We Are Raising the Kind of Children Employers Loathe.
I think we can all admit to grabbing our phones in the middle of a conversation in order to look something up. “You say a baby Platypus is a Puggle? Well, let me just check that!”
Knowledge is power, and oh, how powerful it feels to have a repository of the entire world’s accumulated knowledge at the tip of your fingers.
Convert Fahrenheit to Celsius? Give me a minute, and I’ll give you an answer.
How to make homemade limoncello? Let me get my laptop.
Yes, knowledge is king. We encourage our children to study, read, remember. We admire those who have gained great gobs of knowledge in arcane areas, as well as the local pub quiz champ. We praise the student who achieves a perfect score, the one whose name is etched on Honor Boards and listed in the school magazine. Yes, knowledge is king.
But how valuable is all this information if we don’t have the skills to work with others? How does a community benefit from all this learning if The Learned One has never learned to communicate or compromise? How does The Learned One share this hard-earned knowledge if they never learned self-control or how to work in a team?
Let me pull up my soapbox: I am talking about soft skills, the learned ability to work and interact well with others.
For my generation growing up, we polished our soft skills (also known as social skills) daily. Naturally, the connectivity offered by the internet didn’t exist, so there was no hiding behind screens, cut off from humanity. In fact, in South Africa, television didn’t exist until around 1976, and when it was introduced, it was a lot of talking heads and government messaging. The only thing we could binge was the radio! Binge-listen?
Many of us shared meals around a family table where you learned to listen—and to speak up. There is nothing like a verbal sparring match with an older sibling to hone your communication skills. Negotiation techniques were polished as you debated who set the table and, therefore, who should be clearing it.
Nowadays, the pressure of life has driven families to grab meals alone when it fits their specific schedule. Group meals are often accompanied by phones or other devices. As for meals in restaurants, the majority of caretakers gladly shove a device into the hands of their young charges, happy to have a moment to sip their wine and chat with the other adults. Each child sits alone in their imaginary world.
Car rides were another proving ground for soft skills. Long drives to school or sports were often spent listening to parental advice or sharing news about your day. Using your persuasive skills was never as important as motivating why you needed to sleep-over at a friend’s house. Who controlled the radio was a masterclass in tenacity, possibly even emotional control?
We couldn’t pop in our earbuds and tune out the world while our mothers or fathers sat like mute chauffeurs. We couldn’t bury our faces in a screen bursting with YouTube videos.
Constantly, we had to interact with other human beings, and they came with all their annoying habits and irritating behaviors.
We may not have had the world’s knowledge in our hands, but, to a greater or lesser degree, we knew how to get along with others. We didn’t have any other option.
Then, life began changing at a frighteningly rapid pace.
Slowly, society designed devices that could effectively remove us from the messy business of daily interactions and slide us effortlessly into worlds of our own making.
No need to make small talk in an elevator. No need to go to the playground with its Law of the Jungle rules. You never have to leave your bedroom; you can play video games with people halfway around the world. You can send off a nasty work email at 3am. Or even break up with someone in a text. Why get to really know them? If you get tired of them or they annoy you, you can even hit delete. No need to practice self-control, just press a button.
Nowadays, relationships form without people ever meeting. None of that exhausting reading of social cues. No need to decipher a frown or a hand gesture when you can convey an entire message using nothing but emojis. The back and forth of conversation, not required; just type and type and type what you want to say. You don’t even have to read the other person’s response! And when even that becomes too burdensome, you simply vanish. Ghosting is so much easier than examining your feelings and working out how to deal with a difficult situation.
As generations of children become increasingly reliant on their devices as stand-ins for real relationships, we have entered this perfect storm where there is unlimited access to knowledge. Yet, many cannot have a civil discussion with someone who disagrees with them. An educated discussion, yes. A civilized discussion, not so much.
Society is raising the sort of children who employers loathe. Yes, a strong education will always have value, but hundreds of thousands of young people graduate from universities every single year. Their academic background is only a small part of the most necessary skills.
Employers want people who know how to collaborate, are tenacious, empathetic, and can work on a team. They want to see emotional regulation, impulse control, verbal skills, problem-solving, and strong listening skills. They look for leaders who can show compassion, interpret non-verbal cues, and who are adaptable and considerate of others.
As adults, it has to start with us. We must role model device-free behavior. If your children are young, know that they watch your every move. If your children are grown, use every opportunity to enjoy them—device-free.
You cannot learn social skills by reading about them online. You can only learn them by mixing with other human beings.