Culture

Uni Students Are Frightened Of The Future. With Good Reason.

One in five university students make the call to either drop out, or change their degree. If you look at how quickly industries are changing, that number is hardly surprising.

Most people I know are scared about the future.

Some are terrified by climate change. Some worry about the unpredictable and harsh political climate we are in. Some worry about their health, and the health of their loved ones. Some worry about poverty and homelessness, both in Australia and abroad.

These seem like big worries precisely because they are – but they aren’t the only worries the current post-high school generation are facing.

The ABC recently reported that approximately one in five university students make the call to either drop out or change their degree in the first year. They cited factors such as the pressure of the census date (the date about four weeks into semester, at which students are essentially charged for their units), internal support services, and the eternally looming threat of the current Government’s favourite policy: fee deregulation.

Students dropping out or changing degrees isn’t always a bad thing. University isn’t for everyone, and past generations might argue that many uncertainties faced today have always been faced: do I really want to commit to studying this subject for so long? Will I enjoy it when I’m done? Do I have the money to support myself while I study? Is this the right path for me?

But life after high school is no longer just about those general anxieties anymore. Underlying them are some rather serious, subtle, and scary new realities that we can’t ignore. Things are changing, and they’re changing fast.

The Internet Is Changing Everything

Us humans are the ones who made the internet happen, and now we have to take responsibility for it. Kind of like a baby. We know it’s bringing lots of joy into our lives, and we hope it’ll grow up nicely – but currently, it also likes to vomit on stuff, poop its pants, and leave toys all over the floor for us to trip on.

Like most other technological developments, the internet has had a disruptive impact on jobs and workers, and that doesn’t look like it’s going to stop. When that perfect job can look significantly different by the end of your studies, it’s reasonable to have commitment issues.

Think about journalism. Newspapers are struggling as revenue falls, while trends at least in America show online advertising is growing (but by nowhere near enough to compensate for traditional losses). On top of that, the Government thinks it’s a good idea to cut funding from our public broadcasters. On a surface level, the job market seems to be doing alright, but the money isn’t the same as it used to be, and we’ll have to wait until the next census before we can really tell what’s happening. At any rate, it’s hardly an industry that projects certainty or stability.

Careers that seem like safer bets than journalism aren’t looking that promising either. There’s evidence that technology is impacting legal professions and their provision of services too — and if you’re thinking of studying law just to secure yourself a job, it may not be as easy as you think.

On top of this we have services like AirBnB and Uber affecting the accommodation and taxi industries; apps like Airtasker, Fiver and Freelancer affecting the service industries; digital currencies affecting banking and financial transactions; and, in more general tech news, Elon Musk’s Tesla will be launching cheap batteries to store solar energy, a move set to seriously shake up the energy industry.

Some industries are being affected far more than others, and the internet is doing wonders for the lucky ones. But with the rate at which some of these changes are occurring, it’s enough to make anyone seriously question which career or course they should invest their time in – and whether it’s still going to be around in a decade’s time.

Robots Are Coming To Mess With Us Too

As if all that wasn’t enough, we have robots and algorithms automating the things humans would normally do for money. Except they don’t need wages. Or health cover. Or superannuation. Or rest breaks. And sometimes they just do it better than us.

Michael Osborne, University of Oxford Associate Professor in Machine Learning, predicted that in the next decade or two close to half of the 702 occupations he examined will be taken over by computers in some way.

But how smart can those cogs and gears really be?

Well, algorithms can now write financial reports, sporting reports and much more, and they are getting increasingly better at it – often offering insight into long-term trends that a human would be less able to see.

IBM have developed Watson, a super-computer which has the ability to keep up with, intelligently understand, and analyse enormous amounts of medical information, helping with diagnoses. No one is suggesting machines will replace human doctors yet, but when they can reportedly successfully diagnose lung cancer better than your GP can, it’s not a giant imaginative leap.

‘That’s okay,’ you think. ‘I’ll just go and pick a job we wouldn’t trust robots to do. You know, like truck driving. We wouldn’t let an algorithm drive a truck.’

Well, we actually might. Self-driving trucks, much like self-driving cars, are becoming a thing whether we like it or not. This could become a huge deal in America, where approximately ten million people have incomes that are dependent wholly or partially on truck drivers receiving a wage. If they become redundant, it will have not only a huge effect on their families, but on the small communities that depend in large part on truckers driving through them, and spending money. There’s no reason such automation wouldn’t have similarly devastating impacts here.

What’s your next back-up? Burger-flipping? Sorry. Parents are going to have to find something else to use as the token example of formative teenage employment, because robots are gonna be much better at it than us.

Who’s going to be hit hardest by all of this? The middle classes, most likely – with some pretty poor scenarios existing for those in lower-skilled jobs too, and lots of talk about widening inequality across the board. So if your preferred industry does manage to get through any disruptions the internet throws at it, the next question you need to ask yourself is: will a robot some day be able to do the job better than I can?

Christopher Pyne is Still Being Evil

In case you missed it – and the bliss of ignorance certainly seems appealing some days, so I don’t blame you – this is all topped off by our education minister Christopher Pyne inexhaustibly chasing university students with a pitchfork. That steaming pile of policy — fee deregulation — is still on the table as of the most recent budget, despite various Senate knock-backs.

As terrifying as it is for existing students, those looking at beginning tertiary study must feel like the Government actively wants to keep them away from university. We’re all only human (well maybe except for Pyne – have you all found those horcruxes yet?), and considering all of the industry instability, the potential for deregulation just makes everything that little bit more scary for those looking at further study.

The Good News

There’s good news? Well, kind of.

Machines, for starters, aren’t perfect. They especially aren’t so great at that whole common sense thing, with some pointing out that the tacit skills we have as humans are much more difficult for machines to learn. They also suffer in terms of creativity and social intelligence.

Also, we’ve never been great at predicting what new jobs could appear in place of the old ones. Maybe this period of instability is just another instance of technologies shifting jobs elsewhere, and changing the workforce; perhaps rapid innovation and disruption will all balance itself out. (This might be hopeful thinking; according to some reports, the number of jobs being taken from humans far exceeds those being created in their wake.)

And if you’re planning to work in tech, of course, things certainly look a little more stable; according to research released in March, only around 10% of workers across the information sector, software development and higher level management are at risk of being automated. Sadly, that doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing; tech moguls like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg are known for pushing policies that allow them to cut labor costs, and use cheaper workers from overseas.

We don’t know for certain that the worst is coming, but we’d be foolish to ignore what are obviously very rapid and significant changes in how we live and work. The kind of choices that previous generations made about work and their career paths were naturally affected by uncertainty and self-doubt – but for the current generation making these decisions, it’s about much more than that. Those jobs that survive the next decade or so will be put to the test, which is as exciting as it is terrifying and nerve-racking for anyone choosing a degree.

It seems the best we can do is to understand that we’re all in this together, hoping that when the future comes around, we can make a living in it.

Jeremy Stevens is a journalism student at the University of Canberra. He previously edited Curieux. He tweets at @jeevens

Junkee and Vivid Ideas Exchange Present: ‘How To Survive Without A Real Job’

Who: DJ, promoter, restaurateur and editor ANDREW LEVINS (The Dip, Two Thousand, Halfway Crooks); start-up legend TIM FUNG (Airtasker.com, Tank Stream Labs); workplace researcher and sociologist SHARNI CHAN (UNSW, USYD), and freelance writer and editor KATE HENNESSY; in a panel moderated by columnist, author and screenwriter BENJAMIN LAW

When: Sunday May 31, at 3pm

Where: Vivid Ideas Exchange, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia