Job Prospects in the New Economy

Last Sunday the family and I woke up at 3:45a to drive the college junior to the Portland airport to catch an early flight. The airport was the midway point of our ultimate destination, a vacation spot in central Oregon. Like a couple of comatose puppies, the high school senior was curled up with her older sissy in the back seat of the car. Picture overlapping blonde hair everywhere. While they dozed the GalPal and I listened to a BBC segment about job prospects in the new economy.

The participants were Oxford or MIT professors. Cut me some slack, at 4:30a.m. the world’s best universities all kind of blur together. They made two points, the first which I’ve been making for awhile. The more my daughters (and their friends) develop sophisticated data processing knowledge and skills, the more job opportunities they’ll have. Quantitative analysis is probably a better term since data processing might conjure up mindless keypadding. This turn towards numbers is not a fad, the Quantitative Era is here to stay. Nearly every organization is analyzing more data than ever before—hospitals, schools, businesses, prisons, college and pro athletic teams, churches, you name it. People steeped in statistics and adept at using SPSS will be able to write their own tickets.

Which doesn’t help the sound asleep sisters. They did well in math, but didn’t embrace it, and have and will stop as soon as they’re able. According to the egghead professors, all is not lost, there’s another strand in the economy that holds promise for secure employment. Work that requires empathy.

They highlighted the work of preschool teachers. I was surprised by the choice, but clearly, unlike most jobs today, skilled preschool teaching can’t be automated because it requires nonstop empathy. The problem of course is unlike most quantitative analysis jobs, preschool teaching doesn’t pay a livable wage.

This excellent BBC dialogue made me think about our empathetic daughters who may end up leveraging their empathy as teachers or counselors. Other empathy-dependent jobs include pastor, social worker, nursing home worker, and nurse.

Had the BBC invited me to participate in the dialogue I would have posed some questions.

• Given the breadth of probable work in the future, why do we emphasize STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) at the expense of the humanities and related disciplines?

• Certainly, empathy is part nature, but also part nurture. How do parents nurture empathy?

• How do primary and secondary teachers encourage it—without usurping parents’ rights?

• More specifically, how do we help young males be more empathetic?

As always it seems more questions than answers, for me, for you, for the sleeping sisters and their friends.

The Causes of Burnout

Teachers, nurses, and social workers start out with wonderful idealism and enthusiasm for making a positive difference in people’s lives.

Why do too many of them lose enthusiasm for their work over time? Why, in worst case scenarios, do some even grow to dislike their work? Why aren’t work environments more encouraging, humane places where employee’s idealism and energy is encouraged, nourished, harnessed, and sustained?

People succumb to burnout as a result of some combination of these variables:

1) They are poorly prepared for challenging work settings. For example, teachers who are unable to manage large groups of students experience tremendous stress day in and day out. Stress that translates into fatigue, which contributes to negativity, which unattended to, leads to burnout.

2) Pragmatic work problems predominate so larger philosophical questions of purpose go unasked. Absent meaningful discussions of mission and purpose, people gradually lose touch with their work’s importance. This leads to a “going through the motions”, and eventually, burnout.

3) In negative work environments, a tipping point occurs when a critical mass of employees succumb to deficit models of thinking. For example, deficit-minded teachers often complain, “These students will never achieve, their families don’t value education, their community is dysfunctional.” Cynicism trumps hopefulness. Co-worker’s negativity rubs off and some teachers begin eating lunch alone. Inevitably, idealism and energy wane.

4) Adversarial relations with superiors and ill-conceived top-down directives cripple many people’s sense of efficacy. Once they conclude, “I have limited control over my school, hospital department, or casework,” their idealism and enthusiasm plummet.

Point two relates to this blog’s updated purpose which reads as follows:

This blog is about slowing down and being more reflective. Pressing Pause is devoted to substantive discussion about education and contemporary life. It’s for people who find meaning in essential questions, ambiguity, conceptual thinking, and nuanced discussions. A virtual college seminar or digital retreat based upon open-ended questions upon which reasonable people disagree.

I have a hunch that lots of people are desperate to rekindle their idealism and enthusiasm not just for their work, but life more generally. My hope for this blog in 2011 is that I can connect with more of those people and that together we can rekindle our idealism and find greater enthusiasm for making a positive difference in our own and other people’s lives.