How We’ve Failed a Generation

I’ve gone on at length before about young people starting out in jobs today, and truth be told my opinion hasn’t materially changed since then. I have been listening to stories from others, however, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: it isn’t just me. Everyone I talk to seems to feel the same way. And it isn’t just the employers, it’s the teachers too (I know more than a couple). This got me to thinking that maybe the problem, dear Brutus, lies not in our employees but in ourselves.

I remember back to when I was in high school and even elementary school (no, dinosaurs didn’t walk the Earth; we even had indoor plumbing), and I can remember being a part of the very leading edge of what has been cited by most of the teachers I have spoken with as the biggest issue of all: the Self-Esteem Movement. For those of you who are not familiar with this, it was the idea that no child should be made to feel bad about themselves, because children who have good self-esteem succeed. It should be self-evident that this is a matter of putting the cart before the horse, and if it isn’t then after a decade or so of bad results I would have expected they would have given it up, but from what I hear every child still gets a trophy (or a ribbon, or what have you).


I’ll admit, I was a little slow on the uptake with this one. I was thrilled to get a trophy at first. Granted, back then they still gave out different size trophies for first, second, third, and “congratulations, you showed up”, but still, I was thrilled to get one. Sue me, I was eight. A few years later when I got my first big boy trophy (for second place) I realized what a sham all the rest of them were, and the truth is it not only cheapened the “also ran” trophies, it even tarnished the big one a little. The idea that I had been feeling good about something that I never really earned took away from the real victory when I finally got it. I’ve heard some places get around this by giving everyone the same size trophies.

Likewise, I have heard tales of schools were students are not allowed to be given failing grades. I fail to see how this is in any way constructive. I was threatened with failure more than once in school, and let me tell you, it is an excellent motivator. Not only that, but life does not protect us from failure. Either we succeed or we do not, and while there may be a sliding scale of success in many cases, the absence of the possibility of failure is a luxury we are rarely afforded, so it is a poor lesson to impart at any age.

But I don’t want to reserve all of my vitriol for the school system. The fact is that as employers, in many cases, we are doing ourselves a disservice as well. When we interview employees, how often are we asked “what will this job entail?” To be honest, I get this question more often than you think, and to my shame, I don’t give nearly as honest a response as I should. Why? Because I actually want to hire someone, and if I told people what the job actually requires, nine times out of ten they wouldn’t take it. That’s not to say the job is abusive, but it’s not “big-thinking”, “creative”, “decision-making” stuff, at least in most cases. In most cases the work can be summed up in one word: spreadsheets.

So I do what everyone does: I soft-sell the job, try to oversell the good parts and downplay the bad parts instead of giving a full and honest accounting of what it’s going to be like, as if I’m a used car salesman and they’re the latest sucker – excuse me, customer to come on the lot. Then they take the job, because they don’t have the experience to ask the probing questions or see past the sunshine, and six months later they’re dissatisfied, disappointed, and despondent, and I’m none too thrilled with their performance. So who’s really to blame, them or me?

We’re saddling kids with an unrealistic understanding of how the world works before they enter the work force, and then giving them unrealistic expectations before they begin the job. After all that, we fault them for not succeeding. I’m not saying they shouldn’t take any responsibility for their own success (because it’s time we expect at least that much of them), but I do think it’s time we stop making it harder for them to succeed than it has to be.


Other posts you might like:

Fashion Advice for the Professional Gentleman

On Achieving Work-Life Balance

The Meaning of Education (guest post from My Not So Humble Wife)


8 Comments on “How We’ve Failed a Generation”

  1. I’ve never thought about this! Of course, i’ve always been disgruntled by the “work ethic” of even my peers. on the flip side of that, my “work ethic” was unhealthy and led to many many panic attacks and eventually a nervous breakdown. i don’t think it’s unrealistic, however to expect a balance between the two extremes.

