‘I can’t even get a job waitressing’: Gen Y on its work woes (Globe and Mail)

Several days ago (on May 4th, 2017), The Globe and Mail published the results of their employment survey of millennials (adults born between 1981 and 2000). What a sobering read! Here is the link to the article:


It seems that only 2/3 of millennials hold “permanent” jobs. Roughly 1/4 hold contract work. But if these statistics are sobering, some of the quotations from the survey respondents are downright depressing:

“I am definitely an underemployed millennial as I work in a restaurant to earn money until I can find a full time job in finance and make use of my MBA.”

“My degree was in chemistry, and I’ve done retail, construction, elections, and computer installations. Since I graduated, I’ve been to more funerals than interviews.”

“Contract to contract to contract to contract to burnout to back to school to new degree to still unemployed.”

“I have a Masters of Engineering plus five years’ work experience. Been looking since February 2016, managed to pick up a short-term contract job. Been doing odd jobs and handyman work.”

“Growing up, you do everything by the book – study hard and go to university – and you’re met with unrealistic wages for the amount of time and money spent in school. Sometimes forced to take two or three jobs just to make ends meet. It’s a recipe for failure.”

Is anyone paying attention?

Is your eye on the right goal?


Last year, I had the privilege of meeting an old family friend (my “uncle”) I admire greatly. As was the case on many earlier occasions, I was privileged to be a guest of his family in London, England. While discussing my work around the dining table, he asked me what the big deal was about the big branded schools because none of them can teach you how to become a billionaire! I gave a spiel about education but I could already perceive the follow-up question – if it is just about the education, there are many other places to get it. Although he was no longer young, my uncle always knew which questions to ask. He was also in a superb position to pose that question because of his own life’s trajectory; never attending college or university, he started out as a dishwasher in Chinatown in London but eventually became a very successful and wealthy businessman.

Even though my uncle had not attended college, he was anything but uneducated. He read widely and constantly; the breakfast table and his work desk were always full of newspapers and books. More than anyone I knew, he was an incredibly inquisitive soul. Always picking the brains of those around him, I was gratified that he had found anything worth picking in my brain at all!

Is my uncle right that attending a famous school will not make a person a success? This is a question that could launch a million debates with many strong arguments on both sides. However, when all is said and done, how those arguments are resolved will ultimately boil down to the core of our belief systems. Personally, I believe the evidence supports the position that eventually, it is all about the person. What does this mean? I would tell parents that although they cannot control whether their child is admitted to a famous college or university, they can nurture their child’s curiosity and support their personal development.

What should we do then? We should treat education less as a series of hurdles (tests and exams) to overcome and more as a process of exploration and personal growth. Abandon the notion that your child should take a particular subject because you believe college or university admissions staff will “value” that subject over others. If your child eschews all things academic, perhaps some reconsideration of pathways is in order. Your child should take a subject because he or she has an interest in the material. What if your child has no interests? Well, that is a whole other blog post.

Last but not least, I would like to share a classic 2005 blog post from Ben Jones of MIT Admissions that expresses some of the same views. Do bear in mind that the numbers are dated in terms of order of magnitude.

Blog post by Ben Jones of MIT Admissions

OCT 5, 2005

Many Ways To Define “The Best”
posted in: Prepare for MIT
Some parents wrote to me and asked me to contribute my opinions to a College Confidential thread about the pressure to load up on AP classes. Obviously my response is directed to parents, but I thought it was important enough to post it here as well:

