Today young people need help charting their path long before college.

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My son is trying to decide what his college major will be.

In the great scheme of things that’s a wonderful problem to have, but up close it doesn’t seem so. It feels as if he is about to step into the dark onto a path that will determine the rest of his life.

Will he be happy or miserable, rich or poor, productive or not?

I keep asking myself: How do people successfully decide what to do with their lives?

Well, of course, you figure out what you are good at, what you enjoy and then you do that, assuming it will pay enough to keep a roof over your head.

It’s clear and simple, and it seems to work often enough for people who have all that information. But the stakes are higher and conditions very different for this generation than for mine.

Soaring college costs are creating barriers to access. People have a wider range of aptitudes and interests than college is designed for, and there are many job categories that are not served by a college degree.

Technology, a weak economy and globalization have drastically altered the job market.

I keep reading that earning a B.A. is no longer a guarantee of a solid middle class life, especially when the degree is in the liberal arts.

Education is about more than getting a job, but these days that aspect has heightened importance. People ask, how does what schools provide fit with what employers need?

Figuring that out is important to the entire economy. Matching people to work that fits who they are is good for the economy and the individual.

The luxury of options is still relatively new.

My wife and I have been watching the British television series “Downton Abbey” recently. Finding one’s place in the world is a theme that runs through the story. It’s set in the early 20th century when class-dictated roles were under considerable strain.

The farmer’s son has made his mother proud by becoming a footman for a lord. The lord has one job, which is to be lord, and this particular one feels unfulfilled in that role, but an actual career would be beneath him. Nearly every character has some angst about his or her position.

The series is a reminder how recent a thing choice is. Even today, having options is not so widespread as we might like to think, even in the U.S.

I don’t know that we’ve got the hang of fitting people to their best use.

When the miller’s son is no longer automatically a miller, how do these things get sorted out?

In some European countries, the education system makes a lot of choices for you. Students are sorted out early in their school careers, and not all of them wind up on the college-bound conveyor.

There is a certain efficiency in that model.

There was a lot more screening and sorting in the United States before World War II, but afterward, the GI bill and social changes kept expanding the pool of students who saw college as an important step in creating a life for themselves.

It seemed for a moment that we were on a trajectory that would have every young person go to college and come out the other side a thoughtful, well-informed citizen with a great career. But those other realities I mentioned earlier intervened. So we have to be more intentional about preparing young people for work life.

I wouldn’t trust rigid sorting to be fair, or even accurate. I favor giving young people more help finding their path themselves.

It is possible to assess aptitude, talents, personality and make suggestions based on that understanding.

Doing that in high school, or earlier would be beneficial to students and the community. But how likely is that when schools have been cutting back on even basic career counseling for lack of money.

I took it for granted that my son would stumble onto the right course for him, the way I did.

He’ll probably do fine, but these days, leaving that to chance is not good policy.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.