The Things We Say about Work

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Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

Last week I was invited to share my thoughts about what my kids’ school could do better to prepare them for the workforce.

Using Thoughtexchange, I shared my thoughts. I could also see others’ thoughts. And, I could see how each thought ranked on a scale of 1–5.

Many people thought communication skills could improve — kids spend too much time on phones and don’t know how to talk to people. Others mentioned soft skills. Also making the list were perseverance, coping mechanisms, and accountability.

Perhaps most frequent, though, were thoughts related to work ethic. In fact the 2nd and 4th most highly rated thoughts were about “teaching” kids the importance of work ethic and “pushing” them to develop one. Someone even suggested we teach work ethic by making work mandatory. For kids. This thought actually averaged 2.9 stars.

I get the importance of a strong work ethic. I do. But, I’m not sure “work ethic” should be topping the charts. Especially here in the greater Columbus area. In the same week Kroger suddenly closed its downtown bakery. After 90 years. Putting 411 people immediately out of work.

You see, Kroger decided these bakery operations were “no longer sustainable” if Kroger wanted to “remain competitive.” Apparently, the building’s layout, as well as the age of its equipment, were hurdles the company couldn’t overcome. So, other facilities, or third-party suppliers, will do the work.

Overall, according to Kroger, this decision was made in order to “adapt to the ever-changing retail environment.” This is, at least, consistent with other decisions Kroger has made in the past six months. Like the building of an automated warehouse. Or its launch of “Scan, Bag and Go”, a new checkout process which eliminates the need for cashiers.

These business decisions, each of which eliminates human labor, were in no way due to a lack of work ethic. In fact, I’d be willing to bet the bakery had plenty of hard-working, diligent employees. Sure, there were likely some lazy employees too. But, here’s the thing — each and every one, all four hundred and eleven people, lost their job.

At the Kroger bakery, a good work ethic didn’t save anyone’s job. Hard work didn’t matter. Everyone was treated exactly the same. They all lost their jobs. They all lost their benefits. They all lost out to a company focused on adapting. A company focused on automating.

Perhaps you’re thinking that the hardest working bakers would be welcomed at other Kroger locations. That’s a good point. However, wages at the bakery were higher than at other Kroger operations. Making the bakery employees’ strong work ethic actually less valuable.

Early in the industrial age, I imagine showing up on time, ready to work, day-in and day-out, was a competitive advantage. When we started “working for the man,” a strong work ethic probably helped us stand out. Made us more eligible for a promotion. Helped us get off the line and into management. But, that was decades ago. That time is gone.

We’re in a new age. An age of agility. Of automation. An age when a strong work ethic won’t matter. It won’t set you apart. It won’t make you stand out. And, it most certainly won’t save you, or your job, from automation.

So, as we teach our kids about work, we’ve got to be thoughtful about the things we say. We can’t repeat what our parents and grandparents said. We can’t give the same advice we were given.

By no means am I advocating for laziness. A strong work ethic is important. But, we cannot let our kids believe that showing up and working hard is enough. They have to deliver more. They have be willing to be unique in their thinking, or in their skills, or in their creativity.

Robots have a bottomless reserve of work ethic. They don’t need breaks, or weekends, or vacations. So, competing in this age of automation will require more than a strong work ethic. And, we have to tell our kids that. We cannot be preparing them for a world that no longer exists by saying things that are no longer true.

Since the dawn of humanity, older generations have thought the younger generations didn’t work as hard. In many ways it’s true. With every innovation, life did get a little easier. So, each new generation seemingly worked a bit less. But, now is not the time for generational stereotypes.

Now’s the time to update the things we say. To prepare today’s kids to be tomorrow’s workers. Prepare them for a world where work ethic alone will not be enough. Where, finally, being human — being compassionate, creative, and collaborative — will matter more.

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Helping students think critically about work. Easing the transition from education to employment.

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