The Skills to Succeed in Charles Dickens’ Time, and Ours

To create a national movement to better connect education, career pathways and job creation, while also promoting affordable learning, is going to take the cooperation of and a collaboration with as many public and private sectors players as possible.

It’s also going to take a renewal of American spirit and a determined collective effort, the inspiration for which I found recently when seeing the movie, The Man Who Invented Christmas, adapted for the screen by Susan Coyne from a book of the same name by Lee Standiford.

The Standiford book and subsequent film tell the story of how Charles Dickens rushed to write A Christmas Carol in 1843 and, in the process, did not just tell a story, but also conveyed a magical idea that, as Coyne put it, “in spite of all our differences, we can make something good happen.”

Published 174 years ago this year, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was an instant bestseller, followed by countless stage and screen productions. Victorians called it “a new gospel,” and reading or watching it has become a sacred ritual for many, without which the Christmas season is not complete.

I believe that A Christmas Carol’s seemingly timeless transcendence as a holiday ritual is more important than ever, especially during this time of changes in the labor force, and in the skills necessary to succeed in the work place. These changes create challenges for individuals today that are not all that different from what Martha Cratchit faced as she sewed dresses for the masses from a London factory floor.

For Martha and thousands of others in England during the time of Dickens, their way of life was being upended. The population of the island nation had grown 64% in just 40 years and workers were leaving the countryside to crowd into new manufacturing centers and cities. Meanwhile, there was a revolution in the way goods were manufactured: cottage industry was speeding toward collapse as began to serve as cogs in the pre-cursors of the assembly line.

Eventually the assembly line did come to England, was perfected by American business leaders and, for more than 150 years, became a staple of “middle-skills work” around the world. But today in our country comes a new challenge — automation, in which the once-dependable jobs between our shores are threatened by the rapid pace of technological change.

That’s where the American spirit — and the public-private sector initiative to do great things — comes in. When Dickens scribbled out A Christmas Carol in less than two months in the fall of 1843, he intended it as a “sledge hammer” blow laying bare for examination “modern” ideas about work and the economy.

There is unlikely to be another Charles Dickens anytime soon and we’ve already had our share of sledge hammers in the form of jobs moving offshore and books chronicling our fraying social fabric, from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. But we still have an opportunity to work to develop today’s modern ideas about the workforce and, in doing so to create a national movement to better connect education, career pathways and job creation, while also promoting affordable learning.

While Dickens urged employers to be responsible for the well-being of their employees, I would take that proclamation and apply it more broadly. All of us who are working to help individuals to better prepare themselves for careers in the changing economy should take inspiration from A Christmas Carol. In the words of Scrooge’s nephew, we are “fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”