I got an email from a reporter the other day I thought I’d share with you all! Because I am preparing for the webinar on “The Launch” coming up later this month (email me for more info), his email triggered a small rant (below). I’d love your comments.
Here’s what got me started:
The reporter, Steve Fox, writes for SPAN, a publication produced by the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi with the objective of explaining America to a high-end audience of Indians–lawyers, doctors, legislators, executives, etc. He’s working on a piece explaining why, as he puts it, “we in the U.S. put such a high value on working voluntarily at an early age—the paper route, the lemonade stand, clerking in a store, helping out on the family farm or in the family business, that kind of thing. I’ve explained,” Fox continued, “that things have changed in the U.S. and that, in the current environment, with high unemployment and the prevalence of illegal workers, many jobs that might have been done by teenagers or college students are being filled by someone else.” But they [SPAN] want an article nonetheless, partially because the value system in India is much different—middle-class kids there would not be encouraged to work. So I wonder if you would be wiling to give me your thoughts. Is it the Protestant work ethic, capitalism, or values of learning self-reliance that make a difference here?
Because of the webinar and the white paper we’re about to publish on “How Great Families Launch Twenty Somethings,” I have spent a lot of time thinking about this question. This is what I wrote back to him:
The values you describe (work ethic, early work for success) are still core and active across dominant US cultures. And there is still an equation linking work with worth here in the US. Across all income groups, the idea that you do nothing and pursue idleness is anathema, embarrassing somehow. Philanthropy in the United States is another genuine form of meaningful work. But you’re right that the game has changed.
The work we’re doing on ‘The Launch’ phase of family development emerged from families asking us for help getting twenty-somethings ‘launched’ into independent, self-sufficient lives. Subsidy of adult children is a rising problem in this country, across all income groups and the drive to ‘help kids get on track’ is a reflection of our sense that work and worth are connected.
As I first started to work on this issue, I admit to having leaned toward the bias that we were dealing with ‘slacker kids’ and overly protective parents (my own work ethic writ large, front and center). But I was wrong. Even very well connected families with kids who are quite accomplished are finding that entry into the work world—and even the volunteer work world—is pretty challenging.
Here’s why: whole industries are shifting and collapsing. Publishing, which use to swallow up thousands of entry level kids hardly exists as we once knew it. It’s social media now and at the entry level it doesn’t pay. Finance has consolidated and replaced low level jobs with technology, law firms are parking associates in non-profits until things ‘pick up’, taking up non-profit slots entry level kids might have taken. And as manufacturing collapsed, ‘middle class’ and working class adults are moving into what would otherwise have been entry level jobs.
The work ethic is very much alive. How to exercise it is getting more challenging. Meanwhile the department of labor just issued guidelines on internships, making the unpaid route to your first job harder. They had to, abuses were rampant. But still, getting a foot in the door for kids who can AFFORD to work free and want to work is even harder.
Which takes us to my new mantra and the new cry you will be hearing more of (and that we’re working with families on): “You can’t assume your kids will be able to take a job; they will have to learn how to MAKE a job.” Slacker kids will in fact have an ever harder time getting established, but the worry is that kids with a driving work ethic will be struggling too. Everything we’re doing with young people these days is aimed at building their entrepreneurial skills, supporting their most tenacious drives, trying to buttress that connection between early work and experience and later engagement in purposeful, meaningful lives (this is not JUST about the money, it’s about building great lives).
It may be that out there in the future I cannot yet see there is a more laid back, less work driven vision of existence that the next generation will morph into. And maybe that’s a good thing. For the moment at least, the best I can say is that we are ‘in transition.’
What do you think? Is there a new work ethic? Is our thinking unique?