What A Time To Be 17 Years Old

My little brother is a senior in high school. When I was his age, it was a no-brainer to go to college. At a cost of about $4,000 a year, it turned out being a wise investment because once month after graduation I was fully employed with a good salary.

Times are different now. Tuition at my old school, the University Of Maryland, has more than doubled to $10,000 a year, and jobs for graduates are scarce but for a few specialties. My brother was planning on coasting in college and not declaring a major until the last moment, but I told him how dangerous that would be for him. If he coasted into the wrong major, which is what coasters tend to do, he would face a debt load of at least $40,000. I told him that a lot of kids are graduating with marginal degrees and no job prospects, becoming slaves to the system.

“If you want to go to college,” I told him, “pick a major where there will be a job waiting for you.” My advice was simple, but among high school guidance counselors and parents of his peers, it’s blasphemy. They still have the belief that “everyone must go to college no matter what.” Even my dad, who is well aware of deteriorating economic conditions, stubbornly clings to this holy mantra, pushing my brother into attending college without accounting for what he wants to study.

For the past year, I’ve been trying to help my brother find interests or passions that could translate into a career. The problem is that he was born in the age of distraction. His brain is wired for the internet, Youtube, and Facebook, so it’s hard for him to focus on difficult tasks without wanting to check his internet accounts and get the dopamine hit of something new but insignificant. Nothing is more interesting to him than the computer or television screen.

I told him that a STEM degree would be his best bet if he went to college, even though I know it’s not bulletproof. He would have to be the best at what he attempts. He initially told me he may want to be a computer programmer.

“Have you ever programmed before?” I asked, already knowing the answer.


“Well, do you want to pay $40k and 4 years to find out if it’s something you want to do for the rest of your life?”

I bought him a beginners’ programming book and told him to try it out for half an hour a day. He did, for two weeks.

“There are a million kids programming right now, writing apps and making web sites, and they aren’t even old enough to go to college. How will you keep up with them and earn a good income if you don’t want to learn in your spare time?” So programming was out.

Then he declared an interest in writing. I told him to create a blog and start writing. You definitely don’t need to go to college for that. His writing is strong for his age, and he seems to enjoy it, but after three posts, the blog went dormant.

Instead of experimenting with new things to find his passion, he rather play video games over the internet with his friends that live just a couple blocks away. He looks forward to graduating high school not to enter the adult world, but to play more games. I can’t blame him, because I definitely wasn’t motivated at 17, but it’s not 1997 anymore. There’s no more room for loafers to succeed. I had to tell him what was in store.

“Right now everything is provided for you. Dad pays for food, shelter, and internet. You have air conditioning, laptop, tablet, X Box, smart phone, everything. You don’t understand that these things require money and therefore work. You’re thinking that once you graduate, life gets easy and you can enjoy your toys, but it will get much harder, and it will stay hard for many years until you establish yourself. You want to graduate high school to relax, but you’re actually relaxing right now, and it won’t get any easier.

“One of two things will happen. First is you get into college, pick a good major, study for four years, then get a job. Second is you pick a manual labor job that you may not like and stick with that until you figure things out. Problem is Dad won’t let you sit around the house all day and play games, so no matter what you will have to work hard.

“If you truly don’t know what you want to do, which seems to be the case, put college on hold. Don’t go unless you are sure, because otherwise it could be the biggest mistake of your life when in four years you will be no closer to knowing what you want and then become a slave to the banks paying off a 20-year loan. It’s better to get any job, even one that you hate, than to be a slave.

“It’s not fair that you have to make this decision now, but life, as you will learn, isn’t fair. If you don’t know what you want, experiment as cheaply as possible before making a big investment in your future.”

Even if my brother majors in computer programming, and does well in it, how will he be able to compete with the low-priced foreign guys on Elance that I hire myself? How can he know which job won’t be outsourced to Bangalore or which upcoming technology won’t render him position obsolete?

“It seems that the only jobs that are safe,” I said, “are ones that require your body and hands to be present. These are jobs like plumber, electrician, mechanic, truck driver, mover, oil rig worker, construction worker, and taxicab driver. In knowledge economies like ours, the safest job is one which can’t be transmitted over the internet. Simply look back 50 years to see which jobs existed. If they still exist today, even after the internet, that means they are insulated from technology. They have a good chance of existing in the next 50 years. Your life won’t be glamorous with these jobs, but at least you can eat and put a roof over your head instead of depending on me, dad, or the government.”

When I look at my little brother, I see myself. I see a kid who is doing well in school just to please his parents. I see a kid who doesn’t know what he wants to be and who wants to finally finish high school to have fun. The biggest difference is that I was lucky to graduate during a time when a university education was cheap and jobs were plentiful. I could afford to make what turned out to be a career mistake, but he can’t. He has to grow up a lot faster than I did, and I can only wonder what will become of him as he embarks on this difficult journey.

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