Some years ago an elderly friend told me about the time her husband applied for a job in the Australian Public Service after leaving the army at the end of World War II.
Then in his mid-20s, he was delighted to be told he had been accepted. The next question was “do you want to retire at 60 or 65?”
The assumption then, and for many years after, was that the first job would also be the last. You would start off in a relatively lowly position and work your way through the ranks until you reached as far as your abilities could take you and there you would stay until you left the workforce.
In my profession there have been instances of the newspaper’s copy boy who rose to become its editor, elsewhere the chairman of the board who began by running messages. Stirring tales of loyalty, dedication and grinding hard work.
We know that it’s all very different today; what is surprising is the speed at which the changes have taken place. The attitudes I have described above existed well into the 1990s and in some cases beyond.
What is truly disturbing, and even frightening to some, is that these changes continue to accelerate to the extent that some educational institutions are advertising courses for jobs they say do not yet exist — how they can possibly know the requirements of such occupations is another matter.
It is no coincidence that with the decline of unionism, Governments have jumped on board the change bandwagon. ‘Flexibility’ and ‘job ready’ are the catch calls of Ministers for Employment around the world; universities must no longer educate their students for a rich and fulfilling life, only for the workplace.
Schools are being dragooned into emphasising science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM subjects, the practitioners of which Governments are continually telling us, will rule the future world.
Children who are simply turned off at the thought of these subjects might still prosper if they have a bent for languages, but heaven help the rebel who wants to study English literature, medieval history or philosophy.
In Australia Ministers thump their chests and point to 16 months of job creation, neglecting to mention that a third of these are classed as ‘part time’, which can mean anything from three days a week in a Government Department to weekends in a retail outlet.
‘Under-employment’ is a phrase Governments do not like to mention.
In a world where we are constantly told to download this or that app, or store things in the cloud, where industry ‘disruptors’ are in great demand, it is well to remember there are still people alive, many highly educated, who do not own a computer and would not know how to access the internet if they had one.
This is not an argument against change, or even for slowing its pace, rather a warning that education should not be narrowed down to studies on how to code the next app.
The brave new world that is opening up before us suggests that technology is as much part of the problem as its solution. Without the moderating influence of good class humanities educations the future could be dark indeed.