The economy is the message


Newton dubbed his definition of inertia his First Law of Motion. Simply put, it’s the tendency of objects to resist being set in motion when they’re at rest and to resist being brought to a stop when they are in motion. The change from one state to the other happens when the object “feels” an external force.

We humans also embody inertia. But unlike inanimate objects, we feel the external economic and social forces that impact on us emotionally and intellectually, not physically. We make a conscious decision to resist compromising our principles and to not take calls from telemarketers. But we can be prone to consciously misapplying that resistance, especially those of us with children whom we want to be university-bound because we’re convinced—and want them to believe—that a university degree is still the best way to ensure secure, career-long, high-paying employment with benefits and a path to a comfortable retirement.

But then that makes us external influences. What if we’re wrong?

The forces at play today bear careful scrutiny. With certain exceptions, notably STEM positions, university education is no longer a guarantee of securing a dream job, or any job for that matter. Downsizing, off-shoring and outsourcing are directed at all working people, newly minted graduates included. Since the beginning of 2013, the Toronto Star and other media outlets have reported on a labour market in which one half of all employees are working in contract or part-time positions with no paid benefits and few if any prospects for upward mobility. University graduates, some with two degrees, are finding no work at all. They’re either overqualified or mis-qualified.

A growing number have agreed to work as unpaid interns. Banks hear “unpaid” and think, “won’t be able to repay a loan”. Landlords hear, “won’t be able to pay rent”. Graduates take it to mean, “may not be able to get married and start a family”. Nor are these graduates debt-free. Many are struggling with loan repayments totalling between $25,000 and $30,000 each. Some, more.

This is the point at which many parents would be tempted to say, “O.K. We’ve lived through tough times before and we will again.” Once upon a time maybe, but not now.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that employers know that there is such a thing as free lunch. The provincial government is doing nothing to enforce laws that preclude hiring unpaid workers to do work normally done by salaried staff; they have no means of monitoring the situation. Unpaid workers don’t show up on payrolls so there are no tax records to audit showing that they’ve worked or that they’ve contributed to Employment Insurance. Why would an employer who knowingly “employs” unpaid interns illegally want to attract the government’s attention by submitting a Record of Employment for someone who wasn’t supposed to be there. Salaries and benefit premiums aren’t the only things these employers aren’t paying. They’re also saving matching contributions to CPP and EI.

If these facts of life aren’t enough to “force” us to re-examine long-held beliefs, we may have just reached the tipping point. Employers are reported to be insisting that their employees be within earshot of a BlackBerry or similar device and that they respond within 60 seconds to e-mails sent after normal business hours and on weekends. And what about vacations?

Deliberately or otherwise, employers are dabbling in social engineering. Not all, to be sure, but some. It might not be stretching the truth to say that, at this rate, there may be no next generation. Some employers appear to be moving in the direction of the farmer who tried to save money by training his horse to pull his wagon while reducing its daily ration of oats one day at a time. The day the horse ate nothing was the day it died.

The carrot-and-stick story I grew up with was a wake-up call for the donkey. For PDD, the antics of some of our employers qualify as a wake-up call. There are already predictions that when the recovery comes, it will bypass new graduates and the chronically unemployed. This as the ranks of the top 1% are predicted to grow by over 30%.

The “victory” of the free-lunch crowd will almost certainly be self-limiting. The door is swinging open for employers who do believe in respect for the individual, no free lunch and no slavery to use that differentiator to outcompete the advocates of something for nothing for our best and brightest. As a society, we need young people with the thinking skills to survive in this economic climate. To be creative, to innovate, to be enthusiastic. What we don’t need is more horse and oats stories.

There’s a P.S. in all of this: all is not sweetness and light in the world of academe either. Please see Bruce Stewart’s post dated March 13th. Then visit the Millenium Project website. You’ll sense the urgency educators are bringing to this undertaking to ensure that their profession remains relevant so that they, too, can continue to work. Relevance will be in the eye of the customer who pays the bills. As parents of the children who will be those customers, we may have to abandon the notion of ivy-covered buildings in favour of forcing our institutions of higher learning to compete successfully so that they might earn their way.

Those that fail to compete will fall by the wayside. The idea of closing unprofitable universities and colleges has already been broached in Millennium Project literature. Given the state of technology and distance learning, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to envision a time when a single university will acquire the status of global centre of excellence for a given discipline and offer degree programmes to students via the Internet that will be recognized anywhere in the world.

We can never be too educated: not now, not ever. But we must be more selective about what education we buy and how we propose to leverage it. According to the media, one generation of young people is already at risk. Can we afford to lose another?

The quasi-slavery thinking that appears to be gaining some traction will benefit no one. In the short term, employers who embrace it may actually come out ahead. But at what cost to the next generation, assuming there is a next generation?

Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Parents in the process of investing in education for their children that speaks to yesterday instead of to today and tomorrow may be the enemy Pogo was referring to. Avoiding that role is a matter of personal due diligence.

To discuss what you’ve just read in greater depth so that you can develop and execute a strategy to deal with it, please contact us—before the 60-second clock on your BlackBerry starts ticking.

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