As with most of my posts in the parents’ forum, I’ll try to respond both as an MIT adcom and also as a parent. This’ll be sortof long, sorry.
First, the MIT adcom perspective.
I don’t know the exact numbers; I couldn’t tell you even if I thought it would be helpful. Numbers mean nothing to us because ~70% of our applicant pool is qualified in those terms.
Based on the thousands of apps I saw last year both in selection committee and as a reader, I can tell you that the average # of AP’s for admitted kids was 5 or 6 (that’s total for all 4 years of HS – i.e. 1-2 per year if evenly distributed). Many admits (most likely the majority) had no college classes. The most common AP’s taken were in math and science (no surprise, it’s MIT). The overwhelming majority got 4’s and 5’s on all tests.
I’ll pause here to add that I frequently saw kids with perfect SAT scores and perfect grades and a gazillion AP classes get rejected. Why? Because often these kids knew how to grind, but brought nothing else to the table. And that’s not who we’re looking for at MIT. We admit kids who show genuine passion. Sure AP’s can be one of many passion indicators – but I emphasize one of many.
When I was on the road, kids asked me repeatedly whether or not they should take a given AP class.
“Well,” I’d respond, “would you be taking it because you genuinely want to, or simply because you think it will get you into college?”
Sometimes they didn’t know the difference, which is a tragedy that deserves its own thread. But I digress.
And this is where you all start saying that adcoms are talking out of both sides of our mouths: we encourage kids to follow their hearts in the choices they make, and then as adcoms we want to see that they’ve taken “the most challenging courseload.”
To which I say: guys, I work for MIT! If a kid doesn’t want to be taking a challenging courseload in high school, that kid is certainly not going to be happy here.
Quite simply, the students who are happiest here are those who thrive on challenge. Most of our admits have taken AP math and science because they would have been bored silly in the regular classes. Indeed, they genuinely wanted to take those classes. They don’t look at MIT as the prize; they look at MIT as the logical next step. It’s an important distinction.
That said, AP’s are not the only way to demonstrate that one is passionate and likes challenge. Read Anthony’s story for an example.
When faced with the choice, we will always choose “the right match*” over numbers. We’re not lying when we say that. You’ve heard me beat that sentiment to death in other threads, so I won’t do so here.
(*Match = mission, collaborative spirit, hands-on, balance, character, and passion, among others.)
But the reality is that when you have 10,500+ applications for ~1000 spots and 70% of the pool has great numbers, your pool is going to have plenty of kids who have the passion and the match and the scores/grades/AP’s. So we admit those kids – what other choice do we have?
But then (understandably) you guys say “Look! You need X, Y, and Z to get into MIT!” To clarify, we don’t require those things; many of our admits just happen to have them. And, I might add, for the right reasons.
This brings me to the more important part, where we toss my affiliation with MIT out the window and I give you my thoughts as a parent.
There is only one coin. There are many sides to the coin, but there is only one coin. And you can flip it however you like.
So when a parent says to me, “Why does HYPSM (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, etc.) put so much emphasis on AP’s?” I reply “Why do you put so much emphasis on HYPSM?” When a parent says “My kid’s value as a person/student shouldn’t be measured by how many AP’s he/she has taken” I say “…and your kid’s value as a person/student shouldn’t be measured by whether or not he/she goes to HYPSM.” I could go on and on.
There are literally hundreds of amazing colleges and universities out there (some of which actually admit kids with no AP’s!). Many of them would actually be better matches for your child. Many of them would provide your child with a better education.Most importantly, many of them would ultimately give your child a greater sense of happiness and fulfillment. The right match will do that.
And the match goes both ways. We try to determine if your kid is a good match for MIT. Your kid should be trying to determine which school is the best match for him/her. As a parent, what are you doing to help him/her figure that out?
Here’s a hint: if you’re spending time obsessing that a lack of AP’s is going to keep your kid out of Stanford, you’re missing the point.
As I told the kids in my blog, I had a wonderful college experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything, at a school that is currently only #23 on the USNWR LAC list (The HORROR!). I got a phenomenal education and can certainly hold my own against any Ivy grad. Bonus: I even got to grow up, get married, have kids, buy a house, land a great job, and enjoy life.
I took one AP class in high school.
Make sure your kids are choosing their schools for the right reasons. Name, status, “brand” – these are not the right reasons. Let your kids be kids. Let them follow their hearts. Encourage them to have a present, not just a future. Don’t let them define themselves by which colleges accept them – and don’t let them define themselves by doing things only to get into certain colleges.
The machine is fed from all sides. USNWR, the media in general, the GC’s, the parents, the colleges and universities, the high-priced independent counselors, the test prep people…
My kids are still many years away from college, and I’m no expert on the parent side of this process. But I do know one thing: I will fight to protect them from all of this, to help them with perspective and clarity. Because if I don’t, who will?
Because if we don’t, who will?

