Thursday, February 27, 2020

Human Skills

In today's stereotypical American family, the parents go off to work each morning and the children go off to school. They spend most of their waking hours apart, then come back together after a long, hard day of doing things they would rather not be doing, usually with the energy to do little more together than sleep.

This might not describe your family. It doesn't describe mine, but for millions, this is the way it works. Oh, we tend to like our jobs, more or less, with some 70 percent reporting that they are at least somewhat satisfied, and I think most young kids will tell you they like their school, but if given the choice of being apart all day or being together, I think it's a pretty safe bet that most of us would rather have more time with our loved ones. Yet this isn't a choice that most of us have. Indeed, it's considered "normal" that we spend our days apart from our loved ones even if it's a historical anomaly. Indeed, for most of the existence of Homo sapiens, it was not only a given that we spent our days with, or at least near, our immediate families, but our extended families as well, including siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. This is the way we've evolved to live.

This is a significant shift, a relatively recent one that is driven by the economy more than anything else, and I can't help but wonder how this is changing who we are. I suppose at one level, one can argue that this phenomenon is a testament to our amazing human ability to cooperate through specialization. There was a time in human history when pretty much everyone had to know pretty much everything that comprised human knowledge: we all had to be able to, say, know how to identify eatable plants, predict the weather, and defend ourselves against predators. Today, most of us know little about these things because other humans have become specialists and we count on them to do it for us, just as we ourselves have specialized in things that we do on their behalf. Perhaps child care is becoming another of those things that we don't all have to know about. We already seem to be well on our way to creating a class of citizens who specialize in child care while a generation of parents are left to rely upon them even as, at some deeper level, they worry about what they are missing.

And I think it is something to worry about. Raising other humans, caring for them, nurturing them, educating them, and being educated by them is a pretty fundamental thing. In the business world, it's pretty much assumed that machines, and specifically those that operate based upon artificial intelligence, will be increasingly taking over many of the jobs that humans are doing today. If you take time to dig into the predictions, you'll find that most experts see that what they call "human skills" or "soft skills" are going to become increasingly important: things like flexibility and adaptability, the ability to prioritize, the capacity to work well with a team, empathy, communication skills, leadership ability, innovation and creativity, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and negation and persuasion. There is no better way to learn human skills than to raise a human. At the same time, human resource executives have seen a decline in these skills over the last several decades. New employees may have excellent technical or data skills, but are otherwise in human skills lacking compared to past generations. I would assert that this phenomenon is at least in part both the cause and effect of this crazy experiment in breaking up our families in the name of the economy.

Human skills aren't just necessary for the workplace. These are the skills that make us human. They are essential for any future we hope to have. Families are where we best learn these human skills and no amount of after-the-fact worker training will replace them: these are not things one can learn from weekend workshops or a series of e-courses. If businesses are really interested in "training" their workers of tomorrow, they will have to become serious about the family life of their employees, and do whatever they can to support them in bringing their children back to the center of their day-to-day lives. 

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