Thursday, September 10, 2009

From the Hinterlands

I received this email from a young man seeking my advice:

I read your energy blog regularly and am trying to chart a course in life amid the ongoing collapse. I'm writing to ask what, if any, thoughts you have about what I should do. I was thinking about law school, undergrad for econ, or grad school for stats, or education. But will there be time to use any of those? Guy McPherson (from the Nature Bats Last blog) advised me to forget school and move far from pop. centers.

Background: I have one useless degree (in religion/philosophy, but with great grades) and one seemingly more practical (mathematics) that may be useless due to mediocre grades. I was valedictorian in high school (with scholarship to a top college), but am now 31 and flat broke due to never having a real job. If the industrial economy weren't in its death throes, I'd still be young enough to start over, but with oil production soon to fall to 1980 levels, my margin for error is not large. I currently scrape by teaching test prep courses part-time for one of the major companies. My family moved from NJ to Montana 5 years ago when my dad retired as a carpenter. They would take me in a second, but there is no work there except Walmart.

I think the solution under "normal" circumstances would be a degree, but is the time right? Any thoughts, please send them along.

I replied:

Well, though I don't know you or your talents, I will speak in generalities…

Another degree is not the answer, unless you need it for a professional license. Education does not really require somebody else's approval. When I referred to myself as self-educated, my good friend, family clergy man, and adviser Rabbi Mo Silver sniffed and said: "As if there was any other kind." He has an uncanny ability to grasp the obvious and to remind me that it was so...

Start a business. Learn to make money, negotiate, sell, buy, trade, manage... the most important skill in business is the ability to "grind it out". It is true: “80% of life is just showing up”. Business is not as much fun as going to school (with all of it attendant social opportunities), but it can provide you with a living.

Don't know which business? Me neither. But I think something where YOU add value beyond just being a merchant... but if you can't add value, well... being a merchant ain't all that bad.

Northern Rockies? LOOOOOOONG Winters... if that is OK with you... but the middle of the country will likely empty out (with the exception of rain belt farm land), and that ain't good for a local economy... and in the end, that kind of isolation is not for many people.

The U.S. advanced education industry has ripped off millions, saddled them with debt, and held up their productive lives for years and years - and you might have been caught up in that fraud, though I can't be know for sure. 31 years old is a bit late to be going to work, unless you are a surgeon and spent 8 years in full time training...

I have a son, 16 years old. Every chance I get I tell him the faster he can get through college and get some real life experience in business, the more success he will likely see, and the more comfortable will the end of his life be.

I can only look at my own life for perspective, and compare that to others… which is rather imperfect. I went to work at 17 (14, if you count my weekend job I held till 17), worked through college with an athletic scholarship (I would have been better off working at McDonald's), skipped back packing around Europe (mistake, but I did travel extensively through South America’s third world – excellent eye opener) to go right after it in business (best thing I ever did, by the time my friends got their MBA's I was a millionaire) and I have been at it ever since with a couple of weeks off per year. That's life. The good news is that I have been blessed to be able to provide very well for my wife and children - and that really IS a reward. I worked hard, saved my money, and never bought a red sports car.

But there is something you should know... unless you are a freak of nature, there will be times when life beats you up. I have had business failures, lost every thing, came back, lost everything again in a market collapse that nearly broke me… went through a divorce… personal loss… came back... nothing is static, especially in business.

Still, through good times and bad I always had a glass of wine with dinner, never missed desert, and endeavored to make love every night. I played hard in general.

If I could give you any advice... start with the wine, desert, and love making... add some hard work in a business that pays (too many folks give you the circle jerk about doing what you love, doing what makes you happy... let me tell you something... while “money can't by happiness”, happiness can't buy money... whoever said the former had never been poor - I have. Poverty SUCKS. You will find whatever you do for a living infinitely more fun if it pays $2 million a year, or even $200k...

Go into business, and go to work. Besides, since you probably can’t get a job you really don’t have a choice.

Good luck!