Just my 2 cents, for what it’s worth. More often than not, what society deems “the best” is not actually the best for most.


Sea Change in College Admissions

Driven by a desire to provide a counterweight to the benefits conferred by wealth in education and college admissions, a group of colleges and universities have endorsed a report that could be a harbinger of significant change in how they select students (presumably for scholarships if not for admissions purposes). In particular, whereas today, a prospective student might be evaluated on his or her accomplishments for their sake, in future these might also be seen through the lens of how they benefitted others.

In terms of educational performance, research suggests that wealth is correlated with everything from higher standardized test scores to better outcomes in college admissions (especially at the most selective institutions), higher graduation rates, and higher post-graduation income (although this last bit might be distorted by geography). Test scores and school performance can be influenced by the availability of expensive test preparation programs, tutors, not to mention better schools in safer locations, and along with more intangible factors. As for extra-curricular activities, excellence comes with a heavy price tag that is affordable only to families with financial means. Recall that current admissions processes involve holistic evaluations that arguably tilt admissions in favor of higher income families that are able to afford good schools, tutors, and extensive extra-curricular development. Students from lower income families who may have to hold down a job to help their families, or who may have to take care of their siblings while parents work multiple jobs, are clearly at a disadvantage.

Unfortunately, in the United States (and all over the world in fact) the gulf between rich and poor has widened. That gap worsened through the 2007/2009 financial crisis leading President Obama to declare in December 2013, that inequality was the “defining challenge of our time.” More notably perhaps, in the recent presidential primaries in the United States which determine presidential nominees for the Republican and Democratic parties, inequality and its root causes may have become a major wedge issue, dividing people along generational and even ethnic lines. There is now widespread recognition among younger Americans that wealth disparities are correlated with many life outcomes; people who start out better off, tend to live longer, do better in school, and earn higher incomes. To dispel the notion that genetics can explain the persistence of privilege, it is worth noting that as regards economic mobility, the United States is probably the worst performer among OECD countries, a fact that belies the country’s reputation as a place where anybody who works hard can achieve their dreams.

Another trend that would have been evident to interested parents and families lies in the increasing impossibility of admissions to highly selective admissions. This phenomenon has been correlated with high levels of stress among high school students aiming for admission to “elite” post-secondary institutions. In fact, competition is so intense that there is a veritable “arms race” between students, to take more Advanced Placement and/or Higher Level International Baccalaureate coursework and indeed any form of advanced coursework. This year, for example, students admitted to Georgia Tech under its Early Action plan, took on average 10 or more college-level courses. There is also a suspicion that increased academic stress may have been correlated with the occurrence of teenage suicide clusters in California, Virginia, and Massachusetts. No decent human being wants to be associated with a system that leads to teenage suicides; certainly nobody pursues a career in education so that they can be associated with student suicides. Something has to change.

Change appears to have come in the form of the report “Turning the Tide” published by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, one that was endorsed by over sixty liberal arts colleges and universities. Arguably the report, which qualifies as a major policy statement by endorsing institutions, represents an attempt to shift the balance in college admissions. From the outset, the report states that it “advances a new, widely shared vision of college admissions that … makes the case that college admissions can send compelling messages that both ethical engagement—especially concern for others and the common good—and intellectual engagement are highly important”. More concretely, the report recommends that colleges give weight to three areas in determining which students get admitted – “meaningful contribution to others and engagement with the public good”, “ethical engagement” and “redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure”.

How will the recommendations in “Turning the Tide” be implemented (due regard being had, for financial considerations)? What will change, if anything? Even if admissions processes do not change, will applications nonetheless be read differently than they have been in the past? How will students and families “game” the new system? Then there is the litmus test – how will the profile of admitted students change? Will change be incremental? How will change differ from institution to institution? Only time will tell.

What we do know is that the question of what drives your child is now very material. Doubtless, the issue is tricky because our value and belief systems now come into play. For many of us, a reasonable answer for a kid in high school would be “good marks”, because that is what they have been told is all important. Another answer might be “good marks plus excellence in music, arts or sports”. For many colleges and universities, that would probably be an acceptable answer as well, but it is possible that increasingly, they will be looking for more (or perhaps even something entirely different) from the student. Presumably, if an admissions committee could look into the heart of the child, the characteristic they would be looking for, would be a concern for the world at large. If your child has a privileged background, regardless of whether he or she is an accomplished student athlete, the key test might well turn out to be whether he or she exploited that privilege for the benefit of others. That would be a radical change indeed.

