I can’t help but notice how many young men and women kind of glaze over and mentally back away when I describe independence and freedom. I can see what it is. When I talk to them, their dreams are of being an employee. Not for its own sake, not because it benefits them, not because it does the world some good, not for any reason, really.
It’s because it’s the menu they have to choose from. Their mental template for work is bound up not in the work itself, or even what best furthers that work, but in a certain kind of work relationship that achieves a kind of social approval through conventionality.
Respectability, acceptability, these have been trained into them since childhood, as being bound up in where society places you on a grid. With their mother’s milk, they take in a world awash in the public spectacle of work and approval as an integral system.
Politicians, soldiers, police, firefighters, and on are held up not just because some of them are heroes, and some are corrupt, but because even when they are scandalous and ridiculous, there’s an underlying respectability and approval attributed to the position. You can’t be disappointed in what you didn’t hold on a pedestal in the first place.
There was an era where a child could want to be an inventor, something that’s now considered quackery – like becoming a cryptozoologist. Later, a child could admire the “scientist” who made earth-shaking discoveries. What, exactly, is a scientist now? Is it a technologist? That’s nearly everyone – nearly every position, or soon will be. Is it someone who utilizes science? That’s like saying they breathe air or utilize machines. No one is a scientist now – they’re botanists, microbiologists, or pathologists, but not “scientists”.
In other words, at one time innovation was the admirable trait, and it was the trait of a singular individual, or a small group, or a particular class of people. With accelerated specialization (even the term microbiologist is probably becoming too broad) and with the social fallout from the 1960s (you didn’t achieve something, the team did, we all contributed, even if we just watched), we’ve traded in one of the key motivators to exalt work over mere employment.
What do the “scientists” in Jurassic Park want? Grant money. That’s the maximum independence you can hope for in a world in which going it alone makes you a bit nuts.
We need to give our children new dreams. Not in the sense of controlling them or feeding them ideology. But we need to make it more than just OK to *not* dream of the perfect *job*, to not make one’s highest aspiration where you fit in within a corporate structure, and whether a larger society finds that acceptable, admirable, respectable.
We are not born to be cogs. We are a species built for innovating our own individual vocations, and the conditions most conducive to that are the ability to remain *open* to the conditions most conducive to that. Whether that’s a lifetime of contracting, offering your services to whoever will pay the highest and give you the most freedom, or it’s flying your own flag (isn’t it strange that even the Pirates of the Carribbean are more inspiring than the well-employed naval soldiers chasing them?), or it’s becoming a free agent.
The messages we pretend to deny as adults come through loud and clear to kids. If the guy with the office promotion gets the girl and is invited to dinner at the parents’ house, and the self-employed contractor is either nowhere to be seen or is made out to be a bum, or is the one the parents *don’t* want to marry their daughter, then it’s pretty darned clear. And isn’t there still a lot of sexism in it – what are girls being told – that it’s a potential option, not only realistically but admirably and wonderful – to farm out their services to the highest bidder? Or are they being told that’s almost dirty thinking, and girls need to focus on “stability” – whatever that is?
One may not *like* the questions, but they *are* worthwhile questions. Here’s a thought exercise (or you can actually do it, if you doubt it). Pick a day, pick a variety of movies (arguably enough, movies are capsules of our general messages as a culture) – a couple of romantic comedies, a couple of high school teen angst movies, and a couple of action flicks, and write down the characters, what they do for a living, and how they are portrayed in the film in terms of their desirability, respectability, acceptability, likeability. You know what you’ll learn? Nothing. Because you already know what it’s going to be like. And I’m still going to tell you.
The conventional office jockey and employee is going to be portrayed as miserable, overworked, shallow, ridiculous, and unsexy. The rogue maverick who goes his own way, innovates, or does something outside the box, will be presented as the opposite – the hero – the desirable – the loved. You might think this disproves my point, but wait for it…
You will also note that in exchange for all the well-acknowledged, perhaps even exaggerated agony, mediocrity and abuse (perhaps not exaggerated, if you had to cram a lifetime of traditional employment into 90minutes), the standard employee gets… stability, security, conventionality. In fact, chances are the stuffy parents like him. In other words, there’s the fantasy (ball-breaking maverick), and then there’s what you’re expected to do (cubicle dwelling consistent earner). The equation being presented to us is, yes it sucks, but if you want a life without explosions, do it anyway.
