This week thousands of Irish teenagers will be accepting university places. For most, this will open an exciting phase in their lives when they will make life-long friends, learn a bit, have a laugh and begin the process of growing up. Government policy aims to send 80pc of our school leavers to some form of university or other. So this is an experience that more and more Irish school leavers will enjoy in the years ahead.
Presumably, one of the by-products of education should be that the student comes out the far side a more independent person who can think for herself and who will have more control over her own destiny by virtue of the fact that the extra education makes her free to think, take risks and experiment.
What are we educating all these students for? This might seem like a silly question when education is inherently beneficial, yet anyone who visits one of the many large companies in the country — corporations that typically employ these graduates — cannot fail to ask what is the point in creating a white-collar workforce, particularly if this workforce is no more autonomous than the one it replaced. There is a worrying trend in corporate Ireland which might be termed the progressive debasement of white-collar work.
We are seeing this all over the western world where so-called knowledge workers are little more than commodities, not unlike the enslaved blue-collar factory workers they were supposed to replace. Thousands of our graduates leave university, many qualified to do nothing, and they find themselves in a corporate cul de sac. Rather than being independent, they are trapped, funnelled into institutions that immediately close off rather than expand their options.
If you spend time in any large corporation the first thing you’ll notice are the desperate efforts the educated worker makes to be different. As you walk past rows and rows of identical “workstations” the first giveaway is the screensaver. These hyper-educated workers tailor their little space to send out a clear signal that behind the conformity of the corporate man, there’s an exciting, irrepressible individual trying to get out.
The desk becomes a shrine to extreme sports. The screen-saver of the internal audit accountant will show him snowboarding in Chamonix, bodysurfing off Tarifa or paragliding in the Peruvian Andes. That’s me, the bloke with the ice pick, half way up the North Face.
The desk will be festooned with personal paraphernalia: photos of children, wives and mates at a stag night dressed as Elvis. And, of course, the obligatory Homer Simpson quotation somewhere on the side of the PC screen. All this signals “My real life is somewhere else. I’m only here for the cash and, in three years I’ll be running a surf school in Sligo or playing the Electric Picnic.”
The degradation of white-collar work is a serious issue because in many cases, the more educated graduates become, the more banal their work is. The more degrees they have, the more abstract and disengaged their jobs can be.
The white-collar worker becomes part of a system, a cog in the machine and less and less autonomous. They are turning into the blue collar workers of the past. Yes they might have clean nails, but the knowledge economy is just as capable of industrialising and making routine the production of most apparently sophisticated stuff as the old filthy mine heads were.
For many young workers, the office is just a dishonest version of the factory-floor: same targets and the same conveyer belt of menial tasks. As most of the real decisions are taken by a tiny elite in any modern company, and managers divvy up what has to be done into easy-to-digest parcels, the graduate can find herself feeling remote, worthless and uninvolved.
Compare this existence to that of the self-employed cabinet maker for example. The cabinet maker’s shed is his inner sanctum. It is a labyrinth of lathes, cutters, sharp tools and noise. He turns wood. He is a craftsman. He makes useful stuff for the house, shelves, stools and benches. This is an immensely satisfying process. In contrast to the member of the corporation who doesn’t know where he fits, the cabinet maker controls the process from start to finish.
He visualises the end product and marshals the process, overseeing every detail from beginning to end. Even before he starts, he spends hours on end thinking of what type of wood he will buy. What has the best give, yet is the most robust? What absorbs most varnish, yet doesn’t lose its colour? Which wood retains its smell, which is odourless? Which wood splinters, chips and cracks? Think about what we are building — for example a child’s desk. How high should it be, how wide?
Craftsmen have autonomy, pride and self-esteem. There is immediate worth and intrinsic value in the work. He has earned his keep in a tangible, non-negotiable way. He doesn’t need to boast, play politics or sneak behind people’s back. The cabinet-maker knows he is in control.
As we witness the CAO scramble this year, we should ask what are we educating all these graduates for. In the years ahead, it is the white-collar sector that will become debased. It is becoming commoditised and it will be outsourced. In contrast, the old trades — where the craft, knowledge and experience are key — will be the ones who will be able to command their own price.
A little less accountancy and a little more carpentry would do us all a power of good.