We are more than our metrics.

More than our metricsThis may be expected of a person who seems to gravitate toward the subjective, but I have a growing uneasiness about our culture’s obsession with metrics.

A few days ago, I commented on someone’s Facebook post on one of the latest books about education, one that compares and contrasts our system with the some of the world’s more successful. Having not read the book, I can’t say that the other countries aren’t sucked into obsessive measurement of their students, but I know we are. My family’s personal experience hasn’t been too mired in metrics, but I know plenty of parents whose kids are taught to the test. Last year teachers at our local public school district went on strike in part because of measurement. I saw many picketers holding up signs saying something along the lines of, “Do you want your child to learn to think or fill in a bubble?”

Today it’s a recent article from the New York Times on the ranking of colleges and universities by the income of its graduates that has me disturbed. We knew it would come to this, right? I’m a bit surprised it has taken this long, but I suppose accessing and calculating this kind of data is a massive undertaking.

This development bothers me for a couple of reasons. The first is the broader issue of how it seems that nothing can go unmeasured. (Perhaps instead of No Child Left Behind, we should say No Child Left Unmeasured.) Granted, with the price of a college education as high as it is, it’s clear how tempting it is to evaluate a school’s worth based on potential income of its graduates. Yet, it also devalues so many aspects of higher education that can’t be translated into data that is fed into a spreadsheet that gives us objective numbers. I credit my four years in college with expanding my worldview and giving me the confidence to explore. I don’t believe that either of these influenced my salary at any point in my career, though my liberal arts education makes it possible for me to position it that way, if that was in fact, my point. Beyond the paper my degree is printed on (and where that is, I have no idea) and my transcript, most of what I left with is fairly subjective.

That subjective stuff is the best part. People invest in these degrees, most believing that they will carry them throughout the several decades of their adult life. This involves not only job skills (many of which are actually obtained through internships and entry-level work anyway), but also the hallmarks of liberal education, such as communication skills, interpretation, critical thinking and an appreciation of the human experience, among many other things. Will the algorithm to measure this stuff ever exist?

The other troubling point is what is being measured — money. In the case of a college education, this is a chicken-and-egg prospect. College is expensive. Though our modern financial approaches make it within reach of many people, it really shouldn’t be. I’m not a financial expert, but I wonder if a collapse similar to what happened with the housing market is possible with higher education. This is why this kind of measurement is so enticing, I suppose. Why spend six figures if you’re not going to get a sizable return?

This brings us back to the real value of higher education. In the article, one of the experts quoted cautions against higher education becoming more like a “referral or employment agency.” It seems that colleges are being viewed as white collar trade schools. What if your “trade” isn’t high-paying, like teaching or social work? Should you encourage your kid to go to a less expensive school simply because he or she wants to study a subject with limited financial gain?

Will this create a system where the most expensive and most prestigious colleges will primarily educate our engineers, financial tycoons and CEOs, with the less-expensive options focused on the folks who help our children prepare for college or provide many, many people with the skills to function in our society? What about healthcare professionals? With the income potential for jobs like general and family practitioners decreasing in comparison to the cost of medical school, will the people who help us manage our health be encouraged to seek out lower-cost degrees?

And if college education becomes segmented by income potential, will it become a you-get-what-you-pay-for situation?

Worse yet, what if our most ambitious and talented folks choose only degrees that will earn them a certain amount of money? We all know this happens already. By focusing even more attention on this, does it become a mandate for choosing a career? Will it tip the balance for more people between wealth and happiness in what they do for a living?

I’m not an educator, financial guru or mathematician (which is probably quite apparent), but I have a strong sense that we are counting up the leaves and the branches, but missing the beautiful forest. Maybe it’s just that the art of art is lost on us as we try to add it all up and make some kind of sense of the value we provide in our world. My gut tells me that with all this concern of measuring up, we are missing a big piece of the human experience.

The message is simple and the choices are hard… even 41 years later

Apparently, it really wasn’t time to change.

Remember the Brady Bunch episode when Greg writes a song, all the kids plan to record it, but Peter’s voice changes? Honestly, how can anyone forget the line, “When it’s time to change, you’ve got to rearrange”? (And can you tell the Brady Bunch  is a very popular show at my house?)

