by Julia Steiny
Look around you: there’s no shortage of work to be done. If anything, public-service budget cuts are making most communities shabbier. Paying jobs are scarce. But work? Never.
However, in my lifetime, work and money have become confused with one another. As any good mom will tell you, her hard work never yields a dime. Still, good mothering is tremendously valuable and Hugely satisfying. Like the best of jobs.
Today, adults — parents, schools and communities — are enabling kids’ lazy habits and sad work ethic by waiting passively for a better economy to provide youth with work experience. I encounter hoards of kids whose attitude is that they’ll come to school faithfully, be on time, and do homework the moment someone pays them to do so.
Last spring, Atlantic Magazine ran a scary piece subtitled “The Slacker Trap.” Its cautionary tale looked at the long-term effects of joblessness among Japanese youth unable to connect with employment during Japan’s 1990s recession. Bottom line: not working is habit-forming and becomes a stigma, when applying for work eventually.
Japan’s low birthrate means their children have more adults to dote on them, a situation similar to American parents enabling their kids rather than expecting them to do their share of household work. The unemployed Japanese youth got used to taking occasional short-term, temporary work to generate pin money. Now they hang out in “alternative” life styles that sound to me like hippie culture. Today, one-fifth of these now 30 and 40-year-olds still live at home, mooching off Haha, aka Mom.
The Atlantic author, Ethan Levine, reports that the Japanese slackers now “cannot find good jobs, don’t learn new skills, and neither earn nor spend enough to help get the economy moving. That generational problem, while far more advanced in Japan, is not unlike our own.”
Economists call this population NEETs, Not in Education, Employment or Training. The Economist magazine estimates that in 2012, the U.S. had over 6 million NEETS, ages 18-24. The unemployment rate for that age group is 15.1%, more than double the overall 7.3% rate, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
God knows we’d all like the U.S. economy to catch a spark. (And government shut-downs don’t help.) But until things improve, adults of all stripes can share the work of acculturating kids to the expectation that they work. Granted, it’s often more work to get the kids to pitch in than to do the work yourself. But it’s our job to model and teach them to work to make their homes, neighborhoods, and communities better places.
In living memory, young people had useful, respectable, unpaid roles in their families and communities. On a farm, 4 and even 3-year-olds can feed the chickens. When I was young, every household had a job rota assigning kids to clean dishes, common areas, their rooms, and generally take chores off their parents’ backs. These days I see most families, at all socio-economic levels, virtually waiting on their kids under the mis-guided understanding that school is the more important work, because eventually it will lead to money. Absent a culture of work, many high school students quit doing homework just because they can.
A mom recently complained that the school didn’t inspire her kid to go to school and to do homework, so he’s failing. I suggested she withhold video-game privileges until he got with the program. She said, “Nah, I just don’t roll that way. I could never do that to him. It’s the school’s job to get him to do what they want.” Good luck, School.
So let’s consider Eagle Scouts. Employers have long sought them out. They’re go-getters and have learned the joys of acquiring skills and persisting in an endeavor. They’ve all completed an Eagle-scout project. They identified a community need and project-managed its fulfillment with planning, fund-raising, materials procurement and conscripting labor. They build outdoor classrooms, turn nasty dumps into gardens, or build raised trails through swampy Audubon areas. Scouting is not the only route to guiding a kid through a finished project, but it is super-effective.
Every kid needs to feel useful. Every kid, of any ability, can be helped to identify a mess in their own community that would get better if they rolled up their sleeves and worked on it. Every kid needs to know that work done for their community will fill them with a sense of mastery and pride in having contributed.
Improving their communities will not quickly change our youth’s unemployment rate. But getting into the habit of pitching in will prepare them to be ready, willing and able to connect with paid work, when more is available. Some will acquire the guts to create their own jobs when the economy refuses to provide one. Honestly, I bet kids would be more willing to do homework if they could just see the real-time value of learning skills.
Evidence shows that if we wait passively for an uncontrollable economy to put kids to work, they will surely fall into the Slacker Trap. If we’re that lazy, we’ll be the ones paying dearly for a sub-par workforce, social services and inevitable NEET depression.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.