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Mourning in America: Mentors and Apprentices

Mickey-Mouse-in-The-Sorcerers-ApprenticeOf late, there has been one lament after another eulogizing the loss of “America, as She Once Was”.  The true workers’ paradise, where middle class men went to work every day at a job they learned through a training program to support their wives and kids, is gone, replaced by bankruptcy, decay, dereliction and hopelessness.

It is true, America is a changed place.  A completely changed place.  And for those who lived the heady halcyon days of bread-winning level factory jobs and little competition from foreign companies with the edge of fewer environmental concerns and cheaper labor, it must seem that all truly is lost.  The middle class, for all intents and purposes, is in the process of being destroyed.

Decent wage blue-collar jobs are not all that have been lost or destroyed, though.  Along with them – and a gentler corporate structure and environment to be honest – outside of some trade union shops, baseball dugouts, and industries that involve life and death, apprenticeship, true internships (not the free slave labor “internships” available now), and mentoring have gone by the wayside as well.  In fact, a lot of bosses consider having to catch new workers up to be a chore and are not afraid to let it show.

It makes on the job training a bear.

After several aborted attempts to enter a new part of “the workforce” without an internship or any sort of mentoring, and hearing one horror story after another of the hells with fluorescent lighting, a form of slavery might well be the best analogy of the current office work environment.  It certainly isn’t enjoyable work when there is no positive reinforcement and you’re left to sink or swim.

In any one “white collar” industry – nonprofit, news, communications, insurance, law, engineering, etc. – there is a body of knowledge that experienced people in any particular field acquire over a period of years that no one teaches in school. That’s the stuff that used to be taught during the apprenticeship and mentoring stage.  Things like, shortcuts, what’s important and what isn’t, how to relate to clients, how to spot numbers that just don’t look right, where to get permits, how to build a database, recognizing trends, writing effectively more so than academically, what an effective campaign looks like, picking out the right tagline.  Those are the bits of information that come from experience, learning from mistakes and having someone to teach and demonstrate a better way to do it (hopefully, gently).

For many people learning how to be productive members of the workforce, this was a gap filler between the hourly wage burger flipping jobs that teach how to work and be a decent employee, to that bread-winner job that allowed a person to buy a house, get married, have a family and begin to accumulate wealth.  It may have been either post high school or summers during college, but it was where a good portion of American values and work ethic were passed from one generation to the next.

And, slowly but surely it’s slipping away.

Now, we go to college for a couple reasons: to be branded (yes, it really happens) and to prove that we can work.  That used to be the purpose of a high school diploma.  No more.  Nowadays, we spend a whole lot of money and a whole lot of time in a classroom to learn even less than our parents did about basic subjects, and get next to no hands-on experience.  This is what has happened to millennials.  And it is frustrating them and their parents to no end.  (Not mention put them in debt up to their eyeballs before they’ve even started putting in their dues.)

There is wisdom that comes with age, experience and the passing on of traditions.  Whether the cultural reality is that the young have no use for it or the elders have no patience to teach it and don’t want to be bothered, is another question.  Just as surely, though, what was once part of business – learning skills and details from those who have gone before  – is also dying.

And, unfortunately, with it, what is left of what America used to be.

(That doesn’t mean there won’t be a renewal. :)  This country has risen from nothing before.)

As a side note: A boss I had a number of years ago who was far and away the most “mentor-like” of the bosses I’ve had over the years, told me that the big change she saw as the years went on – and this was the time of generation Xers – was that workers no longer understood the phillosophy of work.  She was convinced that that knowledge was instilled in early childhood in the years before kindergarten when little kids want to help.  If allowed and taught how at that age, it sticks.  Food for thought.

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Categories: American Values, Business

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2 replies

  1. Yep. exactly. And even in fields where we still have apprenticeships, mostly the trades, we’ve for the most part turned them into card carrying laborers, after they’ve gotten the basics in a community college. This is not an anti-CC tirade, some do a good job, although I’m not convinced that a good journeyman didn’t do better-more real world experience.

    Whose fault? Everybody’s, I think. The young don’t have the respect for the elders but, the elders are doing little to earn respect either.

    One of the big problems I see in trying to bring young people up is a fear (terror, really) of being responsible for being wrong. The thing is, of course, we’re all wrong, some anyway, every day. Or we’re not doing anything.

    Lots of food for thought here, CL, Thanks.

  2. We seem to have largely abandoned the major part of the sociopolitical culture that built the country, replacing it with a very self-centered client statism. A precursor, looking back, was when the teachers’ colleges stopped teaching and switched to social conditioning.

    I guess it’s pretty hard to maintain a traditional American work ethic while demanding more from the mommy government…

    Seems likely that reversal of attitude will follow a very hard and lengthy period of economic suffering… as it has before.

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