Over’. But I am not here talk about that book (for fear that the infection might return).

What all economists these days mostly can agree upon (which isn’t much) is that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing.

The haves consists of two groups of people. The wealthier group of the two owns the means of production. This means that they own the shit that makes the shit that you buy. The second group of haves are the people that create the tools that makes the shit that you buy. It doesn’t matter if we are taking about software, hardware, medicine, or genes. I am talking about the scientists and engineers that research, design, and build the engines of creation.

The future have-nots also consists of two groups of people. The first group are those that don’t care about being a have not and feel very comfortable sucking at the fat tit of entitlement. And the other group are those people who are going to land there but are not going to want to be there. Because, as they will eventually discover, that fighting over that very skinny ten dollar an hour future – with the rest of the 90% of the world’s population – is majorly going to suck.

So where does education fit into this? To begin with the internet boom and the pc revolution created such a demand for IT workers that there were simply too few college graduates with the requisite skills to feed the demand so the IT industry solved the problem by creating certifications.

We are primarily talking about Microsoft, Novell, and Cisco Systems. And those certifications ended up working out very well for them. First, they all created multi-billion dollar businesses within their businesses. Education is after all big business. Books, classes, and the tests all cost big dough. And multiplied tens of thousands of times over and over adds up to real dough. Also in the doing they got to further privatize education which meant that they got to train the workers their way, on their equipment; creating as it turned out, intentionally or not, a further demand for their product as that training and those skills are not portable across different systems.

So how much education do people that operate these newly emerging intelligent machines really need any way? As it turns out, not very much. These large multi-national corporations diversified the IT job pool by creating a very wide swath of certifications. The fact that certain intangibles like job satisfaction disappeared along the way was beside the point. Octavio Paz pointed out years ago that in an industrialized (or post-industrialized) society that the modern worker becomes reduced to ‘an element in the work process.’

The certificates, like the training, are all equipment specific and as such narrowly specialized. There are/were certificates for network (Cisco or Novell) and systems (Cisco/Microsoft) security, storage solutions (Dell) , project management, operations (again both systems and network), database design and operation (Oracle), systems architecture (Cisco/Microsoft), and network architecture (Cisco or Novell). There are many more, but you get the idea. An ex-Intel colleague once wisely noted that all those smart machines were ‘just a box’ with a user interface. And how difficult could that be?

But let’s say that you as a future worker don’t want work in IT and want to go to university and get an actual 4 year degree and do something different. My advice is to choose wisely. University undergraduates pay in the neighborhood of $200 – $400/credit hour.
And here’s what happens if you don’t choose wisely. One, if your parents pay the bill then you emerge 4 years later with a perfectly useless degree that allows you to merely compete with others like yourself essentially for that same $10/hour future. Or two, you financed some or all of your education to find yourself in the same place as number One, but in debt. And at earning 10 bucks an hour, that debt is going to keep you at the poverty line for a long, long time; maybe the rest of your life.

Ahh, and there are two slowly emerging permutations to what I just said. First, there is the looming educational finance credit bubble ($1T and counting) that could burst at any moment and further hasten the future wherein the universities themselves are cutting costs by offering more in the way of standardized online class offerings. I predict that in the not too distant future that many of these online educations will be offered at a major discount and that the student upon graduating will receive a certificate and not a degree.

So unless you inherit owning the means of production then your future is predictably quite simple:

• Service industry jobs. Enough said.

• Getting a certificate to learn how to operate an intelligent machine. Boring, narrow, competitive, and just plain bad.

• Getting a useless university degree. Expensively bad.

• Better. Becoming really, really good at something to where you are better at doing it than anyone else. Cabinetmaker, hair-stylist, fabric maker. A DIY of the first order. A doer. A maker.

• Best. Getting a really good university education that gives you the training to build tomorrow’s tools. This means at least a Master’s degree. Preferably a PhD. Why is this best? Because you are at the top of the food chain. Your Clausewitz battlefield approach to your education will position you to be in a very small minority that also had a very expensive buy-in proposition thereby generating an almost irreducible exclusivity.

Update 6/18/2014 – If you don’t believe that multi-national companies and certificates (politely termed ‘NanoDegrees) are not being further considered as a way to  bridge the educational gap (read, provide industry with inexpensively trained workers) by stepping deeper into the traditional educational model then please read today’s NY Time’s article entitled ‘A Smart Way to Skip College in Pursuit of a Job‘.

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