An overwhelming majority of American high school students and their parents (90 percent) believe the most profitable areas of invention in the 21st century will be telecommunications, computing and health care -- the same "tried and true" fields that are driving today's supercharged economy.
These and other findings of the Lemelson-MIT Program's annual Invention Index indicate that the rapid advances in technology and health care are making an impact on today's high school students and helping shape their career interests.
When asked to forecast the single most profitable industry for inventors in the next century, technology was clearly the top choice of both students and parents: a combined 51 percent think the technology and telecommunications boom will persist into the next century, followed by health care (39 percent), consumer products and entertainment (each with 30 percent), and environment and energy (26 percent). Industrial manufacturing is considered the least promising, receiving mentions from only 5 percent of respondents.
DIFFERING VIEWS ON ENTERTAINMENT
When broken out between students and parents, similar percentages of each select technology as their top choice. However, students and parents hold widely different outlooks for the entertainment industry. While 42 percent of students believe entertainment and leisure will be profitable for inventors in the next century (the second-highest percentage among students), only 19 percent of parents feel the same, placing it fifth on their profitability list.
In a separate component of the 1999 study, the Lemelson-MIT Program examined the career preferences of high school students and their parents. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of all respondents say they would opt for careers involving the Internet or computing, if given a choice. In fact, Internet and computing careers were cited almost twice as often as the next-most popular response -- becoming an entrepreneur/inventor or a creative professional/graphic designer (38 percent each). Thirty percent named teacher/professor as their preference.
According to Professor Lester C. Thurow, economist and the Lemelson-MIT board chairman, the study's findings are an accurate reflection of the prevalence and influence of technology in society.
"One of the interesting things about America is how rapidly our youth, when they are planning their careers, rush toward what they think are the new opportunities and away from those they think are old," he said. "In a short period of time, the vision of being a doctor or financier has been replaced by the vision of invention and technical entrepreneurship. To make this shift a reality, a very different skill set will need to be generated than that now being produced in our educational organizations. Math and science are going to have to be better taught and enrollments are going to have to soar."
The high overall percentage of technology responses is skewed somewhat by a greater proportion of parents who would opt for a career in technology (71 percent). Student career choices are somewhat more evenly spread among the five different fields: technology (56 percent); creative professional/graphic design (40 percent); entrepreneur/inventor (38 percent); teacher/professor (32 percent) and doctor/medical professional (28 percent).
The Invention Index survey of 300 high school students and 300 of their parents was conducted by the Lemelson-MIT Program, whichdevelops initiatives to encourage young people to pursue careers in invention-related fields. The program has conducted the annual, nationwide survey for the past four years to determine public opinion on various invention-related topics.
For more information on the survey and the program, see the web site at
A version of this article appeared in the June 9, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 33).