Sunday, October 03, 2004

Education and career choices 

The Sunday Times today featured families in Singapore who sold their homes to finance their children’s education.

These families are not poor. The families featured appear to be middle-class families living on private property.

Rather, it’s that their children’s education — in overseas universities — is expensive. One couple was preparing to pay $500,000 for their daughter’s fees and other expenses to study in London.

Are such sacrifices worth it? Are the parents over-indulging their children?

I think it depends on exactly what proportion of the families’ total assets are being used. It’s not clear to me that the families featured would not be able to afford a comfortable life after financing their children’s education, since their total assets are not mentioned. It’s conceivable that the families sold their homes and moved to cheaper ones to maintain a comfortable cash buffer and not because they are actually hard up.

In fact, the couple mentioned above whose daughter will be studying in London actually sold their second home; they will continue to live in a semi-detached house. So it’s not quite the poorhouse for them.

Having said that, I hope that the families involved have really thought through their actions.

Young people, having not experienced much of life, often don’t know exactly what they want. Parents may indulge their children’s current desires to assuage a sense of guilt but it may not be the best course of action. How often have we heard stories of youths who find themselves stuck in careers that did not live up to their expectations?

Or even if they know what they would be happy with, are they aware that there may be alternatives available? Alternatives which may not tax their parents’ finances as much.

Very often, young people express their desires in terms of the university course or career that they want, for example, medicine, engineering or business. If the course or career is not available in Singapore, they look overseas.

But these courses or careers are usually not the underlying desires. These are just what they associate the underlying desires with.

For example, a person who wants to be a singer may simply want to be admired or popular. Once the latter is recognised, he or she may realise that careers like modeling or sports may be good substitutes, especially if he or she has good physical attributes that don’t quite include the vocal cords.

Similarly, a young person who grew up mesmerised by one of the charismatic national leaders like Bill Clinton or, here in Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew may be tempted to go into politics. But if it is power that he wants, he can just as well set up his own business and lord it over his employees instead.

Of course, I am by no means suggesting that young people not work toward their aspirations, or that parents should not support their children. Rather, young people should be aware what their underlying desires are and explore alternatives that exploit their strengths without placing excessive demands on attributes that they lack, including financial attributes.

And their parents, with their greater experience in life and greater understanding of the value of their hard-earned money, should help their children in deciding whether their choices are correct and whether the price paid is worth it.

Let me end with a story I remember reading many years ago.

There was this executive who was successful in his career, but his busy lifestyle made him feel highly stressed. So he decided to go to a remote monastery to learn how monks meditate and relax in the hope that this knowledge would help him cope with his job better. After a few months there, he became so comfortable with his new lifestyle that he gave up his job and took up monasticism.

An extreme example, perhaps, but never underestimate how your outlook in life can change with the right guidance.


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