Hard Work 101 for today’s youth

“He’s leaning toward Northwestern and majoring in English,” says my friend as she updates me on her firstborn’s college tour. I refrain from suggesting that she start getting the basement ready because that’s where Junior is going to land in five or six years.

Coming of age in the ’70s, when a liberal arts degree opened doors to many jobs, I have always believed in the value of education for education’s sake. Today, thanks to parents who saved for little Ashley’s education or encouraged young Ben to bury himself in debt to obtain a psychology degree, we have a nation of pampered kids with worthless educations, many so underwater in student loans that they’ll never see dry land.

The “basement generation” feels entitled to the $100,000 job that it took their parents a lifetime to achieve. Fast food jobs are beneath them and the sacrifice needed to obtain goals isn’t easy or fun. They have a fleeting attention span thanks to every device that we as parents felt obligated to give them. The celebrity culture that dominates their world has provided them with a skewed worldview: Be a drunken whore on “Jersey Shore” and endorsements roll in.

Before appearing a complete curmudgeon, let me assign a large portion of the blame to us baby boomers. Not only did we create this entitled generation, we are handing to them a world that rivals the one inherited by the “greatest generation.”

China is a hungry loan shark lurking, smelling the first signs of blood. Our military is stretched far too thin. Our elected officials live in deep pockets, miring our government.

Our generation enjoyed the shell game prosperity much the way Bernie Madoff’s clients collected checks.

The “basement generation” has the opportunity to be the next great generation, but I fear they lack the work ethic to do so. I think as parents we lack the guts to cut off the line of credit we have extended them. We don’t want them to be “unhappy” or are afraid they “won’t like us.”

So, to my friend who is all set to sink a couple hundred grand into her son’s education, let me suggest another type of college tour. A practical one where no cute coed leads him around campus, one that doesn’t culminate with some “Kumbaya” moment at the end where kids who have spent a day together feel bonded for life. Maybe one that ends with a stop at a union hall.

Our nation is overlawyered. Check the academic credentials of most bus drivers in college towns; you’ll be surprised how many have doctorates in anthropology. Poll a hundred kids entering college; how many are math or science majors? How many can complete a sentence without using the word “like?”

My husband’s father grew up in small-town Oklahoma in a comfortable family. He was a few semesters short of a degree in English when the Depression hit, forcing him to return home to help his father try to save the family’s mill. The mill failed, devastating his father, no doubt causing his death. This man did not end up in his parents’ basement. He did what he knew how to do: fix radios, which led to a job with Montgomery Ward. Was this his dream job? No. Was he able to support himself and his family? Yes.

The world that kids today face is not the one their parents planned to hand them with their college diplomas, but it is the one they are inheriting. We are doing them a disservice to continue to encourage them to aim for the corner office when the building is scheduled for demolition.

Hard work is not something to be ashamed of, nor is passing when you planned to punt. But pretending that Junior belongs in college just because you can afford to send him there, or because there is loan money available, is a false and dangerous belief in this economy.

Neither Shakespeare nor Tolstoy had college degrees; nor did Abraham Lincoln. How about the brave firefighter who carried the charred child out of a building after the Oklahoma City terrorist attack?

Maybe America’s elitist attitude toward manual labor needs to come to an end until we are able to produce children as disciplined as those in countries such as China and India.

Perhaps our children’s college tour should begin at a realistic point: the unemployment office.

Mary McConnell Ward lives in Iowa City, Iowa.