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Can education save the eroding middle class?

3 min read


I grew up somewhere in the middle class. My dad barely achieved a high-school education, but he was a hard worker. We borrowed books from the library instead of buying new ones, and we rarely ate out. However, we always had “enough.”

As I continue to visit schools and cities to talk about education, I find fewer and fewer families who are able to reach a reasonable level of comfort. In short, there just “isn’t enough” for many families and children in America.

George Friedman, one of the founders of Stratfor Global Intelligence, recently wrote an article about the crisis facing the middle class. An insightful analyst, Friedman describes how middle class Americans are facing new struggles as job tenures become shorter and the expectation of social mobility go unrealized.

Friedman describes the recent move towards independent workers as follows:

As the permanent corporate jobs declined, more people were starting over. Some of them were starting over every few years as the agile corporation grew more efficient and needed fewer employees. That meant that if they got new jobs it would not be at the munificent corporate pay rate but at near entry-level rates in the small companies that were now the growth engine. As these companies failed, were bought or shifted direction, they would lose their jobs and start over again. Wages didn’t rise for them and for long periods they might be unemployed, never to get a job again in their now obsolete fields, and certainly not working at a company for the next 20 years.

There has been a strong shift towards mobility and agility in the workplace. However, I don’t believe the outcome needs to be as stark as Friedman suggests. After all, we have education!

In today’s world, every worker must become an entrepreneur. Learners must brand their expertise, becoming a desirable commodity to lots of different employers. Instead of desperately searching for new work after a company goes defunct, those who are successful will jump rapidly, often, and upward.

Although many of our school systems haven’t shifted to meet these new demands, it is very possible to emphasize skills necessary for success in YOUR classroom. Try these three strategies in 2014:

  1. Help students create a brand for themselves by sharing their best work in online spaces. Are your students using LinkedIn to tout their experiences and expertise? Are they sharing their best work beyond the walls of the classroom? Give students opportunities to build a personal brand by sharing their work.

  2. Help students find their strengths. Do students know what they are best at? Do they know what fuels their passion? Give students time to explore what they love, even if the topic doesn’t seem “school-y” enough.

  3. Help students learn how to use many different learning resources. Do students know how to generate their own learning? Can they find and verify answers? Model how to use networks (both F-2-F and virtual) to solve problems.

I DO believe that work is changing. However, I think educating students to cope with the new realities within the workplace is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to foster a society that lives and breathes dynamic learning. Let’s go!

Kristen Swanson (@kristenswanson) is a learner, leader and teacher. She is the senior educational technology leader for BrightBytes and a founder of the Edcamp movement. Swanson is also author of “Professional Learning in the Digital Age,” a Google Certified Teacher, a Twitter teacher and an Edublog Award nominee.