Harkness Tower at Yale University.

Many people in the 45-to-60-year-old age bracket have at least one child in college. The expense can be immense; a relatively good four-year program can cost nearly $200,000. Even with financial aid, that expense can put a strain on most family budgets—even more so now, since the drop in real estate prices prevents many people from borrowing money against their homes.

Most American college students these days choose a liberal arts education. Some students prepare for medical school or graduate-level business school and take a narrower curriculum. But as has traditionally been the case, most people assume that a liberal arts curriculum prepares students for a wide variety of job opportunities.

But many parents and students are wondering if the benefit of a liberal arts education has changed profoundly since the beginning of the recession. Students without specialized training are facing a work environment in which 10 percent of the population is unemployed. And the unemployment rate is much higher for adults younger than 25. Quality jobs are, in many cases, simply unavailable. Graduates work as unpaid interns or in minimum-wage jobs. They often live at home or with friends. Their dreams are deferred, and some young people believe that this deferral could last for years.

Recent graduates also face a new phenomenon:  competition in the work place from people their parents’ age. The recession, and the toll it has taken on home prices and retirement funds, often mean that people who might have retired at the age of 60 will now retire at 70 or even later. It will be years before they can cede these positions to graduates joining the work force.

Where are the new jobs for our children? At the moment, America does not seem to have enough hiring power to absorb a new generation of workers.

Perhaps true for the moment…but are we giving our children the whole picture as we focus on what has gone wrong in the United States? Why not focus a little more on what is happening outside our borders? Graduates can and should look to other parts of the world that are attracting capital and growing very rapidly, offering exciting employment opportunities. Many of these jobs are based in what are called the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China. While these nations often have many graduates of their own with science and engineering backgrounds, they typically lack the marketing and management expertise that has built American companies into some of the most formidable institutions in the world.  Moreover, multinational companies in most countries focused on the BRIC and other emerging nations have offices in the U.S., suggesting that young Americans do not necessarily have to go overseas to find jobs—though they certainly should be open to the opportunities that are burgeoning abroad. Perhaps the pioneer spirit that made America the world’s most productive and economically successful nation has become our most valuable tradable good and service.

Indeed, young people in the developed world may have a competitive advantage relative to those in BRIC countries, as well as to those with more experience in marketing and communications anywhere in the world. They have grown up with—and helped to define and evolve—what we now call social networking, and are now taking mobile. They are shifting mindshare from traditional networks like broadcast television, newspapers, and radio to the internet. With the help of companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, they are personalizing media and consumption and, thanks to continued advances in technology, will likely be at the forefront of personalizing other industries like healthcare and education in the years ahead.

The increasing economic focus on the BRIC countries will shape the education of most American college students in a number of important ways. One example: for decades, college language requirements were met with the study of Spanish, French, or Italian. Many of the countries in which those languages are spoken are ceding economic power to those in the emerging markets. So the study of Romance languages will not be as useful as it once was. Americans who can read and write Chinese, Portuguese, or Russian will have significant advantages, from an economic point of view, over those who speak French.

Interestingly, in this new world, Americans will be at an advantage in another respect, as English seems to be evolving as the language of business around the world. College-bound students should also take courses in international relations, international public policy, and international economics. Those sources of perspective will become increasingly relevant parts of a resume, along with the right foreign language, when the time comes to apply for a job and to start a career.

A liberal arts education during the next decade may be just as valuable as it has been during the past fifty years, albeit refined in certain ways. The growth in employment increasingly will be overseas, and young people will need to alter the way that they look at their college experience as they set their sights on the future. Summers abroad in BRIC countries, with internships and language enhancement, will prove to be increasingly valuable. The choice of majors should be influenced by growth opportunities both here and abroad: international relations and history, marketing, management, technology, research and development, engineering, science, math, and molecular biology, all with a focus on making the world a smaller, more personal, and better place.

With some vision and perspective, we can embue our children with the hope and optimism for a better life and a better world than we have enjoyed, much like many of our parents did for us.

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  • S. Bewkes November 10, 2010 at 7:52 am

    Very interesting article. I have an enterprising nephew who was forward thinking enough to take action in this regard. A liberal arts major at an Ivy league school, and already fluent in Spanish after high school, he made a point of learning Portuguese so he could focus on Brazil and the rest of South America as a burgeoning area for career opportunities.