In Cameron Crowe’s classic 1989 movie Say Anything, there’s a memorable scene where Lloyd Dobler, played by John Cusack, is grilled by his girlfriend’s father about his plans after high school.
“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career,” he responds earnestly. “I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.”
Instead, he says he wants to go pro in a new sport: kickboxing. But he admits that his prospects are iffy. “As far as career longevity, I don’t really know, because, you know, you can’t really tell.”
Crowe pokes fun at his character’s idealism in a way that seems gentle today, when Millennials are routinely (and unfairly) excoriated for wanting the world to treat them like “special snowflakes.” Lloyd Dobler wasn’t special; he was an everyman. As his valedictorian girlfriend prepared to jet off to England on a scholarship, he just wanted to support her, and to do something with his life that paid the bills and was fulfilling—or at least not soulless.
A real-life Lloyd Dobler would find himself in a similar, though not identical, quandary in 2016. He would be slightly more likely to enroll in college than in 1989. But if he didn’t enroll—perhaps spooked by the rising rate of student debt—he’d have a hard time escaping the dreaded activities of buying, selling, and processing. He’d most likely find work in the growing low-wage service economy, ringing up customers at a store or slinging lattes in Starbucks.
In the movie, Dobler drives a beat-up Chevy Malibu, but now he might not own a car or drive at all, which would limit his commuting range and possibly his job options. Meanwhile, a financial gap would divide him from his book-smart girlfriend. College graduates now earn almost twice as much per hour as holders of high-school diplomas, compared to two-thirds more in the 1980s.
Dobler was right about two things. Kickboxing really was the sport (or at least the workout) of the future. And “you can’t really tell” what your career will look like in 10 or 20 years, since the average American holds 11.7 jobs over his or her lifetime.
In our new series City Makers: Getting to Work, we’ll be looking at the most promising and creative strategies for connecting Americans with rewarding employment and for helping employers build the talented workforces they need. Don’t be misled by the dry term “workforce development”: the future of work in America is a complex and fascinating subject.
In 40 stories over the next three months, we hope to shed light on a number of critical questions. What does work look like in our urban centers and metro areas in the 21st century? Who's getting hired (and doing the hiring), and how are schools preparing young people for tomorrow’s careers—or not? Where will new jobs be located, and how can we ensure the widest, most equitable access to them?
What do freelancing and the gig economy mean for young people entering the workforce? How can immigrants find their vocational feet, and can Boomers transition to "encore careers?" Is there a path to the middle class from low-wage service jobs?
Will automation make your job disappear, or mine?
From entrepreneurs to educators to ex-offenders, coding academies to food trucks, learning a trade to imparting “soft skills,” we’ll introduce you to the people and trends reshaping the landscape of work, and some surprising new pathways across it.
Even if those involve buying, selling, and processing things—which, after all, is most of the global economy.
We hope you enjoy the series.