Why are we teaching our children to be selfish?

There is something seriously wrong about the dreams that the we have for our children.

Possibly still scarred by the jobless 1970s, the dreams of most middle-class parents are limited to their children securing a comfortable job — either by sitting for the engineering entrance examinations or by trying for a ‘safe’ government job. If they are more ambitious, they dream of their children going abroad, possibly through an onsite project in an IT firm, and then settling there.

But why sell our children short like this? Why do we only want them to become insignificant cogs in some meaningless wheel, when this big, imperfect world is waiting for them to make it better? Why not think of their future as unbiased judges, fearless journalists, idealistic politicians or innovative entrepreneurs?

Why do we want our children only to be cogs in some large, meaningless wheel?

I am not for a moment suggesting that we should force them onto the path of law, media or government or business instead of engineering or medicine or corporate slavery. It is not that one type of job is superior to the other. But it is a fact that the society puts certain careers on a pedestal and ignores the potential of some others.

Parents force their children to study engineering. Media glorifies the entry-level salaries of newly minted MBAs. Subtly but surely, a force builds up that glamourizes certain careers, shaping the aspirations of young students. Before long, they pursue a dream not knowing that the dream is not really theirs.

This force must be countered.

But before that, we must understand with greater clarity how this force builds up.

The root of this was probably the job-starved decades of 1970–80 — which still traumatize the middle class. As a result, a ‘secure’ job becomes a priority. Though post-liberalization, there has been an explosion of jobs in many areas, pre-liberalization safe options like engineering, medicine and government jobs continue to be the top aspirations.

Media adds to this myth. There are countless articles about IITs and IIMs which focus on astronomical entry-level salaries. Recently, in a parent meeting in my school I asked the parents, “How much do you think an IIM grad gets in his first job?” The answer was, “Minimum 20–25 lakhs per year. Some even get 60–70 lakhs per year.”

The truth is, those figures are grossly exaggerated. Parents, who as children have always been weak in math, suddenly discover a newfound talent in multiplication when they hear of dollar salaries. As a result, a $60,000 salary with a potential 50% bonus becomes $90,000 (of course, my child will be the best, and will get the maximum bonus possible!), and is promptly multiplied by the exchange rate of 65 to arrive at 60 lakhs per year!

A dollar salary should never be quoted in rupees, because the cost of living in different countries vary considerably. Purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rate tends to be very different from currency exchange rate prevailing in the market. But who has time for subtlety? Sensationalism wins, and wrong dreams are born.

But you might ask — what’s wrong with these dreams? Surely the world needs the investment bankers, app developers and FMCG marketers? But the point is that the world seems to be having too many of them now, so their services often need to be aggressively sold. Investment bankers spend a lot of time convincing copycat e-commerce companies raise funds to subsidize yet another record-breaking loss-making year. FMCG marketers explain to us through full-page ads the subtle benefit of this shampoo vis-à-vis another nearly identical one. App developers sell yet another civilization game to bored teenagers.

Among this frenzy of aggressive selling to people who already have plenty, the real needs of the world are neglected. We shake our head in dismay when the justice system does not work, yet it does not cross our mind that our brightest children can possibly be lawyers and judges. Yes, some do traverse paths which are different, but we cannot say that society encourages them along the way.

We endlessly talk about the poor quality of TV news debates. We talk about poorly researched news and outright fake news being circulated by newspapers. But most of us do not want our children to become journalists and news anchors. If you are good at studies, you must pursue science — goes the scientific argument.

If you go to our villages, you will see there are many technological solutions possible which can improve their livelihoods in a fundamental way. Such solutions can improve lives and can also be financially lucrative for developers. Yet our developers continue selling unwanted games to people who already have plenty.

I’m not saying that we need to look at what the world needs before we decide on a career choice — obviously one needs to ensure one’s own survival and prosperity. But it is an Indian myth that there is only a few routes to prosperity — engineering, MBA, corporate and government jobs. If you are talented and hard-working, you can surely attain success being an entrepreneur, educator, policymaker, journalist, judge or an activist!

Some of those fields do require top talent. A judge, for example, needs to be unbiased, logical, diligent and empathetic. As a person wielding almost godlike power over seekers of justice, she should be extraordinarily capable. As the Aarushi case demonstrated to us, people with such powers must not be susceptible to common prejudices and foibles.

A journalist needs to have exemplary courage to seek the truth and a strong analytical mind to interpret the confusing world to us. They also need to be great communicators to explain the issue at hand simply and logically. We need such confluence of talent for this profession, yet we do not encourage our bright children to become one.

Our teaching profession needs top talent too. Teachers need to be successful in real life to prepare our children for life. They need to communicate well and be empathetic. Most importantly, they need to have an agile mind to constantly interpret the ever-changing world for the students, rather than be restricted to subjects and curricula. But it will be a blasphemy to suggest that a top-student should become a teacher in a school.

I can go on. We need talented people to join our police force and the political arena. We need them to start innovative businesses. Surely, many talented people do join those professions. Some choose them and some accidentally chance upon them. But as a society, those are not pursued as vigorously as engineering, MBA and corporate careers. If you disagree, see the number of coaching centers devoted to entrance exams of engineering and MBA — and compare that with other professions.

Middle-class parents must get out of this obsession with ‘safe’ careers. If only they stop acting as the career counsellors for their children, we may have a more competent and content workforce. Let’s not push our children towards a compromised life, just for a few moments of bragging rights about possessions and professions.

Do not teach your children aspire for ‘safe’ jobs. Your children can have the whole world as their playground, why push them towards a small cubicle?

Founder, The Levelfield School. Writes on education and society.