What your son should do with his life

Even the smartest people get flummoxed when it comes to something like what their kids should study to ensure getting a good job.
At the MIT CIO Symposium, some very sharp thinkers, including autonomous robot specialist John Leonard,  wide-ranging MIT Media Lab guru Sandy Pentland and top management thinker Tom Malone, sat on a panel about the future, moderated by Erik Brynjolfsson, MIT Sloan School of Management economist and digital business thinker. They were very good in talking about the likely trends for autonomous cars (further off than the headlines would have you think, largely because laws need to change) and on why groups with more women tend to be smarter. They had interesting things to say about why it takes so long for major technology breakthroughs to really take off.

Then, during the Q&A, someone asked what his 14-year-old son should study. This had my complete attention, since I also have a 14-year-old son. It turns out John Leonard has a 13-year-old son, and Leonard encourages him to spend time on Kahn Academy and Udacity and other MOOCs. “They need to be life-long learners, and they need to something they’re passionate about. Tell him to try to find what you’re passionate about and pursue that.”

I thought to myself, ‘professional video gaming is such a crapshoot, I’m not sure I like this advice.’

Pentland has children aged 14 and 17. He says he’s insisted that they become computer literate. “Understanding the programs, not necessarily being a programmer, will be increasingly valuable,” Pentland counseled.  He’s also encouraged them to be entrepreneurial.

Pentland said he’s nervous about what lies ahead for his kids, no matter what they know. “You have to remember that as a species we’re not doing so well. There’s global warming, war on the horizon, lots of people dying; we have to solve some of these problems or we’re not going to be around, at least in a recognizable way. We need innovation, but we also need to be giving up some of what we’re used to today.”

Malone said his son is 22, and when he was 14, it was clear that he had a creative streak. Malone encouraged that, figuring that “the prospects for people who are good at following orders are less than they were in the past. A lot of those jobs will be doable by computers.” Malone says his son “is now an art student, and I’m hoping he’ll be able to find a job.”

There is only so much we can know.

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