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The “Mindset List” has been published every fall since 1998. Compiled by faculty of Beloit College in Wisconsin, the list details notable cultural, historical, and technological events from the year that college freshmen were born. Students entering college this fall were born in 1999, representing the last class to be born in the 20th century. They have never known a world without emojis or Amazon.com. Humorous and written to convey the perspective of young adults entering college, the “Mindset List” provides a poignant reminder of how quickly American society, culture, and technology changes.
Although developed as a retrospective to provide a context of the past, looking back at previous Mindset Lists published over the last 19 years provides an important reminder of the need for long-term perspective. All too often policy discussions, especially those led by special interests, focus on immediate payoffs and benefits. This can come at the cost of sound, long-term policy decisions. The fate of property tax relief proposals in the last legislative session provide a perfect example of shortsighted decision making. Agricultural special interests rejected long-term structural changes to ag land valuation because it did not have an immediate effect. Sound tax policy was opposed and the long-term property tax relief for the future was lost.
Students entering college and vocational programs this fall will likely be working in jobs two decades from now using technologies we have not yet envisioned. When they began kindergarten 12 years ago, the iPhone was incomprehensible to most. Today they enter college with more technology in the palm of their hand then was available to the original Apollo astronauts when they landed on the moon. It is shortsighted and illogical for us to assume that the technologies and skills required for jobs in 2017 will be the same skills required for a successful career in 2037.
The emphasis on vocational skills and career readiness in K-12 and higher education has a valuable short-term goal and arises from good intentions. However, the dramatic changes demonstrated by the Mindset List reminds us that these programs should not substitute or crowd out an emphasis on strong intellectual and analytical skills. Proficiency in reading, strong quantitative skills, and problem-solving abilities enable and equip all students to learn and develop skills for success in their first jobs as well as throughout their careers and working life. Career readiness has become equated with a trade rather than a strong foundation for lifelong learning and career advancement.
As we seek to expand high skill manufacturing jobs and train students specifically for those roles, we must learn from the experience of our neighboring states. Communities in Iowa and Kansas have seen significant economic stress created by layoffs and plant closures. These are the very high-tech, high skill, high paying manufacturing jobs we are rushing to train students for in career academies and vocational programs. Despite having held highly technical positions, retraining for new jobs has proven costly and time consuming, in large part due to the need to remediate basic reading and quantitative skills in adult workers. The lack of a strong, comprehensive education has proven a barrier to successful reentry into new jobs.
Those of us over 40 find it difficult to comprehend that today’s young adults have no frame of reference for popcorn that couldn’t be popped in the microwave or rotary dial phones. My niece, who started kindergarten this year, will graduate high school using technologies and likely pursuing a career that does not even exist today. A comprehensive educational foundation will be vital to her future career success.
Short-term goals and immediate policy outcomes are important. However, they should not come at the price of future disadvantage. As we begin a new school year and marvel at how “things have changed” for this generation, we should be sure we are equipping all Nebraskans with the intellectual skills to be adaptable for whatever the future holds.