Work and Education: Stuck in the Past?

Work and Education: Stuck in the Past?
Dustin Lien
October 14, 2019

It’s not that we don’t feel the need for change, it’s that we’ve convinced ourselves that things just are how they are, and can’t change. What most of us fail to realize, is that work and school have been reinvented numerous times before, and they’re way overdue for an upgrade.

As professionals of the modern workplace, and students of the modern education system, in order to understand where we are now and where we’re headed, we must first understand where we have been (and where we have been is pretty fascinating).

Buckle up–pun intended. You’ll see why that’s a pun in a second.

Why Do We Work 9-5, Monday Through Friday?

You might have heard before that the traditional work hours of 9 to 5, Monday through Friday (in America at least), was created by Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor, in an attempt to standardize his production and keep workers on a short leash. Well, that’s not really true. Or perhaps you haven’t given it much thought, but in any case, let’s go down this rabbit hole.

What Henry Ford actually did was make the work-life balance and the financial security of the middle class of the time more sustainable, but I wouldn’t really give him all the credit; he was more what I would call an early adopter rather than the inventor.

A lot of the groundwork was being laid for about eighty-five years prior to Ford implementing this concept for his company in other parts of the world. Eight-hour work days were being demanded in different parts of the world in the 1800’s by laborers and tradespeople of all kinds, and a fair amount of companies were agreeing to the demands, though not much if anything was made law as far as eight-hour work days were concerned, until 1868 when U.S. Congress legislated for an eight-hour work day for federal employees.

For context, understand that people were used to working more like 10 to 12 hours at best, and even 16-hour days in some cases, all for only a couple of dollars per day (which is about $25 today). In 1914, Ford announced that his factories were going to run 24 hours a day, 6 days a week, with three shifts of employees working 8-hour shifts, and he increased the minimum wage to $5 a day, doubling the going rate to attract good employees.

Then in 1926, Ford shortened the work week for his employees from 6 days down to 5, and helped popularize the modern 40-hour workweek we all now love to hate, but let’s not jump to the conclusion so quickly that a 40-hour workweek was or is a bad thing.

At the time, people were absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to work a measly 40 hours per week, and get paid a day rate that allowed them to pay their bills and still have time for family and social gatherings. Remember (and this should be obvious), the internet did not exist yet during this time, so it was much harder to find a good job, and nearly impossible to start a business of your own unless you came from a family of wealth and had the necessary resources and connections available to make a business successful.

What I am getting at here, is that people didn’t have a lot of options when it came to work, so the fact that a company like Ford would pay a good day rate for 8 hours of work, and you could have a balance of financial stability and a social life, probably felt like winning the lottery.

It doesn’t shock me that people during that time would be ecstatic with that situation. I would have been too. What does shock me, is that people are being convinced that working a 9-5 corporate job is still the only reasonable way to make a living, and even more surprising than that, is the belief that even if people hate their jobs and feel a complete lack of purpose in their work, they should still just accept and appreciate that they have a job, any job, because starting a company or going after a dream job is fun to fantasize about during the constant coffee breaks and lunch hour, but it’s not a realistic option—just a fantasy. Ha.

That mentality is so 1900’s. Let’s fast forward to today, and talk about some of the changes that have happened with technology and culture in the last century that busted the doors of opportunity wide open.

A lot has happened since 1914 that has impacted the ways we’re able to make a living now, like digital printing, the internet, smartphones, and faster transportation to name a few, but the bow that ties everything up together nicely and explains why these inventions and advancements matter to our work lives, is one word: interconnectedness.

What’s ironic about interconnectedness is that it has ended up being quite the double edged sword for most of us. On one end, it makes everything more efficient, like communicating with co-workers and customers, ordering office snacks online for delivery, and having meetings via video chat with people thousands of miles away.

On the other end, it makes things that we previously could only do while physically at an office possible to do from anywhere in the world at any time of day or night, so we are now often expected to be reachable at all times. As much as we despise that, we know we expect the same out of others as well, even if we don’t realize we’re doing it.

Slowly but surely, we’re getting back to expectations of seemingly around-the-clock working, with the same pay rate based on 40 hours per week, and with less and less time for family and social gatherings where we’re able to actually “turn off” and relax. No wonder the anxiety rate is skyrocketing in America.

The last 9-5 job I had was at a custom design manufacturing company working in the marketing department. I personally had a firm rule, and respectfully made everyone aware, that I did not have my work email on my phone, and once it hit 5 p.m., unless there was an actual emergency, I was done for the day.

I was a full-time employee, but paid only for 40 hours and was not allowed under any circumstance to submit for overtime pay, so it was only fair that I did not work over what was agreed upon. I was efficient, stayed on schedule with projects, and managed my team properly.

Unfortunately, and maybe you can relate, the boundaries I had to set for myself to protect my home life and my own sanity were definitely frowned upon by my superiors. I was perceived as not a hard worker, not caring about the company, and unreasonable for not agreeing to check email or take calls past the hours for which I was paid.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think I was the unreasonable one in this situation. It’s a pretty simple concept that people should be paid for their work, rewarded for working overtime, and respected when they want to spend time with family, work on side projects, or just relax. Sadly, my story is all too common.

