Financial history is repeating itself, but this time we can prepare

Few who experienced it can forget the Great Recession of 2008 — the collapses, the bailouts, the layoffs, the repossessions, the shuttered companies and shattered livelihoods. Unemployment doubled between December 2007 and October 2009; in under two years it grew from a healthy 5 percent to a scandalous 10 percent. Today’s college students, however, were just entering double digits when the shock hit; over the last decade they’ve seen only economic growth. With 3.7 percent unemployment, the United States is now more fully employed than it was before the crash, yet there’s no guarantee of continued prosperity.

Some economists expect a recession before 2020. Pessimists have a persuasive case: The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 400 points and the S&P 500 dropped 1.5 percent as the technology sector pulled back 3.4 percent. Could Generation Z be facing a shock of its own? And might a new technology, blockchain, prove valuable to young people looking for a stable and rewarding career path? 

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Millennials who had the misfortune to graduate during the Great Recession still bear the financial and psychological scars. Today’s college students, many of whom watched older siblings or even parents struggle through an unusually cruel job market, have shown increased interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields: a recent survey of 2,000 Americans showed that students are now twice as likely to study STEM fields, including computer science, compared to their parents. These students’ thinking makes a lot of sense: There are too few workers with STEM backgrounds, so it’s a job seeker’s market, and the jobs that exist tend to offer high job security and pay.

U.S. News & World Report indicates that for the nation’s top schools, there are as many computer science students as there are English, philosophy, and history students combined. While this news may appear disheartening for Luddites and history majors — groups with some overlap — major tech companies have also expressed a need for traditional liberal arts skills.

If there’s a defining technology of the twenty-first century, it’s the internet, which links the world and its disparate peoples. The internet encourages flexibility, not rigidity: multidisciplinarity is a key to success, while staying within the confines of one of C.P. Snow’s  “Two Cultures” — STEM or the humanities — has its dangers. Education, whatever you might choose to study, offers a chance to engage with the wider world, to recognize the full diversity of the world, the staggering panoply of beliefs, cultures, and possibilities in it, and the many chances for an individual to improve it.

In the years to come, Generation Z will no doubt find hundreds of ways, many yet unimagined, to change the world. Millions of young people are already seeking careers in computers; one of the most promising hi-tech sectors is blockchain.

For those not already familiar with it, blockchain is a developing technology that allows for reliable, secure, and unfalsifiable transactions by means of a ledger or record simultaneously verified by connected computers on a network. Its most famous application so far is in cryptocurrency, like bitcoin, but it’s also being used in such diverse fields as voting, healthcare, social media, investment, international money transfer, art, real estate, and music. And while blockchain may seem intimidatingly technical at first glance, that might prove a boon to liberal arts majors with an interest in the field.

Like the early internet, blockchain needs informed storytellers who can explain the technology and its transformative potential to the public. Hiring site Glassdoor discovered a 300 percent increase in blockchain jobs between 2017 and 2018; they also found that the sector’s average salary was well above the U.S. median. Careers in blockchain provide job security, offer competitive pay, promote democratization, and allow individuals to contribute to the greater good.

No one hopes for a repeat of the 2008 crisis, but — as liberal arts majors certainly learn — it’s better to learn from history than it is to repeat it. As Generation Z continues its education, we should prioritize policies and initiatives that allow them to learn from both STEM and the liberal arts. And we should encourage our youth to consider learning more about blockchain. It’s a technology with great potential for today’s students and tomorrow’s society.

Fay Li is Chief Marketing Officer at Elastos, a blockchain powered internet; she is also a council member at Cyber Republic. Follow her on Twitter @fayliela