A Nation of the Undereducated and Underemployed

Partisan hacks on both sides of the aisle are quick to blame one another for all the rampant unemployment that has not only resulted in subpar, overworked skeleton crews slinging hash and busing tables at eateries coast to coast, but also for skimpy goods on supermarket shelves and Christmas wish lists. I don’t entirely buy the “they’re stuck on a ship that can’t dock” line, because my favorite bourbon has been out of stock up and down the East coast for months now, and it’s made in Kentucky!

I don’t like to sound hyperbolic or histrionic, but if our present and future generations aren’t yet immersed in a crisis of purpose – actually, a lack of one – we’re surely fast approaching it.

Long before mask mandates and booster bullying, enrollment at America’s colleges was dwindling. The main reasons – stated here – though not established by the pandemic were undoubtedly magnified by it.

The first misdirection of purpose is the primary reason folks go to college in the first place: not to learn for the sake of learning, but rather to land an appealing job. That’s like saying “I need to lose 30 pounds so I can fit into the dress for the wedding” instead of wanting to slim down to be healthier, with the added bonus of not having to buy a whole new wardrobe in a larger size.

Similarly, too many of today’s students view a college degree as lottery ticket: the substance doesn’t matter, as long as you win the prize. Each week, millions of dollars are doled out to those lucky enough to have picked the six numbers drawn from the bowl. The winning ticket is not substantively superior to the tons of losing ones, it’s just luck. But a college degree isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – merely a winning ticket that entitles the beholder to a job; rather, it represents the culmination of knowledge, critical thinking skills, and sense of integrity to make a positive contribution to society, all of which are attributes that employers find attractive and thereby extend a job offer.

Analogously, a major reason companies love hiring ex-military personnel is not because the latter will show up to work every day and play Reveille on the bugle, but because they’ve been taught certain qualities – such as teamwork, attention to detail, and punctuality – that the former find desirable in an employee.

Somewhere along the now-yearslong lockdown madness, far too many Americans have concluded that work isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; setting an alarm clock to get up, wolf down some coffee and a muffin, and get dressed and run out the door as if the house is on fire, only to be squished on a crowded train or sit idle in seemingly unending bumper-to-bumper traffic, just isn’t worth it. Rather than having an “I need to earn a living” mindset, they’ve shifted to: “I know I don’t want to do this any longer, so I’m not going to, and somehow I’ll figure out how to survive.”
Three years ago, my family and I moved to Florida, but return to Pennsylvania now and then, especially for Christmas. I’m writing this column from my PA home office, and am feeling very lucky that the temperature outside is in the 40s right now instead of the 20s or teens. Nonetheless, although I was born and raised up here in the cold North and lived here most of my life, I know one thing: I’ve escaped it and – except for brief trips – I don’t want to return to it. Just as I’m done with the cold, the snow, and the disheartening sight of barren trees, that’s how many people – millions, as it turns out – feel about working.

For adult learners who choose to return to return to college in their 30s, 40s, and beyond in order to advance their careers, forking over absurdly large amounts of money will seem like a foolish misadventure if they’re no longer interested in having careers in the first place.

Unfortunately, I don’t see ours as the greatest set of generations. There’s far too little ethos about learning and working for their own sakes.
We are lost in the sea of technology, and it’s blurred our lives. Everyone’s a book publisher, a filmmaker, a recording artist, a computer programmer, a travel agent, and even an attorney. How soon before the number one answer impressionable children give to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” becomes: “a socially misfit, pallid hermit whose vision deteriorates daily by the blue light emitted by the gadgets at which I shall perpetually and unyieldingly stare”? (Ok, they may not put it into those exact words, but you get the point.)

Forty years ago, President Reagan concluded his first inaugural address with these poignant words: “we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us. And, after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.” Reagan was channeling our patriotic resolve to live by the belief that Americans aren’t underachievers.
These days, we hear from open borders apologists – who obviously have no visceral disdain for the concept of trespass – that we need to import foreign workers “to do the jobs Americans won’t do.” Well, I’ve got to give it to them, they do have a point. And it’s getting worse, because the jobs Americans no longer will do aren’t limited to picking oranges in California groves. To a great extent, they involve hundreds of jobs that require considerable effort without immediate gratification.

America has become that retired infielder who now weighs close to 300 pounds and doesn’t seem to care much. It’s time for us to get back into the gym.


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