There is increasing concern among schools, colleges of further and higher education, and among employers that school leavers and graduates are “unemployable”. It is not just illiteracy and innumeracy—though it includes those things—it covers everything from a failure to perform in an interview to a wide ranging lack of understanding about work ethics and practice.
More importantly, it is as much—if not more—about attitude as it is about behaviour. An emblematic, true story: I was told of an employer who was unhappy that a new recruit was unable to get to work by 9am. He was frequently as late as 9:45. Somewhat surprisingly, the employer was willing to entertain the employee’s problems about travel and allowed him to start work at 10am. Within days, the employee started turning up at 10:45.
This is not just a behavioural problem—“get a working alarm clock!”—but an attitude one, too.
It is increasingly being said that students do not “engage” with the work ethic.
Let’s get a few things out of the way before tackling the main issue:
(1) Don’t take it personally. Students and young people generally (say under 30) are not engaged with conventional politics, most of them are not engaged with the sciences, the arts, many of them are not engaged with most things which leads to…
(2) ’Twas ever so. We’re not, on the whole, asking, “why are students (and others) less engaged than they used to be?”
(3) A generation or two ago, it was easier to get a job and there was less of a sense of entitlement, I imagine—at least of the type, “I’ve paid my £27,000, when do I start work?”. Whether or not an applicant was “employable” was less of an issue because there were fewer applicants to choose from.
[Please also see this short story of how I was recruited by Marks and Spencer in the early eighties.]
What underlies a lack of engagement?
Getting to the point, however, I believe the problem runs far, far deeper than these explanations.
I believe it will take at least a whole generation to fix.
Like many commentators, for example Stephen Covey, I define three broad stages of human development: dependence, independence and interdependence, though I address the subject from a psychological standpoint.
Essentially, for all that teenagers appear to be being forced into ever earlier sexual “maturity” through societal conditioning and through peer pressure exercised via online media, in all other respects they are being kept in a dependent position longer and longer.
In the past twenty or more years, children have been increasingly waited upon. Whereas previous generations would have played outside in the road, now they play solitarily in their bedrooms imagining that sending messages to people constitutes having a relationship with them. Whereas previous generations would have had no choice about getting to school under their own steam, now they are chauffeured to school by a frazzled parent. [See note below.]
Children and young people are more dissociated from reality. Few, apparently, know where a pint of milk comes from or what bread is. In many respects, their needs—like dinner—are handed to them on a plate.
Today’s and yesterday’s children and young people are encouraged to stay in a dependent position for far longer. Indeed parental neurosis about “stranger danger” cocoons them, preventing them from any interactions with anyone their parents do not know. The only exceptions are peers who, of course, are in the same position.
We have thus created a generation of children and young adults whom we have not just encouraged, but have demanded stay in a dependent position. Society may not like the tantrums that inevitably arise when the individual does not get his/her way. But I doubt that “society” has yet worked out that the two—the tantrums and the enforced dependency—are actually linked.
And being in a dependent position has its attractions, of course. It absolves the individual from taking any responsibility for their situation. It creates an expectation that everything they need will be provided. It legitimises their demands when they perceive their needs aren’t being met (even if the demands are expressed as sulking or the slamming of doors).
It stops them understanding that they have responsibilities towards others.
In short, it stops them growing up.
And then we expect them to go and get a job.
An emotional cliff
Society creates what amounts to an emotional cliff they have to ascend between their cosseted, indulged life and the often harsh realities of the workplace.
Faced with having to confront that, is it not surprising that they withdraw? Of course, we call it failing to engage, making it their fault, not ours. In reality we have created a challenge that any reasonable ‘mature’ (I use the word advisedly) adult would assess as impossible.
Of course, some children and young adults benefit from enlightened and excellent parenting. Of course, some of them have the benefit of excellent schooling. But even those people have only a relatively small advantage because the benefits they have gained are largely behavioural, not emotional.
Clearly, ‘not engaging’ is, therefore, not the problem. It is the symptom of a wider problem, which is itself founded on a deeper problem (and probably one could go down several more layers).
For once in my professional life, I am recommending that we do not try to get to the root cause of this perceived failure to be engaged.
It’s probably impossible. It requires a will and understanding that are both completely lacking from politicians: the only people, in practice, with the power to implement solutions.
So we have to create “employability skills programmes” which, while being a sticking plaster, at least can stop the bleeding.
Well designed and delivered employability skills programmes, such as those being developed by Akonia with emotional intelligence at work, can help the individual climb that cliff—can make all the difference—but followup support work will be needed at the workplace, too.
An interesting point was made by Professor Craig Jackson, head of psychology at Birmingham City university, in a wider radio interview [no longer available], Jackson observed that the murder of James Bulger (aged nearly 3 in 1993) profoundly changed the attitude of parents towards their children compared with the more relaxed approach which had been prevalent up until then.
Until then, “people were fairly relaxed about their children and where they were”, he said. Afterwards, “parents rarely let them out of their sight”. He asked what was about to happen, now that these children were about to enter higher education and the workplace, having been “closely cosseted and guarded” by their parents for so long.
This process, unfortunately named the “Bulgerfication” of parenting, seems to provide convincing corroboration to my points about parents forcing (however benign the motive) to stay in a dependent position.
> Stages of personal development
> Blog: Employability: what stops it?
> GradStart: Business and soft skills development programme [external site]
© 2014 Jeremy Marchant . note added 13 november 2014