Reconsidering Liberal Arts, the Gig Economy, and Global Trends for Generation DIY

Beautiful woman sitting at bookshelf on the floor with open laptop computer while she works with comfort from home, young student

My initial Generation DIY (GenDIY) aha moment – a sudden snapping together of seemingly random experiences that made me go, “Oh yeah,” came in a WalMart parking lot in Visalia, California, in 2006. My most recent ones hit me in an apartment block in Shanghai, at a Maker Faire in Washington DC, and near a fire pit in Alaska. The nuances in between and since have set my brain spinning. Like most things worth pondering, this GenDIY notion is a lot more complex than I originally believed.

Back in 2006, I was staffing an information table about a new virtual public school opening up in California’s Central Valley to meet the needs of young iconoclasts who wanted something different. All day long I’d been talking with parents about their bright, creative kids who were out of sync with school as it currently existed, who wanted to go faster or needed to go slower than their traditional classrooms would let them.

A text came in from one of my favorite nieces, a high school senior I’d been trying to strong-arm into college. “I got a 26 on my ACT!” she wrote. I let out a whoop. Then the next text said: “Decided to work next year instead. Maybe take an online class or two? Don’t be mad.”

I WAS mad – or maybe just terrified. What would happen to my bright, creative niece if she didn’t spend the next four years in college classrooms like those I had known? Where would she end up if she stepped off the conventional path?

And yet that was essentially what I hoped for the Visalia high schoolers whose parents I’d been talking to all day. A personalized route, tailored to who they were as each individually unique and quirky individuals, in a place and time-frame of their choosing.

Reconciling those two realities is what led me to conclude that GenDIY is both the chicken and the egg. Something in the zeitgeist is emboldening more young people to think of their lives not as a single straight road, but instead an assemblage of personally curated experiences that may zig and zag and double up and disappear. And, in response to that outlook – or maybe inspiring it in the first place – there are suddenly all these options: online school, early college, portable credits, boot camps, nano-degrees, job-juggling, multi-hyphenating.

I still believe all of those things, but my recent experiences are making me rearrange some of my original GenDIY conceptions.

Thinking vs. Doing

While my GenDIY poster-children are still coders and the kinds of hands-on innovators I met at the National Maker Faire, I have come back around to a new appreciation of the liberal arts. There really is something about wrestling with literature and humanities that makes you a more supple thinker, that opens your mind to new possibilities — and in the world that GenDIYers are inheriting, those are priceless gifts. While the traditional liberal arts pathway through higher education will need to adapt to new realities — becoming more modular, more on demand, certainly more affordable — I will confess the being influenced by Fareed Zakaria’s case In Defense of a Liberal Education.

Push vs. Pull

There is no question that the cost of traditional higher education has pushed Millennials toward different approaches to college. And it’s also true that the post-2008 economy has made secure full-time jobs harder to come by, pushing new entrants into multiple part-time gigs. But the more broadly I explore the GenDIY phenomenon around the globe, the more I believe that there is a powerful pull at work here too. I believe that just-in-time purposeful learning, passion-driven project work, free agency and flex-time all resonate with today’s young people in a way that can’t be completely explained by rocky necessity. Savannah Lamb’s recent post is a case in point, as are the choices of a group of talented young people I met in Southeast Alaska this spring, who are creating art and doing carpentry, writing code and working on fishing boats, all in the context of a “back of beyond” homesteading community of their own making.

Boomers vs. Millennials, Global Edition

Listening to parents, students, and educators in places like China and India has made me realize that GenDIY trends are truly global in the generational shift they represent. Parents in the emerging world who are one generation removed from rural poverty are banking on “do as I did” echo pathways to success for their kids: high school spent cramming for a high-stakes exam, then straight into university and out into lifelong white-collar employment. But they and their kids are also keenly aware that the ground is shifting beneath them, that the degree you sacrifice your childhood for may no longer guarantee a job and the job you’ve outcompeted your global peers to get may not be the safe harbor you expected. Meanwhile, EdLeaders everywhere are trying to re-engineer school systems to turn out innovators and critical thinkers.

It’s a new GenDIY moment.

About “GenDIY”
Young people are taking control of their own pathway to careers, college and contribution. Powered by digital learning, “GenDIY” is combatting unemployment and the rising costs of earning a degree by seeking alternative pathways to find or create jobs they love. Follow their stories here and on Twitter at #GenDIY.

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