What will become of us? pt.2

Continuing with my first post, provocative ideas of how we’ve inarguably failed in the acculturation of our youth comes in a fascinating interview with Psychologist Robert Epstein in Psychology Today (via MR). Paradoxically, the banning of child labor is much to blame. Tongue in cheek, I just have to throw that in there since we’re much maligned for child labor practices. Consider:

The whole culture collaborates in artificially extending childhood, primarily through the school system and restrictions on labor. The two systems evolved together in the late 19th-century; the advocates of compulsory-education laws also pushed for child-labor laws, restricting the ways young people could work, in part to protect them from the abuses of the new factories. The juvenile justice system came into being at the same time. All of these systems isolate teens from adults, often in problematic ways.

Our current education system was created in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and was modeled after the new factories of the industrial revolution. Public schools, set up to supply the factories with a skilled labor force, crammed education into a relatively small number of years. We have tried to pack more and more in while extending schooling up to age 24 or 25, for some segments of the population. In general, such an approach still reflects factory thinking—get your education now and get it efficiently, in classrooms in lockstep fashion. Unfortunately, most people learn in those classrooms to hate education for the rest of their lives.

Considering the above, it’s no wonder that today’s youth casts a cynical eye towards corporate mentalities, undoubtedly few can name the source of their malaise. Epstein continues:

Imagine what it would feel like—or think back to what it felt like—when your body and mind are telling you you’re an adult while the adults around you keep insisting you’re a child. This infantilization makes many young people angry or depressed, with their distress carrying over into their families and contributing to our high divorce rate…We have completely isolated young people from adults and created a peer culture. We stick them in school and keep them from working in any meaningful way, and if they do something wrong we put them in a pen with other “children.”…They are restricted and infantilized to an extraordinary extent…The more young people are infantilized, the more psychopathology they show.

Epstein’s view is seminal, required reading for anyone truly interested in bridging the adversarial generational divide.

On a related note, are we overly concerned about reaching people who won’t ever make it anyway? Or is the better question that some of us won’t succeed ourselves? I’m thinking that youth draw a bead because they’re more entrepreneurial minded than we ever were at their ages. Could our resentment be better described as envy? In some respects, it’s indigenous to their upbringing and culture, surrounded by start up success stories be it the sports or entertainment industries. I don’t think the initial appeal is apparel per se much less manufacturing that interests them, it’s just doing something to make money. If it’s not this, it’ll be something else, but how is this different from those of us who have built successful enterprises on trying anything until finding what sticks? If so, it’s a bit self serving to blame youth when they mimic our own behaviors. Considering what Epstein had to say, perhaps we’re resentful that they have the drive and gumption to do it at earlier ages than we did, when we didn’t have the nerve (or arguably, opportunity) to do so?

Regardless of generation, I think there is greater value in analyzing who is successful and why. With that, I read an interesting post on how to hire the best people you’ve ever worked with as the context of an individual’s likelihood of success in the workplace be it yours or someone else’s. In the entry, Marc Andreessen analyzes the appropriateness of interviewing tactics used by leading tech firms such as Microsoft and Google. Here’s a sample:

Microsoft interview question was: “Why is a manhole cover round?”
The right answer, of course, is, “Who cares? Are we in the manhole business?”

The candidate most likely to be successful would consider the question inappropriate and depending on the environment and context, perhaps be pegged as having a bad attitude. Again, regurgitating Epstein, with the alienation of youth shuttled into youth culture, the young are likely to lack the means, the skills to express themselves “appropriately”. Could it all boil down to what we could label communication deficits? I find the complexities of these conflicts fascinating. But I digress, returning to successful candidates, Andreessen posits that drive, self motivation, background, curiosity and ethics are primary. On motivation he says:

People with drive push and push and push and push and push until they succeed. Driven people don’t tend to stay long at places where they can’t succeed, and just because they haven’t succeeded in the wrong companies doesn’t mean they won’t succeed at your company — if they’re driven.

Another element I agree with is background. I think my generation has had more of a tendency to play it safe. If we’re learning to take risks, it’s come later in life.

