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Collegian ponders the entrepreneurial dream

With the golden era of job security fading, CNET intern looks to today's young innovators for career inspiration.

The fact that Social Security may run out by 2052 isn't exactly news, but it continues to upset me, especially after an obscenely large portion of the measly paycheck from my internship flew out of my pocket into the rapidly depleting fund.

According to a recent BusinessWeek cover story titled "Valley Boys," however, I shouldn't be too concerned about my retirement stash or whether the government will support me in my old age. That's because young people like me can look to Web 2.0 stars in the making, such as Digg.com founder Kevin Rose, Tom Anderson of MySpace.com and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, as examples of entrepreneurs who came up with an idea and ran with it--with lucrative (or potentially lucrative) results.

Gone are the days when college students could count on graduating with an English major, landing a solid job with generous benefits, working until retirement and living out their old age with a fair pension. Even though my college graduating class will churn out its fair share of doctors and lawyers, many of my peers will likely look to entrepreneurship as a way to establish their own financial security.

Am I really going to learn to make a splash in the pool of life by taking Economics 101?

As I retire my favorite flip-flops and purchase a winter jacket in preparation to leave Palo Alto, Calif., for my freshman year of college on the East Coast, I can't help but wonder: Am I really going to learn to make a splash in the pool of life by taking Economics 101? Or will my ultimate career path be more like the ones pursued by the Silicon Valley tech mavericks featured in the BusinessWeek article?

Rose and his ilk have given students like myself a new model for career planning. Instead of applying for steady jobs that pay modest salaries until retirement, they looked for that one innovative idea to sell to a huge company for an amount of money rivaling the GDP of Denmark.

Of course, building a start-up these days is even more like winning the lottery than it was in the boom of the mid-'90s. With Wall Street less trusting of public companies than it was in round one of the bubble, companies can only hope to be acquired by a giant (as happened with News Corp.'s 2005 acquisition of Intermix Media, owner of MySpace). Still, the resurgence of tech entrepreneurship, mostly in the form of technology related to Web 2.0 sites featuring user-generated content and interactive features, suddenly makes Rose's potentially highly profitable reality seem like a possibility.

These days--even though it seems that you need a college education if you don't want a job that requires wearing a paper hat and asking "would you like fries with that?"--traditional college educations seem to have less bearing on students' future careers than they did for our parents.

For example, the 30-year-old Anderson, the famous Tom of MySpace, graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a bachelor's in rhetoric and English, which he followed up with a master's in film and critical studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is now the founder of arguably the most successful social-networking Web site ever. Zuckerberg was a psychology major before dropping out of Harvard University, and Chad Hurley, co-founder of YouTube.com, earned a bachelor's in fine arts from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Thirty years ago these technology mavens would probably be teaching or writing movie reviews for the Village Voice, counseling middle-schoolers and teaching fifth grade art class.

Just to compare, my father (he won't let me publish his age, but he grew up with the Beatles and goes to bed at 10 every night) graduated with a bachelor's, a master's and a Ph.D. in economics. Since earning his doctorate, he has worked in a huge variety of jobs that drew upon the diverse set of skills he collected in school; he was a professor of economics and then worked as an economist with several consulting firms.

In the next 10 days I will leave for college, and in the five days after that, I will have to register for courses. Students around the country are faced with the same daunting choice: what classes to take. Apart from the obvious "no" classes (none that have required reading or begin before noon), it's hard to figure out a schedule.

Although I look forward to academic exploration, I wonder which college experiences will prepare me best for "the real world." Too bad Wellesley doesn't offer courses titled How to Build the World's Perfect Search Engine 101 or Freshman Introduction to Social Networking. I have a feeling I might major in English, but watch out for my new Web site: something.highly.technical.and.scientific.com.