Earlier in the week I spent two days at a conference on the future of liberal arts colleges. Like many established, successful American institutions, liberal arts colleges confront galewinds of change, including changing demographics, stagnant to falling family incomes, student debt burdens and the high cost of attendance.
Little wonder the themes of transformation and innovation, as well as focusing on core values and creating collaborations, came up repeatedly. A uniquely American institution — the liberal arts college — is once again reinventing itself for a different economy and society.
Of course, while absorbing insights about the liberal arts, it struck me that there were some parallel personal finance themes to highlight. For instance, in a conversation with John Lawlor, head of the Lawlor Group, a higher education market research and consulting firm, he talked about the journey of life, the exciting zigs and zags into different jobs and careers over a lifetime (at least with the benefit of hindsight) and the constant learning that comes from new adventures. "I'm still discovering who I am!" he said, laughing.
Another conversation with Jon McGee, vice president for planning and public affairs at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, emphasized a related point: the critical importance of curiosity. With the ups and downs we all go through, curiosity will hold you in good stead.
Multiple careers. Learning. Curiosity. Discovery. What increasingly unites talent today — from newly minted college graduates to aging boomers — is the drive to find both meaning and money, purpose and a paycheck at the workplace. Changes in the economy, society, technology and education encourage the notion of multiple careers. People are living longer, on average. This is the world where the values of a liberal arts education should flourish.
The personal finance implication of embracing the journey and following your curiosity is that money and money management should support freedom of choice and multiple careers over a lifetime. This perspective is a way of cutting through the onslaught of money management marketing and product pitches.
Forget the siren song of master limited partnerships, equity-indexed annuities and so on. Ask yourself: Do financial products like these really help you embrace change over time? Frankly, most of us will do much better putting 20 percent of income into safe savings, investing for retirement with low-cost index funds and keeping debt down.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, "Marketplace," economics commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.