It probably goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway) that not all 9-5 jobs are like this. Some have great work balance, proper boundaries, and wonderful environments, and if you find a place like that to work that you find purpose and fulfillment in, and that you enjoy, then power to you. That can be a very good work life for a lot of people.

How did we as a society get into this pickle in the first place though, and why does the cycle continue with each new generation even though we know the system is broken? In my opinion, it all starts with the current education system.

Learn This Stuff, This Way, & Get Ranked and Graded

Education is a critical piece of our global progression in all areas of human life. Regardless of whether or not you are an advocate for certain types or styles of education, I think we can all agree that education is a good thing.

That said, our education system is broken, and it’s not even close to being fixed as far as I am concerned. This isn’t to assume or accuse that all schools, teachers, and systems of education are ineffective, but rather that on average, the system is not producing as much fruit as it could be. Since I am not an expert on education, I will stick to discussing my personal experience with it, but I think the vast majority of people will relate.

Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, I was routinely taught a curriculum that covered the basics pretty well, but I was graded in an odd way that encouraged me to study and learn completely incorrectly. Not for every class, but in most classes, I was graded based on how well I could memorize facts and regurgitate information, whether I actually understood it or not.

This created a pattern for me where I would pretty much pay little or no attention during class, and then cram for tests the night before, using a study guide that most teachers provided. I graduated high school with an “A” average, and I remember very little of the information I was taught, but I was still praised for being a “good student.”

I did learn a lot of things, but the biggest beef I have with school, is that I was allowed very little choice with the areas I wanted to study more of, and required to study a lot of things that I don’t need to know as an adult, and had no interest in during school.

Of course a certain set of standard subjects like reading, writing, math, arts, and some history, etc. are probably important to make required, but how much is too much? I’ll tell you right now I’ve never used math more advanced than basic algebra in the real world even though I was required to struggle all the way through precalculus for no apparent reason that I am aware of.

I’m not trying to demonize education, I’m trying to champion it. Education is too important to not be adapting more quickly as we become more aware of what’s working and what’s not, and as new methods and technologies are being developed.

Mostly what I’m saying, is that we’re in a tough situation as a society, and we’re breeding generation after generation of people who are told what to learn, when to learn it, and how to learn it, and who are rewarded for thinking inside the box and following the path laid out before them will little to no say. Oh, and if you don’t learn the same way as everyone else, you’re mentally challenged. Because that makes sense…

After graduating high school, at the ripe age of 18 years old, I was forced to choose a learning path based on a career I thought I might want for the next half century of my life. I was 18 years old. How was I supposed to know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life? I had barely experienced anything, and I knew almost nothing about what opportunities were available to me, or how the world was rapidly changing.

I was also lead to believe it would be the best financial decision of my life, and I’m still paying off that debt many years later. The truth is, people are graduating from the current education system with too much debt, outdated skills in a lot of cases, and no clue what the real world is about to throw at them.

But when did this all begin? How did we even get the public education system we currently follow (at least in the United States), and why has it not adapted as quickly as society or the global economy has?

Just like the modern 40-hour work week, the public school system as we have known it also has an origin.

Horace Mann, a politician in the 1800’s, is the man we can attribute our public school system to. He is often referred to as “the father of American public education.” Just like the introduction of the 40-hour work week, this education system was also a big stride forward in its time.

Mann introduced the framework of this system at a time when children learned mostly at home, and only the bare minimum for just a few years—sometimes not at all. He helped revolutionize education in America, and it was a huge success for a number of decades.

Part of his thought process was that Americans were not being taught the necessary skills to be effective as workers in the new industrial age, and needed to learn specific skills in order to become financially stable. Not only technical skills, but also social skills required to level up in the workplace like being on time for work, respecting authority, understanding your place when compared to your peers, and basic math and literacy that were not being taught to the majority of students by the time they hit the workforce.

Remember that the new industrial era had extremely different required skills for success than the previous agricultural era that everyone was used to did. Catering to each individual was not feasible at the time (and it is still a challenge today), so a “cookie-cutter” system was put in place that would produce well-rounded, predictable graduates ready for the common workplace of the time.

This system worked well for a while, but just like education was revolutionized in the 1800’s, we are past due for a new revolution. With the speed of technology and variety of opportunity that is now available to us, it no longer makes sense to have the same education system we had when students were being basically molded into perfect factory employees. There are new rules for the new economy, and the old system just isn’t cutting it. I think most of us recognize that.

Does that mean I have the answer? Unfortunately I don’t, but I wanted to bring to light a strong case for how we have all grown to believe and accept that we should follow the traditional education patterns, and eventually take any jobs we can get because “that’s just the way life is.”

Personally, I like the direction I’m seeing things go with online learning platforms and more mentorship/apprenticeship programs.

We have gotten to where we are now as a society (generally confused and unhappy) because we have continued to follow old rules that have less merit and practical use than they once did. It’s time to think differently about work and education, and adapt to the new world. In fact, it’s vital to our progression and our success that we do so.

See you on the other side, hopefully.