In today’s climate we are faced with a number of challenges; some decades old, some brand new in response to a long and divisive presidential campaign. Regardless of which side of the aisle you are on – or if you will even agree to be on one side or the other these days – there are significant issues that need to be addressed if our society is to remain progressive and compassionate to its citizenry. While debate over “socialist” agendas equally inspire, challenge and infuriate the status quo, much of our bureaucratic infrastructure is outdated and in need of a substantial overhaul.
Irrespective of your affiliation, two social programs that are consistently at the forefront of public debate are public education and social support systems such as social security, Medicaid and Medicare. We want our children to develop a quality educational foundation that they can build on to create a great life for themselves and their families. Equally, we want to insure that there are adequate safety nets in place to support our disadvantaged, ageing, infirmed and those who cannot provide for themselves. Because of this, and what has been hinted at but not substantially investigated, is the effective quality of our schooling in light of its point of terminality – as in what amount of education is adequate to be successful in the 21st Century. Related, and as will be displayed, is the current culture of careerism and the inevitable role of retirement and the resultant reliance on social support systems for many upon the completion of one’s working life.
The Cardinal principles of Secondary Education were established in 1918 by the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education. While all tenets remain admirable, necessary and relevant, there has been little evolution of the core aspects of our socially-provided education which ends after the twelfth grade. Charles Prosser, known as the “father of vocational education,” said in 1945 that he did not believe that the majority of children in secondary education systems (high schools) would receive adequate enough training to be successful and provide for themselves with the then current model. He felt that American children were “entitled” to a well-rounded and diverse education that took into account all the essentials functions of our society; regardless of what your chosen trade would be, there was a need to be adequately educated in that field with no exceptions. However, what we have seen since the end of WWII is little change in regards to the existential development of the young mind in the public school system. Sure, we have the world’s premier college and university system, of which 65% of high school graduates pursue (with varying levels of success), but it remains to be seen in this day and age why we accept twelfth grade as an adequate minimum education. While it was still possible to attain the “American Dream” in 1980 with solely a high school diploma or GED, by the early to mid-90s this was no longer the case. In fact, as we get closer to 2020, solely having a bachelor’s degree is rarely enough to climb the ladder; master’s degrees have become the new minimum standard in many fields.
As our society continues to grow, and as technology and communication grow with it, it is a safe bet that a higher degree of specialization will become the new norm. We are not prepared for that – yet. Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders pushed the idea of a free college education for everyone whose family was under a certain income level; this did not sit well with Republicans or even many Democrats. The problem, though, was in Sanders’ framing, not the idea; it is not that we need to rob the public coffers or inflate taxes to put someone else’s kids through college, it is that we need to put all of our kids through college because a high school education is no longer adequate to provide a reasonable quality of life. This does not mean that people should be required to go to college; you are not required to go to high school past 14 years of age anyhow. However, if we want a society that can sustain itself and compete internationally, we need to rebuild our educational model. To think that what was adequate educationally in 1945 would still be adequate today is shortsighted at best.
We also need to consider the very important role of life experience as a complement to the extension of formal schooling. Since the time I finished my bachelor’s degree in 2001, and likely before that, it was expected that you would go right out of commencement and into a career. But the problem with that is, even with an extended formal education, the likelihood of knowing exactly what you want to do – let alone exactly who you are – at 22 or 23 is low. Because of this, those newly graduated wander, explore and stumble through jobs and life, trying to find their way. Speaking from firsthand experience, it can be both confusing and disheartening at times. Compounding this are societal expectations to be “productive” right out of the gates of college. If you are underemployed, working a “dead-end” job such as a clerk, server or barista, or god forbid, unemployed, you are seen as underperforming and taxing a society that still suffers from the remnants of the Protestant Work Ethic. While some wander, some inevitably fall in line and start a career which leaves them feeling unsatisfied and wanting. It should come as no surprise, then, that the average American changes jobs twelve times in their lives (Bureau of Labor Statistics). In addition to the outdated educational model, we need to revisit the expectations of our young adults in the liminal years post-graduation; finding oneself through worldly experiences and trial-and-error might actually be beneficial to society, especially when those twentysomethings are using their time, energy and creativity to affect our world for the better through volunteering, community engagement and creating opportunities to experience different peoples and different cultures.
When we restrict opportunities or potential for individual growth, especially in our young adults, we limit not only their development, but the potential of our society. While some see the defining years of one’s early 20s as wasted by many of that cohort, a recalibration of that perspective might find us realizing that if given the opportunity and encouragement to find one’s self in those interstitial years post-college, it might lead to finding a career one loves, and breaking the cycle of 5 years here, 5 years there, 5 years somewhere else, repeat. By encouraging Millennials (and those that follow) to not only explore, but to do so through becoming invested in their communities, wherever they choose to find them, we will see a renewed civic engagement that has not been evident since the Civil Rights era. We will also, more often than not, see the birth and blossoming of an individual who was well-nurtured into a contributing member of society; not one who is simply a round peg forced into a square hole.
