“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt
I’ve been thinking recently about a fascinating show I saw last week on PBS about the Amish. There are many things about them to admire, including their insistence on living a simple life and their finding spiritual strength in the land, and then there are some things about them that both puzzle and disturb me. One of the most puzzling things has to do with their take on education, which is that children are only allowed to go to school up to the 8th grade.
At a real stretch, I guess that could possibly make some measure of sense, however dubious, if little Josiah or Esther are going to inherit the family farm and live like their great grandparents did. But is that really feasible anymore? Not only do the Amish tend to have lots of kids, and therefore dad’s farm is getting subdivided into lots of smaller and smaller parcels, but many already have no farm at all. Instead, they work in local factories owned by “English” (i.e. non-Amish) people.
This in turn got me thinking about lots of other kids, not just the Amish, who may be looking for factory jobs in the future. When I was a teenager, back in the 50’s, there were plenty of these kinds of jobs around, and I could easily have gotten one myself after high school, if I’d chosen that route, just as my brother did, in fact. He went on to make a decent living working at the Ford Company factory near where we grew up in upstate New York. They produced springs and radiators there. But even he eventually had to move to Detroit for a while, once the factory he worked in got shut down. And both my father and my mother, too, worked in factories before him making sandpaper, even if they got a lot less money for it than he did.
The scene that sticks in my mind from the show is the shots of the Amish men running around as fast as they could, pretty much literally, from place to place in the factory, all the while piecing together what looked like small vacation trailers. What kept going through my mind was one simple question: how much longer would the owner of that factory even need these guys? It’s hard for me to imagine that sooner or later robotic devices aren’t going to be cheap enough for the owner of that factory to say to himself, why am I doing this? Why am I paying Josiah’s wages, and his healthcare (if he even gets that), all the while worrying about whether or not he might get injured, or discouraged, or come to work drunk some day (not that any Amish would do that!). But why not instead bite the bullet, splurge up front for the robots, and then never have to think twice again about paying wages or benefits, or having to deal with somebody’s messy emotional life? And I can work these things 24/7, if I’ve got the orders. One thing is definitely for sure: robots do not complain about overwork, and they don’t demand double or triple time either!
I don’t think that day may be so far off for this particular vacation trailer maker, or for thousands of other large and small manufacturers throughout the country, and the world, for that matter. So the real question that this comes back to once again has to do with education. How are we going to provide Josiah and Esther, and Jack and Jane, and Manuel and Maria, and millions like them with the needed education to get them ready for what’s coming round the bend? How do we even convince them that something is coming? Leave aside for the moment the Amish and the question of their life-style choices, and just think about those kids in Los Angeles, let’s say, or Dayton, or Dubuque, who don’t finish, or just barely finish high school. What kind of a job can they expect to get, and I’m not just talking about next month, but 20 or 30 years from now?
Sure, there will always be a need for plumbers and carpenters and other skilled craftsmen, but that takes training, too. And not everyone is interested in college; neither does everybody get to go there, even if they are interested. But what we’ve got to think through right now is how to help those young people who are about to be displaced by technology. What are they going to do? They want and deserve a good life too, but they need the skills that are going to be required for the jobs of the 21st century. So, yes, let’s definitely support Pres. Obama’s call for more training after high school, and at the same time by the way, why not urge companies to take on young interns who, with a solid enough educational background, can be trained on the job for the way work is going to be done in the future? The Germans do it already, and we can maybe learn some pretty good lessons from them about how to run an economy.
My father and my mother, and my brother too, were all part of the old style factory model, but even they knew that the way it had been for them couldn’t last forever. And if that time hasn’t already come, it’s not far off. I just hope that Josiah and his friends, as well as others who for whatever reason don’t go to college, will see the handwriting on the wall, and see what it’s going to take to get ahead from this point on. Every human being deserves a good life, and yet that good life is not guaranteed. It’s up to us to guide young people and to provide them with opportunities, and then it’s up to them to take advantage of those opportunities. Without both sides of that equation, farm and factory alike are going to be outside of their reach.