What you may not remember is that at the beginning of the episode, Greg had written a different “guaranteed hit”. “We Can Make the World a Whole Lot Brighter,” was a lovely tune about making the world a better place. I had forgotten all about this until I was walking around my house going about mundane tasks when a line from the song struck me… something about not cutting down trees. And then the line, “Don’t you know, it’s now or never.”

But it is, in fact, 41 years later. As we reflect on what has transpired in the past four decades, I think we can say that we did not heed the Brady kids’ warning.

People have been talking about changing the way we treat our world for as long as I’ve lived. It’s not that I didn’t know that the environmental movement began before the first Earth Day in 1969. Marvin Gaye was singing about it before the Brady’s did, and given the time it takes for a movement to enter pop culture, this had to be going on for quite a while. But since this time, we have chopped down more trees, our fish have even more mercury (and a bunch of other stuff too), and our air isn’t any cleaner.

People do recycle now. The crying Native American convinced us to cut back on littering. Eco-friendly products are taking up more shelf space in our stores… even in our big box retailers. Yet, there are so many ways our society has become more wasteful. Think about all the cheap plastic toys in McDonald’s Happy Meals and the Dollar Store, for example.

Our economy depends on people consuming. Many people still feel good about abundance. The image of the Christmas tree from which a river of gifts flows onto the living room floor… it’s iconic.

I wonder how many people out there are like me, who feel the push-pull of our culture and the conveniences the American lifestyle feeds? I bet there are plenty who cringe when they pick up a box of Uncrustables, knowing they should take the two minutes in the morning to make the sandwiches themselves. Maybe there are others who drive around in their (non-hydrid) SUV, lusting after the Prius in the parking spot next to them. I often find myself slapping my own hand when considering my choices as a consumer.

We all probably realize that our individual efforts are drops in an ocean without our government and the big players in our economy making major changes. And when this thought crystalizes, do you get frustrated to find yourself in this position? Do you give in and hope a more powerful entity will change? Or do you live your values, even though the world you live in makes it tough to do so? I wish the answer was as easy as a song.

Every generation blames the one after

Courtesy of Time Magazine from 1990

Do you remember being called a “slacker?” Maybe no one used this term to describe you personally, but if you are a GenXer, I’m sure someone said this in reference to one of your friends, roomies, co-workers or classmates.

I’ve noticed a number of reports popping up about the current generation of 20-somethings, and so many of the complaints are identical to the ones made about us 20 years ago.  Young adults are returning to their parents’ homes to live.  The 20-somethings, pampered and coddled as children, and unprepared for life.  This new generation doesn’t have the same work ethic as the previous — they want everything without having to earn it.

A recent post in the New York Times blog Motherlode from a 20-something sets us straight.  These comments cannot be applied to everyone in her generation.  And, I’ll take that a step further… these comments can be applied to any generation.

Twenty years ago, GenXers frequently were cast as a woeful lot.  Kids who should be adults doing things like living in mom’s basement apartment, taking a lower paying day job because it freed up time to play in a band at night and squandering a bachelor’s degree on a job at a gas station in order to escape Midwestern winters.  Two decades later, where are these people now?  Of the three referenced here, two are successful entrepreneurs and the other has advanced significantly in her chosen career.  I know many other stories of humble and questionable young adult beginnings.  From what I can see, how one chooses to spend their years before 30 has less to do with their success afterwards than we sometimes fear.

My guess is that similar comments were made about Baby Boomers in the late-60s and early-70s, kids who spent their time partying and protesting the war when they should have been working in responsible jobs with respectable haircuts.  A walk through The Haight in San Francisco echoes of young adults who eventually moved on and out, creating lives that measure up to the standards of adulthood that we use to judge the generation behind us.

Based on what I’ve seen as a middle-age GenXer, I’m not too concerned about this “entitled” generation.  I worry about plenty of other things in our future, but very little of it has to do with a minority of people who will probably make it okay in the end.

Does technology have you missing out on life?

I was thinking about what to post next… what is particularly GenX, and I found a blog post on the effects of technology on parenting.