For the background part, I like to see what someone has done. Not been involved in, or been part of, or watched happen, or was hanging around when it happened. I look for something you’ve done, either in a job or (often better yet) outside of a job. If you can’t find anything — if a candidate has just followed the rules their whole lives, showed up for the right classes and the right tests and the right career opportunities without achieving something distinct and notable, relative to their starting point — then they probably aren’t driven. And you’re not going to change them. Motivating people who are fundamentally unmotivated is not easy. But motivating people who are self-motivated is wind at your back…I also like specifically looking for someone who comes from some kind of challenging background — a difficult family situation, say, or someone who had to work his/her way through school — who is nevertheless on par with his/her more fortunate peers in skills and knowledge. And remember, an awful lot of people who have been at hugely successful companies were just along for the ride.

Changing gears, Andreessen mentions curiosity. I whole-heartedly agree but with youth today, this manifests differently or in ways we’d label inappropriate due to a disparate culture, perhaps arguably justifiable cynicsm, lack of opportunity, inarticulance and differing learning style. I think my generation rates better in curiosity but is that because we have the leisure of indulgence?

Curiosity is a proxy for, do you love what you do? Anyone who loves what they do is inherently intensely curious about their field, their profession, their craft. They read about it, study it, talk to other people about it… immerse themselves in it, continuously. And work like hell to stay current in it. Not because they have to. But because they love to. Anyone who isn’t curious doesn’t love what they do.

Lastly, Andreessen mentions ethics. I am torn on ethics with regard to youth, I have never witnessed greater contradictions. On one hand, youth are without parallel, the most obsessed with protecting their ideas and intellectual property. On the other hand, again without parallel, as a generation they are the least likely to respect the intellectual property of others. No doubt. I think the main reason is a changing perception of what constitutes proprietary property owing to the enabling effects of technology; it’s easier to download copyrighted materials and disseminate them. Second, there’s never been such a plethora of accessible materials to draw from and much of it has been free or if not, easily expropriated. If it’s easy to grab, I think the perception is that the material is “owned” by anyone who can store it on their hard drive -or iPod. Andreessen says

Ethics are hard to test for. But watch for any whiff of less than stellar ethics in any candidate’s background or references…One way to test for an aspect of ethics –honesty– is to test for how someone reacts when they don’t know something. Pick a topic you know intimately and ask the candidate increasingly esoteric questions until they don’t know the answer. They’ll either say they don’t know, or they’ll try to bullshit you. Guess what. If they bullshit you during the hiring process, they’ll bullshit you once they’re onboard.

Relatedly he mentions an interviewing strategy I’ve used mostly with apparel industry “consultants”, few of whom have ever done so much as turn on a sewing machine.

It’s amazing how many people come in and interview for jobs where their resume says they’re qualified, but ask them basic questions about how to do things in their domain, and they flail.

Mindy and I were discussing one particular problem with many new entrants to the field -definitely not limited to young people- and that’s faking it. Sometimes you fake it too well, we believe you. We think you’re farther along than you are so we don’t check up on you, making sure you’ve covered your bases before you get to us. Then you bomb. We hate that, we could have helped you and prevented it. We understand why you do this but don’t do it. Give us some credit, we’ve been in the business long enough to intuit the greatest predictors of whether you’ll make it regardless of what you know now. If you fake it, you lose all credibility. If we’ve misjudged you, we lose confidence in our own abilities, heightening our cynicism and becoming more wary of those who’d follow you. Telling us where you are can help us get you to where you need to be much easier and faster. If someone won’t take you seriously, you usually need to regroup and find another teacher but faking it isn’t the way to do it. That conveys lack of commitment and disrespect to your mentor.

In summary, I’d concur that success hinges on drive, self motivation, background, curiosity and ethics, none of which are generationally limited -although Epstein’s ideas explain the reasons for the dichotomy of its expression amongst our youth.

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  1. Lisa Laree says:

    Interesting post! Have you read Daniel Quinn’s My Ishmael? It’s fiction, but it raises some of the same questions about why we have our particular form of education….

    but, truth be told, I came over to wish Kathleen a Happy Birthday ;)

  2. Tom Willmon says:

    *Microsoft interview question was: “Why is a manhole cover round?”
    The right answer, of course, is, “Who cares? Are we in the manhole business?”*

    This puzzles me, particularly when followed by a discussion of the importance of curiosity. If given such an answer, I would point the insolent pup to the door.

