Freedom, Options, and the “Teen Bubble”: Why We Need To Solve the Skill Mismatch

Aristotle taught that anything, no matter how good, can be problematic if it’s out of balance. (Like the inequalities of his own society).

We face a situation where freedom is out of balance with other goods.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that Americans are too free. We still need more freedom.

But to do that, our idea of freedom has to change.

In America, we are told, “You can do anything”. Many other industrialized countries have a similar idea.

Yet so many people end up flipping burgers, bagging groceries, or working at a gas station.

Is that because they want to do those things? Was that their dream as a child, to grow up and ring people up for their Mentos?

Sure, there are some people who want to take it easy. They don’t mind working at a menial or even dead-end job. They just work enough to make it and get by. This is especially true for the young, people in their twenties with no families.

But these are nowhere near the majority. Moreover, those people who have such a lack of work ethic themselves don’t come from nowhere.

Instead, most people find that they want to do something better but don’t have the skills to do it. They don’t know what the options are. They despair about being able to find better options. They’ve been burnt too many times by bad employers to want to try again.

I have seen friend after friend struggling to find valuable work that they believed in, or even any kind of work at all. We have a society where some people literally have the wealth of nations, yet we can’t give everyone gainful or secure employment.

Of course, as a left analyst I can trot out the same statistics, and they do need to be heard. We don’t have a full employment policy. Without full employment, some people will structurally not get jobs. That means they not only don’t make money, but rack up debt and don’t build their skills and resumes. We’ve cut welfare programs even as a lack of a full employment policy alone means we will keep some people structurally unemployed. We’ve made it sociologically very easy for people to be terminated and made job security virtually non-existent. We’ve allowed homeless services and mental health services to decline, such that many people who could be productive with some help are instead condemned to failure. We’ve allowed tuition to rise. One can go on and on to explain why our society is both so inequal and so socially immobile (i.e. so few people are able to either climb or fall in terms of their socioeconomic position). This Hamilton Project set of articles about poverty is a great place to begin for a more positive view.

But this problem begins far earlier.

It’s based off of a basic philosophical mismatch in the way we think about freedom.

See, “freedom” never is going to mean absolute freedom. I may have the right to swing my arm around, but that ends an inch from your nose, as a judge famously put it. I have the right to speak my mind, but I don’t have the right to graffiti your house with an anarchy symbol or to libel someone.

What that means is that “freedom” is not defined as things one is theoretically allowed to do but based off of a set of socially available options. I can pick from a host of options that society allows. We can discuss how our society may close out some legitimate options, but there’s a more basic issue, which is that we are giving people a host of options to choose from but never articulating in a clear way what they are or how one could get there.

We are throwing people into adulthood with no idea of what the options are that are available to them, let alone with the actual skills and education to do something about it. I have seen virtually no one in the 20-to-35 year-old brackets having a keen and clear understanding of all of their vocational options.

That has nothing to do with freedom. Throwing someone into an ocean without a life preserver does not give them freedom to swim. It makes them drown.

Worse, this isn’t a problem at the high school level. It’s a problem in college too. I graduated with a Sociology degree with precious little idea of how to apply it, aside from more study. Yes, I could have gone to more job fairs and such, but the institution has a responsibility to communicate these expectations and prepare confident jobseekers.

Moreover, it’s practically a cliche now that even very motivated college graduates are likely to still need extensive on-the-job training in their field. People spend tens of thousands of dollars on tuition and other expenses, and they’re still not truly ready for actual work in their field. College shouldn’t just be about work, of course, but it should succeed at vocational aspects as well as developing people with an array of perspectives and tools for life.

Meanwhile, so many people trying to enter the job market struggle with the classic catch-22: To get any job that would give them needed experience, they would need experience to enter the job. This catch-22 becomes more pernicious when one considers that one needs to be able to make money to get a car, buy nice clothes, wash those clothes, have an apartment, have a functioning shower, etc., all of which are necessary to get a job to be able to pay for college.

Part of the problem is what Joseph and Claudia Allen call in Escaping the Endless Adolescence “the teen bubble”: Teens are spending much more time with other teens than they are with the kind of adults they’re going to be come. Every other society has had adolescents apprentice, going on rites of adulthood that were basically vocational training. From hunter-gatherer societies where children were taught how to hunt and skin to feudal societies where they were taught their eventual job, other societies trained adolescents. Of course, those societies don’t have the options we have. But there’s no reason that we can’t have the freedom of options and the guidance as to what options we can pick.

What are some things we could do to burst this teen bubble and resolve this problem?

First of all, we could at the sophomore level of high school, if not earlier, start preparing adolescents for actual careers. That would include vocational counseling, apprenticeship programs, business engagement and leadership, job fairs, etc. This would also function as a mental health checkup. We would find out about adolescents who may have undiagnosed problems, instead of expecting adolescents with busy schedules and limited forward planning and self-awareness to figure out they have a problem for themselves. We could even mandate that every high school graduate had to have taken at least one course approved for actual work.