Educational quality and college size

Is there a negative correlation between college enrollment and educational quality? Incidentally nothing herein should in anyway be considered as endorsing, the methodology or utility, of US News College Rankings or of any other university or college rankings.

Avg College Enrollment


Comparing top 10 college lists by country

How should we compare a list of alleged top 10 universities from country Y, with another similar list for country X? If we assume that these universities will draw proportionately from the top of the student pool in their respective countries of origin, then one way to compare the two lists would be to compare enrollment in these universities as a % of the student pools in the respective countries.

What happens when we use this method to compare the so-called top 10 universities in the UK as determined by The Complete University Guide, with a similar so-called top 10 list of universities in the US as determined by US News?

It appears that the UK top 10 enroll 118,880 students in total (6.5% of UK undergraduates). On the other hand the US top 10 only enroll 58,142 students (0.6% of Undergraduates in 4 Year institutions). In other words the UK top 10 enroll 2x as many students as the US top 10 in absolute numbers. On the other hand, in terms of the proportion of undergraduates in the respective countries enrolled in top 10 universities, the UK top 10 undergraduate enrollment is 11x that of the US.

Based on US News rankings, one would have to aggregate the undergraduate enrollment at the top 50 universities in the US to reach 6.3% of the student pool – a sliver below the 6.5% of undergraduates in the UK that are enrolled in the top 10 UK universities.

What about US liberal arts colleges? One would have to aggregate the top 56 to get to 118,638 students enrolled (1.1% of total undergraduate enrollment in 4 Year institutions) – a figure comparable in absolute terms to the 118,880 enrolled in the top 10 UK universities.

In short, top 10 lists are not comparable across countries.

Nineteen Days

19 days. 3 continents. 9 cities. 10 flight segments (including the world’s 9th longest flight from Dubai to San Francisco). 6 airlines. 35,600 km. Many memorable moments and much learning.

On 28th February 2015, Ben and Linda embarked on the most ambitious travel journey they had ever been brave enough to attempt. Their itinerary (reservations records mostly) extended over 11 pages. Linda will say that Ben was intoxicated by the complexity of it all, and Ben would reluctantly admit that there was probably much truth in that. Nevertheless the genesis of the trip lay, quite simply, in the desire to visit old friends, and reconnect with Istanbul, a city Linda and Ben had spent time in 3 decades ago. It was the perfect excuse for Ben to develop a zany itinerary!

Their journey to Stockholm was on Norwegian Air. It is an interesting budget airline with a nice but affordable premium cabin. The airline manages its costs by using a Thai cabin crew that was very professional (perhaps they hired them from Thai International). If you fly coach they bill you for everything! But fares are really low for coach although seats are extremely tight – so if one is young and slender, the product is great. The premium cabin is great if you need a little more room. If Norwegian is allowed to expand in North America, it could become really popular.

Upon arrival in Stockholm, Sweden, the Arlanda Express swiftly and efficiently conveyed Ben and Linda into town. So before long they were comfortably settled in their ultra-contemporary budget-priced hotel, the HTL Kungsgatan. The minimalist rooms were tastefully laid out, clearly designed with function and convenience in mind. It was even possible to wirelessly sync one’s mobile device with the television. Entirely self-service, the hotel probably operated at a fraction of the cost of comparable hotels.

In an interesting juxtaposition, Ben and Linda’s hotel was situated close to Konditori Vete-katten, a bakery/cafe that had been in operation since the 1920s. Jet-lagged they awoke very early their first morning in Stockholm and were first in line when the bakery opened its doors. They were rewarded with great pastries, sandwiches and coffee.

Teashop 3 (1 of 1)

Over the next couple of days Ben and Linda would visit Gamla Stam, the old city, Djurgarden park and the ghostly Vasamuseet, as well as attempt some shopping. The temptation of a pilgrimage to IKEA was resisted, although perhaps a visit might have been interesting. There is commercial/industrial sprawl outside Stockholm but there was no time to explore the areas.

