As a certified Gen-Xer with an old pair of Sergio Valente jeans knocking around in the back of the closet to prove it, I can admit to a certain amount of this myself. After all, we were the ones who spent our childhoods drinking from garden hoses, riding our bikes, and disappearing for the whole day with our friends while our parents nary batted an eye. Generation Snowflake, meanwhile, can’t go more than five minutes without a smartphone fix and don’t even know how to communicate with another human being without texting. They have very strong opinions about everything, even though they don’t seem to know much about anything, and their constant need for validation renders them incapable of hearing an opposing view without being reduced to a quivering mess of emotional jelly. We pulled triggers on our BB guns, while they get triggered by words they don’t like. How are people like that supposed to deal with the big bad world when they can’t even deal with the perceived slight of a microaggression?
Well, as it turns out, they can’t. And to be fair, it’s not entirely their fault.
It’s a story that can be found in the pages of The Changing Economics of Young Adulthood, a report released by the Census Bureau that provides some comparative statistics of how young people are doing today versus how they were back in 1975. The results are pretty sobering. For example, the report finds states, “In 1975, only 25 percent of men aged 25 to 34 had incomes of less than $30,000 per year. By 2016, that share rose to 41 percent of young men.” It also found that fully one-third of adults aged 18-34 are still living at home with their parents–a total which is greater than the number of people from the same age group who are married and living with a spouse.
How did this happen?
“That is a product of a shrinking blue-collar economy,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce, a non-profit institute at Georgetown University.
Traditionally, men occupied most positions in industries such as manual labor and construction work. With those mostly gone, male wages have been hit harder than “women who started off behind” but excelled in school and college, Carnevale said.
Men are “more easily drawn away from schooling by blue-collar jobs because they pay $20,000 to $25,000 out of high school,” he said. Even though that job may not be there in ten years and will never pay more than that, he said.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Donald Trump made this one of his foremost campaign issues. The loss of some manufacturing jobs and the importation of cheaper foreign labor has made it a lot harder for people–particularly boys, as the above example shows–to find decent-paying work that doesn’t require advanced technical expertise. To those living with this harsh reality in places like the Rust Belt, Trump’s message found a lot of resonance–and got him the votes he needed to win the presidency.
The problem, however, goes deeper than that. We’re still left with the question as to why boys are drawn away from schooling in the first place. Recent statistics have shown that women, for the first time, are now more likely than men to have college degrees. Even at my daughter’s high school, in an honors course that has around 20 students, she tells me that here are only four boys in the class. How is it that the educational system, which steered girls away from advanced coursework in days of old, is now turning out more college bound girls than boys?
The answer, I think, has a lot to do with making primary education so college-oriented in the first place. Even from elementary school, parents and kids are drilled on how important it is to go to college–and as a result, the curriculum and the number of hours spent in the classroom have been geared toward that goal. This means recess is now a thing of the past, and even physical education–which used to be every day–is now only held two days each week in a lot of schools. Kids are expected to be at their desks for over six hours a day, where they’re supposed to sit still and learn. While this may work for most girls, as any parent who has raised a son can tell you, for boys it’s practically torture. Is it any wonder, then, that so many of them decide early on that they hate school and can’t wait to get out of there?
The truth of the matter is that boys learn differently than girls do. Just as boys physically mature more slowly than girls, boys also don’t reach educational maturity nearly as fast. My own experience is a good example. In middle school, I was a very average student who got my fair share of C’s. In high school, though, something finally clicked and I was a straight-A student who graduated at the top of my class. It took me that long to mature into a good student–but I’m not sure it would have ever happened if I’d been subjected to the same early barrage of standards that kids have to meet these days.
So what’s the answer? We certainly don’t want to slow down the educational advancements that women have made, but at the same time, we don’t want that to happen to the detriment of boys, either. As the Census report shows, when men lag behind it’s bad for everybody–so how do we design the educational system so that it lifts everyone up? That’s one of the greatest challenges we face as a nation. I think we can start by acknowledging the differences in the learning styes between girls and boys, and perhaps rethinking the idea of single-sex education. This isn’t necessarily to say that schools should be all-boy or all-girl, but perhaps we should be teaching individual classes that way. We also need a return to recess, so that kids can be kids even when they’re in school. College is important, yes, but it’s not like you have to get it all figured out by the fifth grade.
Reestablishing trades programs in high school would also help those who want to learn valuable skills, but don’t want to pursue a college track. As Mike Rowe has repeatedly pointed out, there are a lot of well-paying jobs out there that go unfilled because employers can’t find enough skilled tradesmen to fill them. Schools should be encouraging kids to pursue those jobs, not turn their noses up at them.
As to the Millennials…
Maybe it’s true that the previous generation didn’t quite do right by you, and that’s why things are such a mess. Maybe your parents hovered too much, and the schools foisted a bunch of unrealistic expectations on you. Maybe you didn’t have great examples of what a strong marriage was like when you were growing up, and that has made you scared to make commitments in your own lives. But you’re still young, which means you still have time–but don’t make the mistake of thinking you have forever. Instead of waiting for opportunities, seek them out and take some risks. Find a couple of roommates if you have to, and go get a place of your own. Get married and build a life. You might start out poor, but you won’t stay that way if you work together.
And, once in a while, put down the smartphone and look at real life. It has a way of passing you by if you don’t.