In a lot of those films, now, the guy merely loosens up a bit, ruffles his hair, gets a little bravery and…. he doesn’t become antisocial Rambo or the Terminator. No… he gets the promotion, and the girl, and the family, and the house and car, and the friends, and we all say “Thou art my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Well done.” You could floss your teeth with the threads of social conveyence running through such mediums. These cultural communications are our totems to work. They are what a cultural anthropologist would deem the external expression of our cultural standards and norms for acceptable aspirations and values.
Don’t forget the endless road stories of the man who took his work home with him, cared too much about his profession, got caught up in his business, etc. Everyone leaves that guy. 9-5, that’s the communicated goal. Women get the short end of the stick here, I’m afraid. There just aren’t that many interesting films saying anything coherent about women and work. Open to debate, but that’s my take on it – I’m willing to be corrected. What we say about work, in this society, as far as we think we’ve come, is still what we say about man’s work. The messages to women are derivative.
Sure there are exceptional films, and I’m not advocating filling our films with “messages” in some ideological dreamland where everything is reduced to some proposition we agree or disagree with. Movies are art. But that art works for us partly because we’re living that life. That is, one of those lives, or another.
Again, films are just an experimental example. Take children’s books, if you like – especially YAF (young adult fiction). Don’t want that, just watch the ‘news’ – you get the same dose there, and you can do the same experiment with 2hrs of CNN, NBC, etc. How is work portrayed, where is it admirable and acceptable, what does it mean?
In a future where traditional employment is dying, not entirely, but as we have known it, where the future is contracting and an on-demand workforce, frankly the old stereotypical training up of a child for the world of work is not only obsolete, it’s harmful, and potentially an economic and emotional death sentence.
At a minimum, we have to find ways, whether it’s while kids are still home and in high school (they’re increasingly thinking about “careers” at an early age – in an environment distinctly weighted toward dependency not independence, traditional employment and a “career” not contracting or entrepreneurship and innovation), or in college when it may be too late but at least they are more free to experiment with new ideas, to challenge them with revised role models and constructs for meaningful work.
This economy isn’t a flash in the pan. It’s a signal fire of changes that were already coming and have now accelerated. The kids competing in the future aren’t looking to satisfy mom and dad’s version of “stability” rooted in a job. That theory of stability is no longer “realistic”. Maybe stability is the wrong formulation of the goal entirely. The kids competing in the future are innovators; that’s what’s realistic now. The new kids on the block are using social media (all media is now social) to band together and form companies, create new products, meet needs in different ways with unique services, and create and define their own world of work.
That may sound like rhetoric, but it’s a significant shift away from the factory and enterprise model that appeared in its most evolved model immediately after WWII, in which the needs of an accelerating society, in competition with half the world in another superpower (the Soviets), were expressed in a lifetime of guaranteed work with a pension at the end, in one company. Now, the US is competing with everyone. Everyone is becoming an economic ‘superpower’, just in a different sense. The supply chain is shorter, startup is, in some ways, easier – if for no other reason that the prevalence of technology that can communicate, duplicate, and refine – technology that is, itself, relatively cheap and abundant. Acceleration is too tame a word, too; the controls are off – there’s no cold war anymore to keep the spring coiled up in a box. It’s loose now, and so are all the rules we took for granted then about how to provide for your future. Then, it was position, consistency, longevity, continuity. Now it’s almost solely competence. There are other things but, relatively speaking, all things being equal, it’s what you can do, not where you happen to work.
That’s not a slam on the competence of anyone back then; it’s just to say that now, on an increasing scale, what you can do is the only sure guarantee of whether you can work and provide. It’s no longer what company you can get into – it’s no longer “he works for IBM” and “she works for Sears”; all such relationships are now tenuous and temporary. If the world is not just really changing, but has already changed, then the most effective kids in the future are the ones not dependent entirely on the old programming, the old software that was outfitted for a different era. And parents, and we as a society, as teachers, and peers, as friends of one another, should take note of that.