Despite being neither a real professor nor an advisor, I have been solicited by many undergraduates over the years for advice about postgraduate education or non-academic career options. I generally recommend that they get advice from someone who isn't making minimum wage but this is rarely an effective deterrent. Comments on yesterday's IBM thread emphasize why this is an unenviable position from my perspective. To be blunt, what the fuck am I supposed to tell these kids?

For decades we've told generations of young Americans that blue collar work is going the way of the Victrola and the covered wagon. Unlike Mom and Pop, we've warned, kids cannot come out of high school today and get a job in the mill/factory which will offer long-term security and $45,000 per year with benefits. No, those jobs must go where they can be done more cheaply. The only thing to do, kids, is to get a college education and subsequently a job that depends on brainpower, not muscle. Prepare yourself to succeed in the post-industrial "knowledge and services" economy in which a Bachelor's will be mandatory and postgraduate degrees all but required for those who hope to succeed.

Well, it didn't take long for large employers to figure out that "knowledge and service" work can be done as well as assembly line work in China, India, or Singapore. Boy, all these advances in IT and communications sure do make it easy to replace John with Jagdish. Hence many of the hot fields of the 80s and 90s are already obsolete – business administration, computer science, electrical engineering, and so on. And if we can't find a way to ship the job to the underdeveloped world there's a good chance that we can import Chinese or South Asian workers who'll undercut your wages.

So tell me. What field is a good field to get into these days? MBA programs are already bloated with exactly the kind of nonspecific, poorly-educated "business" and "management" people – full of Chicken Soup for the Middle Manager's Soul bullshit but devoid of knowledge about economics or finance – we don't need. Law schools already churn out three times as many lawyers as our economy can absorb. Medical school is an option only for the academic elite. Nurses are in demand but those programs are highly selective too. Journalism offers no barriers to entry but makes it very difficult to earn an actual living in the field. Accountants face intense competition from non-domestic workers and that pressure will only increase in the future. The engineering fields are all hemorraging jobs to Asia.

Part of the rite of passage of being an undergraduate is that "Holy crap, what the hell am I going to do when I graduate?" feeling. That has always existed and always will. Today it has essentially become a rhetorical question. I don't have an answer. Nobody has an answer. Education and healthcare are the only fields that seem to offer any long-term potential in my view, and the former is quickly being stuffed with more bodies than there will be available jobs in the next decade or two. Undergraduates are at a complete loss and the people who are supposed to be advising them – parents, professors, and professional academic advisors – are either ignorant or speechless. My default advice is to work for the government. The pay blows, the bureaucracy is stifling, but the odds of avoiding the Efficiency Guillotine are better. I hope the Cato Institute crowd is happy; now that we have successfully globalized the workforce the only jobs worth having are on the government's tab.

The idea that borders should disappear and every job goes to the lowest bid started as a pebble rolling down a hill in the early 1970s. No one noticed at first because it only picked up a few scraps – some fruit pickers here, an old factory there. Then it took out most of American heavy industry. Blue collar people noticed, but white collars were safe in festung suburbia. Now the pebble is a boulder the size of Soldier Field. It's crushing everything in its path and no one can stop it. The nature of the economy has fundamentally changed and not for the better. Few and far between are jobs that can't be exported or done by imported workers, and that situation will only get worse as communication networks become better/cheaper and levels of education in other nations increase. American kids who've done the "right thing" and gone to college are confused, angry, and afraid. Maybe not all of them. But the smart ones are.