It's a scary world out there for young people and parents concerned about their long-term future. With the employment landscape shifting rapidly thanks to tech in general and artificial intelligence in particular, and the economy increasingly feeling like a winner-takes-all game, no wonder more and more families are pushing their kids towards practical-seeming, specialized college degrees like finance, computer science, and media.

Which is just what a massive analysis of LinkedIn data conducted by the company in conjunction with the World Economic Forum revealed. While the popularity of old standbys like history, political science, and literature are declining, the appeal of degrees that seem to lead more directly to employment are rising.

But while increasing interest in these more specialized degrees makes sense, LinkedIn economist Guy Berger isn't sure it's a good thing. In fact, in our uncertain world, the out-of-fashion liberal arts degree might actually be your best bet after all.

Why study classics, not coding?

Why? The narrow focus of these career-oriented degrees is exactly what gives Berger pause. Basically no one can predict what work will look like in a decade or two, so betting on a specific niche and limiting your maneuverability is a risky proposition, he cautions.

"There is a real concern that these labor-market-oriented degrees that focus on specific technical skills are not as durable," Berger commented on Quartz. "Berger believes that 'cross-functional skills' like management and analytical know-how are more adaptable across a range of work environments," the Quartz article summarizes him as saying

Berger claims much the same thing in a post he penned for the World Economic Forum blog. "In a changing workforce, it's having a strong foundation in these versatile, cross-functional skills [like interpersonal skills] that allows people to successfully pivot," he notes.

Wanted: creativity, empathy, and big picture thinking

How do you develop the ability to understand other people and complex situations, and analyze them thoughtfully? A traditional liberal arts education that pushes you to ponder some of the biggest questions about being human is one great way. And Berger is far from the only person making this connection.

Several tech CEOs and executives have publicly come out to say that more young people should study things like classics, literature, and anthropology, claiming these often undervalued liberal arts majors give graduates the creativity, empathy, and big picture thinking that they'll really need to thrive in our wild future.

"A well-rounded liberal arts degree establishes a foundation of critical thinking. Critical thinkers can accomplish anything. Critical thinkers can master French, Ruby on Rails, Python or whatever future language comes their way. A critical thinker is a self-learning machine," insisted Reverb.com founder David Kalt in the Wall Street Journal, for instance.

Dave and Helen Edwards, co-founders of artificial intelligence research firm Intelligenstia.ai, don't go so far as to suggest a specific course of study, but like Kalt they have publicly insisted that if you want your kids to thrive in an AI-filled future, you better teach them how to handle human beings, unpredictability, and complexity, all of which a liberal arts degree forces you to confront and grow comfortable with.

Which isn't to say, of course, that having some solid tech skills isn't also a fabulous idea. Knowing some coding certainly won't hurt you or your child's future prospects. But what all these voices are arguing is that no specific skill is enough. To really thrive in an unpredictable world full of machines, young people need to know how to look, see, think and be agile. So maybe give that much maligned history degree another look.

Published on: Oct 12, 2017