This would in turn mean that these courses would actually engage people to make social connections. For example: I was in an AV class in high school. Three buddies and I made a fun little mockumentary trailer short on our own time. Our teacher supported us some, but there just wasn’t the connections to have us directly meet with someone who could have us immediately start working. Imagine if that senior year of high school someone looked at our project and said to me, “This is great. You’re going to Davis, right? I know someone who needs a video editor in Davis, that can be a job you keep throughout the year”. Then someone in Davis looking for a qualified applicant would have one. Such a person could even have encouraged me and my buddies to pursue film school and to keep making films, and pointed us in the direction of indie filmmakers who could use our talents or mentor us.

Ceramics and pottery classes can have artists and ceramics makers come in and tell students about local opportunities. Programming classes could have local software development companies come by and explain what they’re looking for. English classes could take aside the brightest students and connect them with local poets, novelists, bloggers, and journalists.

Ultimately, this would likely require mandatory one-on-one career counseling time. But a mere hour per student could help students have a much better idea of what jobs are available to them, where they want to go, and so forth.

Second, colleges can emphasize vocational training far more extensively. They can send out campus wide e-mails. Professors can bring in people from organizations like Target who are looking for graduates with a host of skills.

In college, I met frequently with sociology advisors to make sure my course load was taking me the right direction. That should have been a time to get me to sign up for job fairs, inform me about upcoming events, etc.

Of course virtually every college imaginable has job fairs and social networking and alumni networks. But this needs to become part of the package. It wouldn’t really be that expensive to make sure that colleges produced adults ready to work in a variety of fields. And colleges need to be doing a much better job at making sure that a graduate is empowered to find a profession.

Third, government itself could get involved. We could increase unemployment benefit funding to include funding for vocational classes. We could increase job training programs. Government could even create PSAs about areas of the labor market that are underserved and get people excited about those areas.

What’s truly remarkable about this is that everything I’m saying is non-coercive.

The only thing we’d need to do to facilitate this that might even be arguably slightly coercive would be to increase educational expenditures. Of course, the total tax burden wouldn’t need to go up. We could take it out of moneys for subsidies to the rich, or military spending. We could even close some tax loopholes (which would increase taxes for some in effect of course). We’d have to be able to hire teachers with real job experience and connections, coaxing people out of the private sector to come teach valuable skills. We’d have to pay some more vocational counselors, psychologists, and so forth. But all of this would just increase options, and it’d provide businesses with access to passionate kids who knew what they wanted to do and were ready to learn.

And if people were honest about helping the poor and preventing poverty, we could do so much of it just through volunteer work. Local businesses could volunteer to create after-school programs to teach adolescents about their options. People with employment connections or with counseling experience could meet with high school sophomores and ask them, “What do you want to be? Who do you want to be?” Anyone with a marketable skill could help students make a club. A computer programming club, for example, could teach kids passionate about technology to learn C++, or web design.
I know that many adolescents wouldn’t have an answer for that question. That would then lead to a process of investigating and discovery. But I would have had an answer. Actually, I’d have had many. “Activism, helping people, being heroic, writing novels and articles…” Any one of those could have put me into a different trajectory from the one I took.
Nor is anything I’m suggesting anti-free market at all. One issue with the free market is always that it takes time for people to be educated to fill roles in the first place. This would assist the free market. It would help produce adults who could quickly adapt to gaps in the labor market.
It is true that incredibly self-reliant, focused people who have a very specific dream and refuse to take “No” for an answer can often find resources. Then again, I’ve seen such people still working at McDonald’s, struggling to keep their heads afloat.

And I can admit that not every high school graduate is necessarily going to be able to become a CEO or a novelist instantly. But there’s no reason we should have them be unemployed, and there’s no reason business owners should constantly be complaining that college graduates just aren’t capable of even after four years.

Yes, we can always say “The parents should do more”. But by that logic, we should just get rid of public education altogether! Parents can’t be expected to know every important skill that their child will need to know, unless we only want children to have the same jobs as their parents. Moreover, where will parents get those skills in the first place if the educational system was broken for them too? And that’s not even mentioning that many parents are already struggling to deal with adolescents without also having to prepare them for a very difficult job search. Society should make things easier for us as parents and citizens, not harder.

In a future “No Duh Report”, I am going to discuss vocational training more extensively and how the educational system that we have simply serves no one, not even business. The idea is so crucial that it deserves deep commentary. So many 20-to-35 year-olds I speak to are very angry that they were never taught how to balance a checkbook, how to manage credit cards, how to pay their taxes, how to register to vote, or any of the other social expectations they are required to learn.

But for now, it’s important that we banish the idea that freedom means letting people drown. Throwing someone a life-preserver can help their freedom. Making sure they don’t drown in the first place is even better.


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