GenXers are the first generation of parents who really have to contend with technology.  It’s our friend and our foe, and we get to create the map for how best to use it as a parent.

I saw this blog post recently, and it made me think about so many things, beyond just the subject of how technology can steal time from your relationship with your kids.  I also thought about how life has given us so many options, it’s difficult sometimes to consider swimming upstream and eschewing what doesn’t work for us personally.  Baby Boomers liked the idea of “marching to the beat of a different drummer,” but GenXers have to embrace it.

I thought about the irony of how tools like a smartphone can give and take away time.   Technology is supposed to give us benefits.  Why aren’t we tapping into that and creating more time for the pursuits we value?  As technology provides us with more options, the need to become more self-disciplined has increased.  Smartphones and other technology provide us with the opportunity to cram more stuff into our day and indulge in more entertainment.  We need to know where the line is between the convenience of always having something to read on the train ride home and the burden of keeping an eye on email while we read our kids a bedtime story.

I was certain this blog was wordpress, but I couldn’t find a button to repost.  So here goes the old-fashioned copy and paste routine…http://www.handsfreemama.com/

Gen X at Midlife without a Sports Car?

Check out this piece from Forbes.com .  The writer spends some time moaning about the state of the GenX midlife crisis, and I think it is interesting.  For many years, I grumbled about the unfortunate position GenXers were put into, especially being on the older end of the generation and leaving college into a nasty job market.  Moaning about our lot, especially in comparison to the Baby Boomers, is a generational imperative… a result of our apathy, our disaffected disposition.  The tone of this piece certainly begins woefully, and like many articles and essays of its ilk, wraps with the silver lining of how many things GenX does have going for it.

This reminds me of something I saw the other day on The Today Show.  Al Roker was interviewing a financial expert on the — gasp! — increasing trend of grown children not leaving their parents’ home.  Wow!  How did this come about?!  Al even said something to that effect, feigning (I hope) mild surprise on this odd state of young adulthood.  Well, I think Al was around in the early 90s when many of us were still living with mom and dad, post-graduation and then even a few years more.  In the news cycle, perhaps enough time has passed to make this new again, but I recall the same topic covered ad nauseam by media when I was not living in my parents’ home but paying a decent portion of my paycheck for a studio apartment the size of my patio in the pre-dot-com 90s.  (This says a lot more about the size of my apartment than it does the size of my patio.)

The article certainly calls out the role of circumstance in a generation’s misfortune or good luck.  I am not entirely sure that I agree that things are so dismal for GenX.  The writer says that GenX has hit its “collective wall,” and I am assuming that is measured only in terms of earning power.  True, GenXers have suffered through two horrible economies.  And, they are approaching what has been understood to be peak earning years during one of these downturns, but this is all based on assumptions of how things are “supposed” to work.   And hasn’t each generation had to suffer through their own challenges and bask in their own advantages based on the circumstances at the time?  We can’t continue to measure ourselves by the generation that has come before, precisely because things are different.

My parents are on the initial crest of the Baby Boomers, and they never had a sports car or any of the other trappings of the midlife crisis.  When they entered their forties, they had the pleasure of paying for college for three kids.  My neighbor who just turned forty has been rolling around town in a new BMW convertible.  It’s all situational, and perhaps it doesn’t have as much to do with what generation you are in as it does choices you have made (my parents starting a family in their early 20s), and whether or not you have benefitted from the economy past, present or future.

Did the stock market downtown hit your retirement savings or the income you live off of in retirement now?  Did you start your career expecting to stay with the same company forever and have a great retirement pension, or did you know going in that it was completely up to you to save?  Do you have a huge environmental mess on your hands?  (This, I think, is the worst legacy we’ve received, and it is multi-generational.)  These things are generational.  But many other factors can influence the outcome of one’s life too.  Perhaps the GenX midlife won’t be associated with sports cars, but it might be associated with something else… like launching a second career, entrepreneurialism or re-inventing one’s life.  Regardless of what it is, it also a reflection of personal circumstances as it is of birthdate.

Something To Think About

I’ve always said that one of the best things about being born into my generation is the lack of assumption that the government or a corporation/employer will take care of you.  Check out this piece from Bloomberg on how Gen X feels about prospects in the corporate world.