After Stockholm, Ben and Linda headed for London. Ben has a long history with London visiting it for the first time in 1972, over 40 years ago. Peering out the airplane window as the aircraft approached Gatwick Airport, Ben could feel the familiar appeal of the lush rolling landscape. As before, he was excited by the prospect of meeting his old family friends. This time though the visit had a special significance because his friends were about to move to Hong Kong, for health reasons. Time has taken its toll. Regrettably, it tolls for everyone!

Anyhow, Ben and Linda were treated exceptionally well in London. Lunch at Ting in Shangri-la Hotel, located at The Shard (the tallest building in Europe), was quite the experience. Another evening they were guests at a corporate banquet held by their hosts, and they proceeded to enjoy a massive dinner at The Grosvenor Hotel. During a stay at the same hotel 40 years earlier, Ben was certain he had heard strange noises in the night that he speculated might not have had human origins. Meeting dear friends was wonderful but the piece de resistance was very nearly the gorgeous penthouse they were accommodated in.

View of Tower Bridge from the apartment.
Apt bridge view

View of the Thames from Ting.
Thames river from Shard (1 of 1)

London today is obviously not what it was 40 years ago. Yes, it is more crowded or more technologically advanced (though it continues to lag) than before. However, demographically it has undergone massive change. Conceivably one could eat at a whole bunch of restaurants and cafes and never be attended to by a British person (or a person born in Britain) – reminiscent of Vancouver if you like. Whole swathes of London (and many British brands), are owned by foreigners (non-British). Iconic Harrod’s ceased to be British owned a long time ago. The Grosvenor Hotel where the banquet was held, is now a Guoman property (managed by a Singapore/Hong Kong based group). In the tiny square mile that is the official “City of London”, only 48% is British owned. The “real” Britain though is not far away and as we departed, Ben was left wondering how London differed from other cities/areas in Britain.

The next stop was Istanbul. A massive city packed with people constantly on the move, Linda and Ben had traveled to Istanbul in 1986, nearly 30 years earlier. Then, the people of that city seemed never to have seen an ethnically Chinese person before. Linda would tell people we were “Eskimoes” (no offence intended to anyone). During that first visit Ben discovered the Turkish Doner (similar to the Greek Gyro) and he considered quitting university to establish a Doner stand in Singapore.

Josh joined Ben and Linda in Istanbul and that made the trip there a particularly meaningful one. They stayed in a hotel in the touristy but atmospheric Sultanahmet area.

Ben and Josh in Sultanahmet
Josh & Ben (1 of 1)

Linda and Ben attempted to visit their old “haunts” but they were either no longer in existence, had moved, or had undergone radical transformation. In the 80s there was a bakery near the hotel Ben and LInda stayed at, that they had visited regularly; their favourite late night activity was to descend to the bakery for tavuk, cay and simit. Tavuk is an amazing pudding made from chicken breast (yes!), Cay is tea and simit is something like a turkish pretzel. That bakery since has been transformed into an upscale konditorei with stores in several key spots in Istanbul. Yes, the store is much nicer today but Ben and Linda miss some of the “romance” of the old place.

Hafiz Mustafa (1 of 1)

In the 1980s, Istanbul was a badly polluted city; the air was so bad, Ben had fallen ill within days of his arrival in Istanbul. He (or his lungs) adapted, but the air was still tough to breath. Istanbul today is very different – the air is clean and breathable and road traffic in the old city is strictly controlled. Other touches of modernity – clean toilets of a very high standard everywhere we went. The transit system is not bad.

What has not changed are the 7 hills the city is sprawled over. Ben had never walked so many hills in so few days. Up steep streets, down narrow alleys packed with small stores on the side.

The existence of tourist traps is another feature of the Istanbul experience. Attracted by the gozleme (see the picture), we walked into a restaurant before realizing it was a tourist trap. Annoyed by its “scammy” feel and high prices, we walked out boldly and left without ordering any food. We did not consume any gozleme in Istanbul but were able to sample it at a Turkish market in Berlin, our next stop! Linda’s wish came true.

To say that Istanbul can be crowded is probably an understatement.

