There used to be rules. Study hard. Work hard. Follow your passion. It will work out.
But for more and more people, it isn't.
Working people with mid-level skills are increasingly unable to sustain middle-class lives. Expenses are rising, real wages are declining, and some jobs have disappeared altogether, replaced by cheaper labor, computer algorithms, robots or... nothing at all.
According to a June report from Rutgers University, "About half of the recent high school graduates were able to obtain at least one fulltime job since they graduated from high school, but as of the survey, only 30 percent report being employed full time... The median hourly wage earned in the first job was only $7.50, a mere 25 cents above the federal minimum wage level."
Those fortunate enough to muster the financial resources to finish college are also finding themselves on the outside looking in. According to an April article from the Associated Press, "About 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor's degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years."
Our graduates' hearts may be filled with passion for their chosen fields, and their walls plastered with diplomas and degrees, but the market has delivered its verdict.
We don't care. About your preparation. About your passion. Or about your six-figure student loan debt.
What does the market care about? World-class skills, the kind worth paying world-class wages. And the generation of those skills isn't an automatic function of time spent in a classroom, or even the acquisition of a high-priced high school diploma or college degree.
And despite what the TV commercials might intone between now and November, our nation's underlying skills won't change no matter who wins this fall's elections unless each of us works to make that happen.
President Obama or Mitt Romney, if he were to be elected president, can't move in with our families to ensure academics are given appropriate attention. Neither can they get into our nation's classrooms to ensure they are designed to maximize learning -- but to some extent, ACT can.
Just this month, ACT announced we will complement our best-known assessment, "The ACT," taken by millions of students each year on their roads to college, with a next generation assessment system that begins in the early elementary years and continues through high school, postsecondary education and career.
The digital system combines classroom-level assessments that help students and teachers enhance learning on an ongoing basis with "summative" assessments that track progress over time so that individuals and institutions can make the most of their investments in education.
Some headline writers had fun with our announcement, suggesting we were offering career testing to kindergartners, which isn't true. But what is true is our collective need to make the most of every minute in the classroom so that when our young people enter the workplace, they're ready to succeed -- with success defined as the ability to earn a living wage, raise a family, and extend the American dream to another generation.
The truth is that there are still rules and, for the most part, they look a lot like the old rules.
Studying still matters. Hard work still matters. Passion still matters. But unless we help our young people develop the world-class skills required by our global economy (and that IS a new rule), there's a good chance it won't work out. And that's a tragedy for everyone involved.
By ensuring our students are pushing to their capacities day-after-day, month-after-month and year-after-year, together we can prepare our young people to someday walk across a graduation ceremony stage and into lifetimes of personal and professional success.
Those are the rules of a game worth winning.
Jon Whitmore is CEO of ACT, Inc., an independent, not-for-profit organization that provides a broad array of assessment, research, information, and program management solutions in the areas of education and workforce development.