The skills of our past

Since Emma was born in 2000, it’s obvious that she is a child of the 21st century while her parents are relics of the previous century.  We are the old timers who remember when music came on vinyl records, soda cans had dangerous pull-tabs and saccharine sweetener, pay phones were on every corner, smoking was sexy, and — most shocking of all — there was no Google.  We have fun from time to time, as I suppose every parent does, telling her tales of the “old days” and exaggerating the realities of life in the 1970s and 1980s.

I think most people tend to concentrate on the thundering advance of new technology and social rules because they can be overwhelming and the pace of change seems to accelerate all the time.  But let’s not forget the things we’ve left behind, whether they are a loss or not.  Sure, nobody really wants the 1976 Ford Pinto to come back, and there’s very little to recommend a manual typewriter in our increasingly paperless society, but they are still intangible and permanent influences on our view of the world ahead.  Our child of the 21st century doesn’t have such baggage.  This is her advantage, for the most part.  She doesn’t have the benefit of history (yet) but she has the “clean sheet of paper” mind that us more experienced people sometimes must strain to achieve.

One of Emma’s homeschooling books recently reminded me of this.  She was supposed to learn something about abbreviations and concepts of written information.  As an exercise, the book gave her a “classified ad” to decode, as follows:

NEED EXEC SECY — typ 70 wpm, shthnd, fil.  Local ofc of nat’l co.  Paid hosp ins, 2 wk vac, top hrly pay.  40 hr wk.  Apply 8-5, M-F.

This was of course a simple exercise for Eleanor and I.  But keep in mind that our student grew up in the age of the Internet.  She was completely baffled.  First off, she’s never heard of a “classified ad.”  We had to explain that in the old days, people used to pay to have tiny ads inserted in the printed newspaper.  This inspired a series of follow-up questions, such as “Why would you pay for that when you can just use Craigslist?”

Once we got past the concept of no Internet and having to pay high rates for three lines of print, we moved on to the ad itself.  This proved no better.  How could she be expected to decode “EXEC SECY” when the concept of corporate “executives” is rapidly becoming obsolete, and the term “secretary” is so anti-P.C. that it is one step from being a pejorative?

“Typ 70 wpm,” was easier, since typing is the new version of writing, for modern kids.  In fact, educational pundits are now decrying the loss of cursive writing skills from our school curriculum.  But again, the idea of being tested for typing speed struck Emma as odd.  After all, typing is no longer a specialized skill — these days, we’re all supposed to be able to do it.  So when would the “executives” need someone else to do it for them?  How do they do their own texting and update their Facebook pages if they can’t type?  Not being able to type these days is kind of like not being able to dial your own phone numbers.  (Oh wait, that “skill” may go away soon too, since we can now just talk to our phones and tell them who we want them to call.  How many of you have your spouse’s phone number memorized?)

“shthnd”:  I just laughed at that one.  I know only two women who can take shorthand: my mother and a lady about her age in Denver named Rhoda.  They both are amazing to watch as they effortlessly write beautiful squiggles on paper that mean nothing to me, and yet have a nearly perfect transcription of whatever is being said.  It’s nearly a lost skill.  I wish I’d learned it because I still take notes in my job, but who teaches it anymore?  Even when I went to journalism school in the 1980’s it was no longer taught.  Of course Emma had never heard of it.

“fil.”:  Filing?  What’s that?  These days a job ad would be far more likely to ask for someone with database skills.  Emma knows what a database is, since we were practicing building rudimentary ones two weeks ago, but I would like to see her face if she were confronted with a room full of file cabinets.  I can hear the question now: “Why don’t they scan this into a database and make it searchable on Google?”

“Paid hosp ins.”:  Another obsolete concept, but not because we Americans don’t need health insurance — a lot of us just can’t afford it.  Hardly any non-governmental or blue chip corporates still offer 100% employer-paid health insurance.  I am setting Emma’s expectations appropriately:  don’t expect any corporation to take care of your retirement, healthcare, or other personal needs.  Take care of yourself.

“2 wk vac, top hrly pay.  40 hr wk.  Apply 8-5, M-F”:  I have to admit that these are our fault.  Emma has never known a time when either of her parents worked outside the home or for any company, and thus the concepts of paid vacation, hourly pay, and strict working hours are foreign to her.  Hopefully this will be a plus for her.  I believe that 21st century kids will have to be creative, flexible, and entrepreneurial to be successful in America, as many of the recent economic victims of our recession have had to be.  Us relics from the previous century were the last of the era of factory workers, taught to show up on time, toe the line, and do the job until the clock says 5.  That’s not going to cut it anymore.

The home school curriculum we buy is pretty good, but once in a while it comes up with a real clinker like this classified ad.  Fortunately, one of the advantages of home schooling is that we can modify the program as we see fit.  It’s also a reminder to me that we need to stay atop the social and technological changes that are bombarding us, for her sake, and think about how they’ll change expectations in the future.  We can’t prepare her using only the skills of our past.