Here is a picture of Istikal Cadessi packed end-to-end with people heading toward Taksim Square.
Taksim crowd (1 of 1)

On their last day in Istanbul, Ben and Linda walked across the famous Galata Bridge, running a gauntlet of restaurant touts. Then all of a sudden, in the Karakoy area they encounter a beautiful café serving great food, coffee and jazz! Ben was happy!

Berlin was next. The day began with a visit to the usual tourist sites such as the Brandenburger Tor. Accommodating Ben, Linda and Josh in Berlin was Ben’s classmate from law school and her husband, a German professor of economics. We stayed in much of the following day so Linda could rest, and Josh could catch up with some work. Then it was off to our first true Bavarian meal at Zum Haxenwirt, a Bavarian restaurant specializing in Schweinhaxen or roast pork legs. In fact orders have to be placed in advance. Throwing caution to the wind (not!) a “small” order had been requested. It was not a wise decision as they finished dinner wishing for more of the crackly pork roast!

Berlin was interesting to Ben because he had first visited the city forty years ago. Then, Berlin was “divided” into British, French, American and Russian zones. Ben only vaguely recalls crossing “Checkpoint Charlie”. However he definitely remembers observing soldiers patrolling the Berlin Wall.

A short video about the Berlin Wall.

Here is a photo Joshua took of one of the remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall:

Berlin wall 1 (1 of 1)

In Berlin, the party joined a fascinating tour of Street Art and Graffiti.

Ben in street art (1 of 1)

All over Berlin though, there are references to its political history. One cannot help but feel that the city remains in a transition. The best part about the trip to Berlin though was the opportunity to reconnect with old friends – and the extended conversations that ensued over long breakfasts and dinners.

Dubai was Ben and Linda’s very last stopover. Unfortunately they have no photos of Dubai (because Josh took the camera with him). The operating model of the city is however fascinating in the extreme. Emiratis comprise 12% of the workforce with foreigners making up the rest. Despite its modernity, the city feels like one massive bazaar (a Las Vegas for shopping). The difference between London and Dubai is that whilst the former is owned and operated by foreigners, the latter is only operated by foreigners. Dubai International Airport, essentially a refueling stop in the 1970s, recently overtook London’s Heathrow Airport as the world’s busiest international airport. It will be interesting to follow the fates of the two cities in the years ahead. Emirates, the Dubai based airline, is the world’s largest international airline boasting the world’s largest fleet of “wide-body” airplanes including 58 (89 on order) of the Airbus A380, the world’s largest aircraft.

If one thing was clear from their survey of cities, it is the inevitability of change – or more accurately discontinuous change. The lesson is clear; one should not assume that things will stay the same or extrapolate a future from the past.

“The wheel of change moves on, and those who were down go up and those who were up go down”
Jawarhalal Nehru

Our changing world (part 3)



How will our world change?

Our changing world (part 2) – Sensible Machines

Sensible: cognizant, keenly aware, capable of feeling and perceiving

Researchers have been working on artificial intelligence for a long time. In fact, 20 years ago Ben attended a “conceptual” introductory class on that area, and even wrote a simple rule-based program. But by then, it seemed as if “true” artificial intelligence was a long way off, if not a pipe dream. Then in 2013, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook presented “Anki” during their developer conference keynote and we had the sense that “AI” had arrived. Personal gratification – Anki had been developed in the labs of Ben’s alma mater. For more on Anki: https://anki.com/en

More recently, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and spinoff Sensible Machines, demonstrated an autonomous quadrotor for the United States Navy’s Office of Naval Research.

“With the micro-flyer, we wanted to show that it could autonomously navigate through the narrow hallways and doors — even in dense fire smoke — and locate fires,” said Thomas McKenna, ONR’s DC-21 program manager. “It succeeded at all those tasks. http://www.cs.cmu.edu/news/autonomous-drone-flies-dark-tight-quarters-assist-firefighting-inside-naval-vessels

This brings us to Watson, which IBM describes as a “cognitive technology that processes information more like a human than a computer”. In 2011, Watson defeated human champions in a Jeopardy challenge. Since then, IBM has been collaborating with partners in more and more fields to expand Watson’s “reach”.

How will artificial intelligence or cognitive technology change our world?