The essential nature of people’s actions and activities that are not funded (or not funded well) are integral to keeping the wheels of society turning. It would be interesting to get a glimpse of a society that was absent of the undervalued roles that are essential to both its continual progress and its potential for adding to quality of life for all of us. For instance, if we removed school crossing guards, congregations that provide free meals and flu shots to the poor and infirm, neighborhood watch groups, groups that provide free labor for cherished public resources (4-H, Girl/Boy Scouts, fraternal organizations), pro bono services to the low income/ostracized contingent of society (lawyers, free clinics), non-traditional educational initiatives (Kahn Academy, TED Talks and other free offerings from colleges and high schools), inter/national service organizations (Teach for America, AmeriCorps, Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders), and the people that provide extracurricular guidance for youth (Boy/Girl Scouts, afterschool sports/arts/music programs), our society would collapse into a shell of its former self, and lose its status as the model of a progressive society.
These actors indirectly buy into the concept of mechanical solidarity; having a common conscience. This is something that is missing from our society today, though has been embraced by our music/arts communities wholeheartedly for generations. In this estimation, a functional society is only possible through people filling all the roles and this very much includes the intangible, unscripted and overlooked efforts described above. The remnants of the Protestant Work Ethic are still very much alive; we still measure ourselves by our jobs and view our happiness/success through the same lens. When you are seen as underemployed and/or your employment does not meet your standards/expectations, which we learn from society, we see ourselves, and are likely seen by many, as not contributing to society. We are wasting our talent.
Now the counterpoint is that through these activities in this “unproductive” time we are able to refine ourselves which is arguably to the benefit of society. We travel and meet people and have interesting conversations that cause us to step outside of our comfort zones; we have rewarding social/personal experiences that became cherished memories; we can be physically active and exercise a lot which leads to being a healthier person (which is good for society and the social support system); we can volunteer a lot which allows us to give back to the social support system that holds up our society; we are forced to refine our focus which causes us to be a potentially more productive member of society when we eventually enter our profession; we learn new skills and learn about programs that are essential to health and well-being in others; and we are able to take that education and organize it into what mattered and what did not going forward. A “year off” (or two, or three…) can actually be beneficial to our careers, our productivity and our ability to give back to society. It forces us to reckon with our situation and take stock thus making sure there was no more wasted energy in our direction forward and our ambitions; if we have time to work on things that would be our eventual tools of the trade and develop skillsets we will become more efficient. Not being rushed into a career allows time to process what had taken place over the last four (or more) years.
It may prove that it is beneficial for people to have this time to process “what happened” in their lives and make sense of it. If there were a system in place that allowed people time to rejuvenate instead of getting stuck in a monotonous rhythm, it would lead to creativity and rebirth that would arguably make society more productive in the long-run. At the pace our society runs, we’re in a hurry to get nowhere. The price of broadband “efficiency” is the inability to understand the process. We try to force the essence of someone, of what someone should be, before we acknowledge their existence. We expect growth to be linear when time and again it is proven that that is quite simply often not the case. It is circular. The whole point of an education (which involves everything you do in your life) is to understand it, apply it, and have it lead to a productive result. We’re always in such a rush to get from Point A to Point B that we fail to recognize the importance of the streets that we took to get there; we miss the forest for the trees, as the aphorism goes.
It is arguably better for society to have that “unproductive” (I say that tongue-in-cheek) time take place in earlier life than later life these days anyhow. As our society ages, we’re more capably productive longer. Retirement at or around 65 is still the norm, but health issues aside, most of us could work until we were 80 with no problem (many want to). This would positively affect the social support systems by not requiring people to drain social security and Medicare, offset chronic conditions that come on from idle bodies/minds, reverse the paradigm of ageism and seeing the “elderly” as incontinent and incapable, and most importantly, spare our children from having to rush into a life that doesn’t serve their interests and happiness which they haven’t even come close to figuring out.
So, you might ask, doesn’t that just shift the burden of social support to the younger generation? No, because the younger generation needs less to survive. Sleeping on couches or camping for the summer is fine. Having 5-8 “kids” (young adults) in a house is normal anyhow. They have far less health issues and need less medical attention and medicine. Underemployment would then shift to being viewed as the right amount of employment and low-end jobs would be less stigmatized because the emphasis is no longer on career development but personal growth. Working at Starbucks or pumping gas may have no glamor, but the people you work with, the ideas you develop, the dreams you start to envision all find room to grow when you’re in these liminal stages of life working what would no longer be viewed as dead-end jobs. The emphasis wouldn’t be on the fact that youth are lacking direction, or are working below their potential, but that they are doing just what they’re supposed to be doing: learning how to live life so that they are happy which will surely lead towards finding a calling where they can start their career at 30 or 35 and still work 40 years. If we rush them through school, and chastise them for their lack of direction or unproductivity, we are essentially just laying the foundation for their eventual depression and ultimate reliance on substances (TV, caffeine, booze, drugs, emotional abuse and materialism). Their earning power will be greater once they’ve accumulated a wider array of skills, developed a larger social/professional network, established a clear personal vision (as opposed to changing careers every 5 years as is now the norm), and have that wisdom that is essential to making intelligent decisions for the organizations they’ll come to represent. Add to that the potential for a universal sabbatical system which encourages the population to take time off to get realigned and re-educated, and you’ll see a system that supports people wholeheartedly and holistically not for any specific expedited ends, but for a very essential means that lasts a lot longer than the current model.