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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Self Shelf: The economics of the future

Published: February 4, 2011
Section: Opinions

As my generation is pulled kicking and screaming into the real world, we are forced to make a hard decision. Do we do what we love and hope for the best or what we think would be most profitable? At first, this may seem like it is not much of a question. The popular aphorism, “do what you like and the money will follow” comes to mind. Unfortunately, as many of my contemporaries have come to find, this is not quite the case. In many fields, there simply are not enough jobs or enough societal interest to create adequate salaries with today’s high costs of living.

I will not single out any fields to avoid causing offense but I am sure that you can think of a few. These are the professions in which only the best can pull down a decent pay while the rest flounder. And in these troubled times, our generation does not have the luxury of optimism. The job market is continually shrinking and unemployment, especially for the youth, is at its highest level in years. Thousands of young adults are finding their hopes flustered by the lack of openings in a stagnant market.

As we attend college, we must then ask ourselves the hard question of what we aim to do when we leave the insulated walls of university and face the sharp realism of the outside world. There are good arguments on both sides of the debate.

Taking a job in the field that one loves is of course the most intuitive course of action. If you are lucky enough to enjoy a field that is in demand in society and thus will provide you with a good salary, this question is a foregone conclusion. Naturally, you would get a job in the field of your choice. The people that this question pertains to are those who would not work in an in-demand field. There are compelling reasons to eschew profit and follow your interests.

The first area of analysis here is the idea of personal utility. If you can derive happiness from your job it could make up for any emotional shortfall due to lack of finances. Additionally, there is always the chance that if you are really good in your field you could attain a prestigious position and attain a higher salary. If society is a meritocracy, then surely only those who are most engaged in their field will rise to the top. Once there, you can do what you love and make a fine salary at the same time. Finally, you will undoubtedly do your best work in the profession you love the most, regardless of the size of the check you bring home, which should be the goal of anyone who believes in the principles of merit and hard work.

On the other side of the debate is essentially hardcore realism and, some might say, cynicism. There is the idea that you cannot be happy unless you are making a certain baseline salary which would provide for economic security. Working a minimum wage job, even if it provides you emotional satisfaction at work, would not allow you to live a comfortable life. To the extent that you feel financially insecure, you will always feel personally insecure as bill collectors and the IRS constantly hound you. And then, of course, there is the nightmare scenario of not finding a job in the field and trying to make do with tens of thousands of dollars worth of non-discharge-able loans. Finally, there is the argument that once you have made enough money in a field that is similar to your chosen one (save with a higher salary), you can afford to dabble in your preferred field. Of course, this involves deferring your main interest in the name of economy.

Neither of these choices is perfect, unless you happen to be one of the lucky ones in demand in society. Yet I believe the best choice is a middle ground. The best course of action is to balance the two competing schools of thought based on your own situation.

As a hypothetical example let’s take the field of engineering and, for the purposes of this hypothetical situation, we will say that the baseline salary for an engineer is $30,000 (obviously this figure is made up and purely for the purpose of this example). Let us say that your favorite field is engineering. Yet you know that the job market for engineers has a 25 percent unemployment rate for people younger than 30 and a low salary. Another field you are interested in, however, is computer software, which has a base salary of $60,000 with a high employment rate for graduates just out of college. As pessimistic as it may seem, I believe that the ideal choice here is to take the slight aberration from your chosen field to a secondary interest in order to secure financial security.

Now naturally, this is not the choice for everyone. There are those who will only work in their chosen fields, regardless of how much money they stand to lose and there are those who do not have to. Yet for the muddled middle who worry about financial security in unstable times, the best choice is a compromise.

In the end, it is up to the individual. The debate of financial security versus personal satisfaction is a harsh one but one that every college student will have to decide for themselves as they prepare to leap from the insulated university atmosphere to the murky outside world. One should never give up on their dreams entirely in the name of profit, but one should also not turn a blind eye to the reality of life.