    However, an answer like “So it will fit a round manhole.” will inistantly merit another question.
    And probably a job.

    So speaks a recovering engineer…

    Mountainair, NM

  3. Emily says:

    As a soon-to-be high school teacher, I’ve spent a lot of time with teens, though I’m only a 23 years old myself. After reading the excerpt of Dr. Epstein’s article, I can’t help but comment–I think he has some valid points, but he’s missing a lot too. I think that he is ignoring the increasing complexity of American society, particularly in comparison with the cultures he alludes to which don’t have the concept of adolesence. I agree that teens are MUCH more capable and reasonable than most people give them credit for. However, I don’t think that means we need to throw them into adulthood as soon as they pass puberty.

    Dr. Epstein also fails to mention that American society does not by any means have the longest adolescence. In France, for example, it is not unsual for young people to live at home until they are 25 or even older, and usually they live at home while they attend university and graduate school. In this way, French teens are putting of “adulthood” even longer than Americans. Are French teens worse off than American teens?

    I think that American teens have much more responsibility already than Dr. Epstein gives them credit for. I do think that putting less pressure on adolescents would be a great thing, but that is quite contrary to what Dr. Epstein thinks.

    Personally, I find the majority of teens and young adults today to be pretty great. I have absolutely no connection to fashion, however. But then, I’m also a member of this current generation of youth, and for some reason I frequently read this blog, just for the sake of my own learning. I feel like I can’t be the only one! :)

  4. Eric H says:

    Tom, I believe the manhole and its cover are round so that it won’t fall in. A rectangular cover could be turned so that it could fall in, but a round one never could. At least that seems more plausible than the “correct” answer, though not as funny as yours.

    I have long wondered about the ban on child labor. Sure, they shouldn’t be doing jobs that are inappropriate (firemen, coal miner, etc), but an outright ban seems unnatural. I think it prevents us from exploring more healthy modes of learning, work, and human relations.

    In A Pattern Language, mixed use neighborhoods are advocated so that kids are exposed to adult work as part of their daily life. Work, play, and family life shouldn’t be separated the way they are; all are parts of life. On a farm, kids even learn to participate in the work as soon as they can walk. Work and learning go hand-in-glove in such an environment, and the experience fosters greater intergenerational bonding.

    In Germany, some kids are eased out of school and into a work environment through an apprenticeship. The apprenticeships are — to American sensibilities — unnecessarily long and appear to be either gratuitous hazing or barriers to entry. But they come out of those apprenticeships with a deeper understanding of a *craft*; it fosters a sense of artisanship and pride in workmanship.

    Our wholesale ban on child labor prevents us from exploring healthy alternatives to the warehousing and/or indoctrination that passes as education. I keep trying to start John Taylor Gatto’s Underground History of Education (www dot johntaylorgatto dot com), but cannot read that much material online (maybe I should *buy* a copy?!). His thesis parallels that of Epstein, arguing that the compulsory education system was designed to produce not educated individuals but compliant employees and predictable consumers.

  5. dawn says:

    I have to agree with Emily. The teens I’m in contact with regularly never cease to impress me with their character, responsibility,creativity, and intelligence. Things are different now, but they’re exciting. Books are still wonderful things. Now digital photography and movie-making are so accessible and they are art forms just as painting is. Different, not worse.

    I guess I still worry that technology is changing faster than we can deal with it *morally*. But I don’t see that as a generational issue.

    As to extended childhood…I have to disagree there. It used to be that families stayed physically together. Older children married and moved down the street but were still connected to their parents and younger siblings. So young adults had the constant benefit of extended family helping them to mature into fully actualized adults. Now, families are more often spread out all over the country and beyond. I think it makes growing up, really growing up, more difficult.

    There is a wonderful book called “A Fine Young Man” by Michael Gurian with really inspiring thoughts on the issues of raising children, boys in particular (though he also has books on girls.) One of his most useful insights is that boys in particular need as many role models as possible. So, scouts or sports, or extended families, or old-fasioned neighborhoods are essential as young people have many models of adulthood to observe and model. I dont’ see those types of organizations as “herding” children or “isolating” them. I think they are an opportunity to mentor kids. I do think, though, that some kids are over scheduled and their attention spans, creativity, and independence can suffer.

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