Educating for the workplace: how necessary is it?

Published on the Objektion Project here.

Photo by Edvin Johansson on Unsplash

Universities seem to say that high schools aren’t really preparing their students for university. Companies are saying that universities aren’t really preparing their students with work-related skills very well. This has led many educators to think about how they are preparing their students for the workplace, and include transferrable skills, and some other vaguely defined programmes into their curriculums, so that their students are prepared for the ‘real world.’

But what statistics are they looking at to determine what this ‘real world’ looks like? As ever with statistics and questionnaires, the question that is asked is just as important to analyse as the answer. Many companies have been interviewed to figure out what skills they are looking for in their workers. Motivation is often on the list, especially self-motivation, but this largely comes when we find meaning in our work. Let’s take a look at some statistics that paint a different picture of the working world, and then imagine what it would be like for schools to teach this reality of working life for many people in developed countries.

In 2015, YouGov conducted a survey that concluded that 37% of workers in Britain found their jobs meaningless, and made no positive contribution to the world. That’s more than one third of all workers. In the Netherlands, when the same survey was carried out, 40% of respondents noted that their jobs were meaningless.

Source: YouGov UK https://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/inlineimage/13230/meaninglessLabourYouGov.png

David Graeber, author of the book Bullshit Jobs, quite correctly labels this 37% of jobs as bullshit: they are meaningless, unnecessary, make no positive contribution to the world, and the people who are doing these jobs recognise this, but very often have to pretend that they are engaged in meaningful activity, or even that they actually do something at the office. These are jobs, identified by the workers who perform them, that would probably make no difference to the world if they didn’t exist — in fact, the world might be better.

As a testament to how bad things have become, Graeber notes that in Spain, a worker at the water treatment plants was called to receive a medal for his longstanding service. When the authorities of the award went to find him, they found out he hadn’t turned up to work for the past six years, instead spending his time learning about Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza at home. Nobody had missed him, and nothing went wrong without his actually doing his job.

Let’s go back to the thesis of the education world at the moment: we must prepare our students for the workplace. It would seem, thus, that we must prepare our young people for a 37–40% chance of being in a meaningless job, where they make no contribution to the world, and where they think that if their job was not there, the world would be no worse off. We must teach them to pretend to be busy, to pretend to be working on something meaningful, and to waste away the hours until 5pm when they can go home. And because there is a 40% chance of students ending up in a job like this, it’s quite an important priority to be teaching these skills.

Let’s indulge in fantasy for a minute. What might this look like? We’d need classes on how to pretend you’re doing something when you’re not, we’d need classes on dealing with depression from a lack of meaning at work, we’d need to teach students how best to waste time, how to quickly change screens from E-Bay to Microsoft Word… We could really create a great generation of students here, who excel in the workplace, look busy all the time, and appear to be having a great time, when in fact they’re not contributing to the world at all. Well, at least they’d fit in!

Another interesting survey to look at is the breakdown of what is done in the average worker’s day. According to the Workfront State of Work Report 2020, only 40–45% of the average worker’s day is spent doing the primary tasks of their role. The rest is spent with emails (around 15%), administrative tasks (around 13%), wasteful meetings (around 8%), interruptions for non-essential tasks (also around 8%), and everything else (around 14%).

Source: Workfront State of Work Report 2020, https://www.workfront.com/resources/state-work-2020

It seems really important that our youth are educated in the practicalities of work as well, so based on this, on an average school day, students should actually only be spending around 43% of their time working on the curriculum. That equates to 2 hours and 35 minutes per day. Additionally, so that they’re really in the routine of work, in the last three years of high school, they should spend 15% of their time sending emails to each other, learning about, well, sending emails… On that task, they should spend about one hour. Surely this requires a special teacher a whole department of teachers even — it’s as long as a mathematics lesson!

In addition, they should go to pointless meetings for 30 minutes per day, have another 30 minutes to be interrupted for things that aren’t related to schoolwork, and then spend the final hour of the day on ‘everything else’ which probably includes eating lunch, spending time with friends, visiting the library, and going to important meetings (are school assemblies important??)

How can we make sure that this kind of timetable is implemented in our schools? If we must prepare them for the future, we must be realistic about what they will be doing in their jobs, so it seems imperative to campaign that schools cut the real, hard-working time down from around 6 hours to just 2 and a half. Only two lessons per day from the curriculum, I say!

Of course, this all seems like bullshit to anyone who thinks about education in an even mildly responsible manner. We should not be teaching our children to send emails for one hour per day. But it does raise the question — should we be teaching them other workplace skills as requested by the workplaces — or should we stick to providing a holistic and comprehensive education that acts as a foundational basis for life in general?

It’s easy to see how this can get out of hand, especially with somewhat comical statistics, but when our schools are implementing new programmes like offering leadership classes, future-focused learning, and more, perhaps we should be thinking about whether these vague initiatives are really the best things to put into our education, or whether a comprehensive schooling in the basics of knowledge about the world is actually much more useful.

If nothing else, these statistics about meaning at work and the makeup of the average workday make us think about just how prepared we want our youth to be for the workplace. If we do want them to be prepared, we really should be realistic about their chances of finding a meaningful job, and about how hard they will need to work (on average, of course).

And for those of us already in the workplace — you might have found some motivation to change things, remove the waste, and ultimately get the same amount done, in less time, for the same pay. Wouldn’t that be nice!

Jack Goldingham Newsom is the Chief Objektioner and Founder of the Objektion Project. We help people, social enterprises, and volunteer organisations to carry out their mission more effectively by challenging current ways of thinking, and developing new frameworks to support their vision.
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