    • Bob Bonsall says:

      You’d be surprised by how often I’ve seen this. Not so say that it’s more common than the “I’m better than this” attitude, but I’ve known more than a couple people in the Millennial generation who went to that extreme. I wonder if this is a characteristic of how Millennials are being raised, or a reaction in some of them to the perceived failings of their peers and the “splash effect” of that failing they feel the need to overcome.

  2. froggie2112 says:

    Bob you have nailed this topic. I have had so many debates on this topic alone. There are so many out there who are blind to this and cannot see it. The “no child left behind” program does not work. I have the living proof of it in my own home. I have three teenagers who I drill daily trying to break them of what the school system has made them. They can only write because of what I thought them, not because of the school systems. The schools are so worried about standardized testing, no one failing, everyone being on equal footing, no one is better than the other… It just blows my mind. The no bullying laws are just as bad. I agree bullying is bad. There is a HUGE problem now. Back in the day (mind you I am only 39), minor school yard fights allowed for tension to blow off. Kids could have arguments and disagreements without fear that it would be considered “bullying” and being suspended. If a child brushes up against another child in the hallway by accident causing the other to bump into say a wall or a something, that can be considered physical violence and that child can be suspended. They are making pansies out of our children. If they want them to live in Utopia, well they need to give them all a bunch of happy pills and lock them away in the loony bin.

    I worry about what today’s graduating class. I have interviewed a few for entry level jobs. They have high expectations. They expect to paid a lot of money and to do minimal work. I had a temp one time who came in wearing his pants “sagging” so you could see his boxers. Our work environment allows us to wear jeans (we are lucky). I had to explain to him he couldn’t do that. I also explained to him that for all future jobs he had it was not professional and would not be taken well. The little old ladies we have working here had a field day laughing at him behind his back. They lack work ethics (well ethics in general). We failed in training them the basic rules of society in general. I am worried.

    • Bob Bonsall says:

      This is one I have mixed feelings on to be honest. As far as No Child Left Behind, there’s not a single teacher I know (and I know a few) who like it. They feel they are forced to “teach to the test” rather than actually teaching the kids, but they are held responsible for the effects of the “learning factories” the law has created.

      As far as bullying, I was bullied more than a little as a kid, so I’m very sensitive to this issue. While I do think “zero tolerance” is too strict of a policy, again I have to have a certain amount of sympathy for the teachers and administrators. I’ve heard too many horror stories from their side of the fence about “helicopter parents” who will complain about even the slightest issue with their child, so they can’t afford to take any risks. It’s a no win situation for them.

      The end result is like the situation you describe: kids who have no idea of what are appropriate standards in the work environment, leaving them to learn fast or learn hard.

      • froggie2112 says:

        I agree with you. I have many friends who are teachers and they hate the new requirements for teaching. They cannot teach a child anymore. It is really sad. I believe there needs to be boundaries on bullying, but “zero tolerance” goes too far. I have a son who wouldn’t harm a bug who was suspended for a week because he tripped, fell, and bumped into a kid in the locker room. The other kid fell and got bruised. There were other kids including the kid that got hurt who stated it was an accident. He tripped. All because the other kid got hurt, it was ruled violent behavior and so my son got a mini vacation at home. See even if he had intentionally harmed the other kid suspending them for a week is not punishment. Parents no longer discipline their children any longer (except for me). Hopefully things will adjust themselves. It has to happen eventually.

      • Bob Bonsall says:

        Situations like this are ridiculous, but unfortunately I hear about them with increasing frequency. I hope you’re right that the pendulum will swing back toward reasonableness eventually.

  3. It’s interesting working with younger folk new to the workforce. I have an assistant who’s 26 and married, smart and hard-working, with no sense of entitlement. But she’s shocked (!?) when she calls and emails people on my behalf who simply ignore her. That’s it’s boring, tedious and annoying — and called work! That’s why I hired her, to offload lower-value work to someone else. Because if she did not do these boring tedious tasks, I would have to — because they have to get done!

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