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Walter Russell Mead: Youth today at risk of not forming a healthy relationship to work

Pizza Boy

By Joe Perez

“Young people often spend a quarter century primarily as critics of a life they know very little about: as consumers they feel powerful and secure, but production frightens and confuses them,” says Walter Russell Mead, editor of The American Interest magazine, is an insightful social commentator who isn’t afraid to make broad assessments of culture and society.

The liberal social model is breaking down in the U.S. and elsewhere, Walter Russell Mead says, but we can’t simply return to the conservative view of society, either. Calling the liberal model “blue” and conservative model “red” as is the norm among U.S. political pundits these days, he says that we need to find a way beyond blue that doesn’t try to re-create red.

The key to doing so, he said this week, is to understand how the blue social model has transformed the nature of work in our society. In “Beyond Blue 6: The Great Divorce,” he focuses his attention on a worrisome trend in last 20 years or so:

Historically, young people defined themselves and gained status by contributing to the work of their family or community. Childhood and adulthood tended to blend together more than they do now. Young people in hunter-gatherer tribes hunted and/or gathered with greater success as they approached adulthood. Farm kids moved toward adulthood as they contributed to the family’s well being at a higher and higher level. The process of maturation – and of partner-seeking – took place in a context informed by active work and cooperation.

In the absence of any meaningful connection to the world of work and production, many young people today develop identities through consumption and leisure activities alone. You are less what you do and make than what you buy and have: what music you listen to, what clothes you wear, what games you play, where you hang out and so forth. These are stunted, disempowering identities for the most part and tend to prolong adolescence in unhelpful ways. They contribute to some very stupid decisions and self-defeating attitudes. Young people often spend a quarter century primarily as critics of a life they know very little about: as consumers they feel powerful and secure, but production frightens and confuses them.

The separation of learning and work was originally seen as a way to promote learning: by allowing young people to concentrate full time on learning without the “distraction” of work, they could do a better job in school. It is certainly true that working kids too hard can make it impossible for them to learn – but it is also true that cutting kids off from work can also reduce their ability to learn. The maturity and sense of purpose that come with responsibilities in the real world make students more serious about what they choose to learn and how hard they work to take advantage of the educational opportunities they have.

That so many American kids spend so many years in school without learning basic, elementary school-level reading and math skills — to say nothing of the other things that in theory 12 years of formal education should teach — is a devastating critique of the way we organize this part of our lives. The sheer amount of time wasted is staggering – to say nothing of the money, effort or lost potential. People often speak of the need to revive vocational and industrial education as a way of reaching students for whom the traditional academic classroom holds little appeal; more basically, education needs to be integrated with the priorities and purposes of life as these young people experience it.

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When I read Mead’s critique of Americans as too much consumers and not so much producers, I am reminded of a criticism voiced by a friend of Steve Jobs (I forget who) to the late CEO of Apple. The friend told Jobs that Apple was creating a big problem in the world. Its gadgets like the iPod were great at allowing people to consume entertainment, but terrible at allowing them to create.

As much as I admire the scope and complexity of Mead’s thinking, I am also struck by his failure to consider the connection between the shifting relationships between learning, work, and wealth, alongside the shifts in American spirituality.

Looking at an important survey of shifts in religiosity over the past 20 years a stracked by The Barna Group. It breaks down its findings for women and men, and finds regarding both that church attendance is down, Bible reading is down or holding steady, Sunday school involvement is down, and volunteer activity at church is down. The surveys also tracked significant decreases in people feeling that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious views with others who believe differently and decreases among those firmly believing that the Bible is totally accurate.

What’s more, only one religious behavior increased: becoming unchurched. Considering that other recent surveys have found professed spirituality among Americans at an all-time high, it is clear that religiosity and spirituality have become increasingly distinguished over the past 20 years or so.

So as learning and work are becoming more highly differentiated, a parallel movement seems to be taking place in the God-realm. People in the U.S. today are spending more time in school and in differentiating their identities through patterns of consumption, and they are spending more energy in highly differentiated forms of spirituality, consuming new age workshops and self-help books, and less time in churches which tend to require obedience to traditional beliefs and codes of morality.

Mead speaks of a need to reform education so it becomes more integrated with “the priorities and purposes of life as these young people experience it,” but without uttering a single word about spirituality or God, he tends to reinforce the disconnections that he wants remedied. How — without encouraging young people to explore and express their unique experience of God or Ultimate Reality — can education hope to speak to their deepest needs for meaning and purpose? How can it hope to build character based on love and charity grounded in something more permanent than the desires of the ego?

If people today have become too obsessed with consumption and not enough with production, the remedy is not to send people back to factory floors or sterile cubicles that were the norm in the 1950s. We need new ways of experiencing work which allow us to bring with us our more differentiated and individuated selves. Those “selves” are more spiritual today than religious, but that spirituality is too seldom allowed to be the spark that generates the creativity that fuels passionate work and generosity of spirit.

The seriousness of the problem at work can hardly be overstated. Surveys have even found that job satisfaction among U.S. workers has recently hit 20-year lows. A revolution in the self and spirituality has taken place in recent decades — broadly, a shift towards more inward, highly differentiated individuals dependent on constant stimulation arising from a globally-aware consciousness — but our structures of work choke off the life force of this new spirit.

To move “beyond blue,” pundits like Mead must be willing to address Spirit and learn how it is bursting outside of the old forms of production into new forms of creativity. And we must look at how liberal blue dogmas such as holding to a strict separation of state and spirituality are compounding the problem. As a clearer picture forms, we can better understand the potential role for  World Spirituality in addressing problem areas.

Originally posted on March 24, 2012, on Awake, Alive & Aware.