As the American economy sputters along in the wake of the Great Recession, younger generations are increasingly questioning the wisdom about work and success inherited from their parents and grandparents. A recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education explores the sense of disappointment and despondency that many Gen X-ers and Millennials experience in the job market. As Jennifer M. Silva writes, "Unlike their parents and grandparents, who followed a well-worn path from school to the assembly line—and from courtship to marriage to childbearing—men and women today live at home longer, spend more time in school, change jobs more frequently, and start families later."
Silva goes on to chronicle a number of those who have experienced the crushing debt that so often goes along with higher education without corresponding earning power in the modern marketplace. There are many aspects of the dynamics that threaten to upset the status quo of higher education today, but one of the most fundamental aspects of this has to with the cultural expectations that attend going to college. As a 34-year-old named Brandon puts it in Silva's piece, "I feel like I was sold fake goods. I did everything I was told to do, and I stayed out of trouble and went to college. Where is the land of milk and honey? I feel like they lied. I thought I would have choices. That sheet of paper cost so much and does me no good."
There are some significant resources that younger generations do have to draw upon to correct the problematic assumptions behind the connection between college, prosperity, and the American dream, even within pop culture. An acceptance speech by Ashton Kutcher at the MTV Teen Choice Awards earlier this month includes some important corrective insights. First, Kutcher emphasized that "opportunity looks a lot like hard work," and that a culture of entitlement and privilege will end up in failure. Kutcher says that he "never had a job that he was better than," whether it was manual labor or acting. Each job was a place to learn something and be a stepping-stone to something better.
Kutcher's words about the necessity of working hard are worthy enough, but he went on to urge his audience to value intelligence as well. Being smart is sexy, said Kutcher. One implication of this is that it is not enough to just work hard, but you also have to work smart. Kutcher's advice echoes that of another star of the small screen, Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame. Rowe has been a leading voice for the need to renew America's relationship with hard work, both for economic as well as cultural reasons. As Rowe puts it, the instinctive connection between higher education and economic success needs to be thrown out: "Those stereotypes are still with us. We’re still lending billions of dollars we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back in order to educate them for jobs that no longer exist. We still have 3 million jobs we can’t fill. Maybe it’s the legacy of a society that would rather work smart than hard."
So as Kutcher and Rowe urge, in the words of the latter, "work smart and hard." But as Kutcher's final point in his acceptance speech makes clear, our work needs to be oriented toward something larger. Kutcher encourages his audience to dream big, to work hard and smart "to build a life" characterized by meaning and significance. Lester DeKoster says there is a deep relationship between the meaning of our lives and our labor, since work is "a glorious opportunity to serve God and our neighbors by participating in God’s creative work through cultivation of the creation order." Work is a channel of preserving, common grace, intended by God to be the primary avenue for meeting our material needs and social life.
If younger generations faced by dour prospects in the marketplace would take the wisdom of Ashton Kutcher and Mike Rowe to heart, the prospects for a flourishing culture and economy would be much brighter. This would mean that there would be a greater recognition of the cultural and economic contributions realized through vocational training, through mentorships, craftsmanship, and entrepreneurs. Rowe, for instance, talks about "hundreds of men and women who loved their jobs and worked their butts off: welders, mechanics, electricians, plumbers. I’ve met them in every state, and seen firsthand a pride of workmanship that simply doesn’t exist in most 'cleaner' industries."
Kutcher and Rowe tell something that all of us, young and old, need to hear: we need to get our hands dirty in meaningful service of others. This will help us to rightly value hard work, intelligence, and our social responsibilities, which in turn can help create a society that flourishes, economically as well as culturally and spiritually.