I continue to be struck by the number of people just STARTING to go to work at 30 or 31 years old. If you need medical or law school to enter the profession, that's OK. That is simply the start up costs... but if you are getting Poly-Sci degrees and putting off work until you are 30 years old... well, I think you would have to have rocks in your head.



bureaucrat said...

I've already commented on this general theme with the last college plus-age guy who asked you for advice, and nobody wants me to rehash .. much. But from a more REALISTIC standpoint: the world ain't gonna end even if the oil price starts increasing (Europe, tho a smaller footprint, pays twice what we pay for the juice), college still matters (whats more important is just FINISHING any major), massive debt & higher interest rates are going to change us all over the next 30 years, more than half of all small businesses close inside of 5 years, the S&P 500 companies still have all the money and 2/3rds of the U.S. economy, 2/3rds of people work in boring offices .... so while it is only common sense to evaluate how an energy shortages/price hikes would affect you, life will go on, and probably very much like it always has.

Anonymous said...


The S&P 500 are not what they used to be. And they are not hiring. Walmart does not pay a living wage. Just what do all the unemployed do after the insurance runs out? Sit on the front porch and drink malt liquor? Some will, others will take some initiative.

I'm still employed and relatively secure as I work for a company that sells most of its products into Asia. And also, I volunteer for every hard job that doesn't defy the laws of physics. But, I will not be seeking re-employment. There is no way I'll get hired for half of what I'm making now. I will go into business full time. By the time I get laid off, I'll be ready.

Every big company was once a small company. New business will grow to replace the old dinosaurs as they die, or we'll all wallow in abject poverty.

And, from a REALISTIC standpoint, another oil shock will push the unemployment rate from the 16 to 20% we have now to 30 or 35%. (The official numbers are crap.) That's when the riots and radical politics really get rolling. Let's hope there is a HUGE increase in business starts.


Coal Guy

Greg T. Jeffers said...


This fellow already has several degrees... He is 31!!

LOng past time he found a way to make a living.

bureaucrat said...

I would agree that becoming a "career student" is just hiding out from life. He's obviously getting tired of that. He'll start working eventually.

Coal guy's message, I don't entirely agree with. Has everyone noticed that the massive American employment crash seems to be lessening? No more losses of 600,000 jobs a month. People are still being laid off, but not in the numbers they were. Perhaps the big companies aren't cutting jobs as much because they can't cut jobs any more without affecting customer service (Scientist suggested that). All the dead wood has been purged already.

Most small businesses fail or are bought up by the S&P 500, so one way or another, you're gonna end up working for Exxon. My friend lost a job with Deloitte six months ago at $80,000 and just got a job with GE for $100,000 (*whew*). The big companies are still the place to be. And with the baby boomers retiring (most), there are lots of position openings coming (average retirement age in the U.S. is 63, and half retire cause they want to -- and more importantly -- half retire cause they HAVE to).

There is a possiblility that what got us out of the oil shocks of the 1970s (the discovery in the 1960s of Prudhoe Bay with 13 billion barrels and the North Sea with 49 billion barrels) may happen again (thru new oil finds off Brazil and in the Gulf of Mexico), which may save us yet (though this new oil will be damn tough to get out).

In conclusion, Coca-Cola and Chevron will still be hiring, albeit quietly, and there won't be any riots so long as the gas stations and food stores stay filled, as they are now.

gardenerG said...

I have 3 kids, all graduated this year. One is Electrical Engineer, has a decent job, but received only 2 offers.

2nd is Marketting/English majors, interned as Product Marketting at Pharmaceutical companies, and has a job. Is taking night classes to get into medical field deeper. She took a job with a company where she had interned.

The 3rd took 2 extra years, Industrial Design in Detroit (major talent pool for car companies), met the brick wall. But I steered him away from the narrow focus of cars and he interned at Mack truck and other jobs. He has a contract job with a company he interned.

Thankfully I scared all 3 with regular Peak Oil news (which they scoffed at at the time - but may have put doubt in their minds). Bottom line is, I agree with your points. Focus on a useful degrees or no degree at all. Practical experience! Interning during the summers and for the first 2, Drexel University has intern semesters. And debt load: their loans are reasonable, about $20K, $10K, and $5K. And my bills were around $12K.