Get up, dress up, show up, never give up… and be replaced by a robot

Roomba cleaning carpet
Even a robotic vacuum cleaner is smart enough to figure out what work it doesn’t need to do, and what tasks it’s incapable of.

Allison Schrager‘s piece in Bloomberg about men’s role in the economy going forward hit on some themes I’ve been thinking about for a while. She talks about something our education system is designed to do that no longer works, and why the primary victtims are young men:

At [the beginning of the industrial revolution], factories hired women and children because they were more compliant and better suited for the structure of the industrial economy. One reason for universal schooling was to condition boys to one day be factory workers who could take direction from a boss and stick to a schedule.

Our education system at its core still dates to WWII and earlier. More than most that I’ve encountered in the world it’s designed around impressing people with the value of loyalty and obedience. This is part of the reason we have flags and pledges every day, something I have not seen in any other modern country whose schools I’ve visited. We design around obedience and conformity in a way that no other democracy I’m familiar with does.

This ties well to another quote I see tossed about, usually by politicians and promoters from (mostly) rural or formerly industrial areas, touting their workforces. Often they will use the old tired quote, explaining that their workforce has been trained on the farm (or wherever) from early life to:

Get up, dress up, show up, and never give up.

I can’t imagine wanting to locate anything important where those are the values that are taught. Let’s take them one-by-one:

Get up: Honestly, it’s over-rated. Sure you need to sometimes, but when you look at many of the fastest growing and best paying professions, we’re working from home and may continue working from home for a long, long time. I’m working in bed today. I’ll eventually get up to eat.

Dress up: Seriously? I don’t own a suit, jacket or tie and haven’t in years. I think I have a nice pair of pants somewhere, but even when I had to go to the office I rarely wore anything more elaborate than jeans.

Show up: The only time I’ve gone to an office in the past year and a half is to use a printer or pick up some item that I don’t have at home.

OK, I’m being cynical. Most people will have to get up, dress up (or at least put on pants), and show up sometimes. Even me. But let’s get over the assumption that there’s anything incredibly grand or special about doing so. As Chris Rock asked “what do you want, a cookie?” For most jobs, where required, these are minimal requirements, not enough to do well, or in most cases even get hired.

That brings up the big one, the one that our education system is designed to pound into you, and that is one of the most destructive lessons you can ever learn:

Never give up: For the industrial worker era, this was mantra, and our entire education and workforce management system was built around it. Discipline and tenacity, along with their counterparts compliance and obedience, were the core of what you had to do. Much of our culture, as well as many of our religious norms are designed around it. Calvinism was practically designed to focus us on this, because that was what mattered if you wanted to have a “good life.” (I guess old John Calvin and I will never agree on what constitutes a “good life.”) Unfortunately, it’s had it’s run and we need to cast it off along with all the systems that reinforce it.

Every day I make thousands of decisions, big and small. Few of them relate to “how to keep going and not give up.” The most important ones are all about what to give up on quickly because it’s not worth continuing. Being obedient, compliant, and never giving up at the things you were told to do was the essence of work in the industrial age. Giving up quickly on things that are more trouble than they’re worth is what it takes to be successful today. If you’re in a job that pays more than minimum wage, there probably isn’t going to be anybody to tell you what is and isn’t worth giving up on. You’ll have to figure it out yourself.

So it’s troubling to me that so many people — the majority of them white men — are still clinging to these old outdated notions. As Schrager notes, it means that a huge chunk of the workforce is destined to remain un- or under-employed.

To break this, we need to break the education system as it exists. Any system that teaches rote learning and memorization (when you can easily search for the answer online), or that emphasizes obedience and compliance with rules, when the most important skill is figuring out what you don’t need to do, is going to fail its students going forward. Unfortunately, the places that are most in need of change are the ones clinging most desperately to the old ways and ancient ideas. They are also plagued with chronic unemployment, divorce, drug abuse and suicide. That’s what happens when you raise people to live in a world that no longer exists and as Schrager writes, isn’t coming back no matter what we do.

When I’ve expressed this sentiment before, I’ve been accused of being an “elitist,” because my education and experience allow me to do the kind of jobs that require judgement and invention, and that I’m “talking down” to people who need things to be kept simpler. I don’t see it that way, in fact, I see the opposite.

During WWII, George Patton famously said that you should “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to get done and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” Patton was not speaking of Ivy League educated senior managers, he was talking about American GIs, most of whom had less education than today’s high school graduates. David Packard (founder of HP, and later Deputy Secretary of Defense) said that the right way to run things was to give people challenging objectives and the tools they needed to accomplish them, then get out of their way. He was speaking of workers in a factory.

There’s no elitism in saying that the average American worker can figure out what needs to get done (and conversely what doesn’t). The elitism is in those who look down their noses at a large portion of the population, determine that they aren’t worthy of such trust, dump them into an education system that reinforces the notion that they should never deviate from rote obedience, then mouth empty words about patriotism and tradition and Jesus and whatever else they can think of to make this state of affairs acceptable.

There’s a word for something that is always there, always ready, always looks good and always does what it’s told until it’s told to stop: a robot. “Get up, dress up, show up and never give up” is the mantra of an automaton. These days, even my Roomba is getting smarter about figuring out what to not bother with, either because it’s beyond its ability to clean up, or because there’s nothing there to clean, so why waste time going through the motions? People are going to need to be a lot smarter than that to keep up.