How We’ve Failed a GenerationPosted: March 20, 2013
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:
The Meaning of Education (guest post from My Not So Humble Wife)