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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Education = Employment = Happiness?

My eldest stepson recently applied for his first job. Because of his age and experience level and availability, it is a manual labor position, for minimum wage. And the comments are starting, from adults in the crowd. "Well, this will convince him to go to college!"

It will?

It's the same refrain that I heard for three summers during my own college years, when I worked on the production floor at a local manufacturing facility. "Now you see what awaits you if you don't have an education..."

I suppose some of the sentiment is wrapped up in economics. Most of the time, degree-required jobs pay significantly better than GED-accepted jobs. But I think it's more than that. I think that, as a society, we are still deeply mired in the 20th-century mindset that manual labor is menial labor. That working with one's hands is distasteful, and the route to success lies in getting an "education" and landing a high-paying, white-collar job.

I disagree. I've done both. And perhaps my experience has left me a bit jaded, but part of what I've learned along the way is that often, your education (unless you attend a technical school or complete a specific training or apprenticeship program) does not guarantee you the tools necessary to thrive in the workplace. What typically serves one best is an ability to learn new skills quickly, to adapt to change, to think creatively, and to relate well to people--especially keeping one's cool in emotional situations. I've written installation manuals with no prior engineering experience. I've updated my programming skills on the fly, as the situation required. I've seen people who got where they were by teaching themselves, by tinkering, or by being mentored by senior colleagues. And a constantly changing marketplace almost always means that whatever skills and knowledge you acquire now will likely be outdated in five years. Or one. Or instantly.

That's only one half of the equation: the notion that an education prepares you for employment. The other, more distressing, notion is that certain jobs are undesirable and only to be performed by the underqualified, underskilled, or unmotivated. A family I know still speaks with regret about their youngest son, who despite his solid job in a construction position which both feeds his family and uses his natural skills and abilities, is forevermore viewed as "the college dropout". At the risk of sounding like a platitude-spouting ninny, the world needs ditch diggers too. And frankly, I would much rather my children grow up to be happy and well-adjusted ditch diggers than unhappy executives, if that is where their desire lies.

Your job is what you DO. It doesn't have to be who you ARE. But if it is...let it be something, and someone, you'd be content/happy/proud to be. And as long as your bills are getting paid (and you aren't harming anyone!), let those who would judge reconsider just how success *should* be defined.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said! This college dropout approves!

    I have always taken issue with the "work smarter, not harder" philosophy. Frankly, the whole concept of money is somewhat absurd- and the things people are PAID to do sometimes are just insane, to say the least. Ideally, I would love to start a commune that was entirely self sustained, where we could trade for goods we could not necessarily provide on our own- with everyone pitching in to make life smooth for one and all. It seems like so much more of a meaningful way to live, where at the end of a day, you can SEE what your work has wrought. I have deep respect for the construction worker and the carpenter. At the end of they day, they can see the wall they built, the chair they made, and know it will be put to good use somewhere down the line. The CEO who spent all day transferring money here and there cannot make that claim. Its just so strange.

    In college, my boyfriend and I lived together, and we both took a year off, and it SHOCKED him to learn that one could make a living without a college degree, because his parents CONVINCED him that it was not possible. It was so insane. I wish people would wake up and realize the point of life is not to make tons of money and have lots of stuff.