In 1956, which is a long time ago, I worked at a very exclusive boys college, in Bristol, England. John Cleese went there and most boys were from good families and had parents with healthy bank accounts.
I hated the job. I was shy and was subjected to cruel and cold treatment from the other two women in the office. I often felt lost and was unable to cope.
Perhaps it was my fault. I got the stamps wrong, always had post left over that seemed to have no place it belonged, and my shorthand was not good. But in spite of it all, I stuck it out for six months.
In those days we worked because we had to, and luckily there were jobs to apply for. I had another office job before I found my true vocation – caring for people. I spent a very fulfilling year as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, happily working and taking my exams, before I met my future husband (but that’s a story for another day).
The point I am making really is that we worked because it was expected of us. Some girls I knew were in factories at 14, others worked in shops. We took on whatever we could. We had to give our parents money towards the housekeeping. I earned about 5 pounds a week and gave Mum 30 shillings of that.
The comparison is so hard to make when I look at how it is now. Some younger adults are stuck in limbo, unable to find work even after university. They are over skilled, or just totally unsuited to a work routine. So some fall into the easy path of just staying at home. Mum and Dad keep them and they make less and less effort to make something of their lives. For them it maps out a life of aimless drifting. Parents voicing any critical dialogue falls like water off a duck’s back. They know no other life and any attempt to motivate them is not accepted.
When I was first getting into the workforce it was accepted that we were expected to work at anything, no matter how unglamorous it may have seemed. Whether you were doing laundry or packing engineering bits, it was work and we were grateful to have it. The younger ones now would not even try some of the things we did. It would be too hard, or too demeaning in their eyes. I know of some who have given up looking for work and prefer to languish at home watching endless TV at 25. It’s so sad.
At 25 I had moved to New Zealand and back, had three children and survived tuberculosis. I was then back in my home country of England with no washing machine and no place to call home for a few months. My husband eventually started work in a new art studio and we cobbled together our tattered life. How, I wonder, would some of today’s younger people cope with the problems I carried for a few years?
Would they have done what so many do and gone to apply for welfare? We never did; it was not freely available. Perhaps that is also the reason so many can languish at home longer, because they receive government payments. I do not deny them the payments, everyone needs help at some time, but it means there are less reasons for real effort.
I know it’s tough, and so many have slipped through the cracks. I feel sad for them, yet we are giving them a view of a world that may one day crash around them. The future we all face after Covid-19 is a bleak one. Money will not always fall into their hands and it will get harder to survive.
Perhaps the time has come to start a new movement. A work-ethic drive. A new advertising campaign to wake the sleeping 20-something-year-olds. They say they don’t want training, but with the need for skilled care staff we could start with that. A comprehensive two-year training for the young would be a great boost for aged care.
Then how about the practical skills we are losing? Apprenticeship numbers have been falling in Australia since 2012, meaning we are on our way to losing so many of the essential skills and services our country relies on. One of my sons trained as a stonemason. He worked with real tools, not electric ones, and ran a successful business of over 20 years. He has just retired at 56 and has left his mark on beautifully carved arches and pillars, on steeples and churches, on universities and statues.
Perhaps we need to focus on a return of practical skills and retrain young people for a world that will need these skills for years to come. Those couch potatoes with glazed eyes watching television need to start a real life. I hope it happens one day. As much for them as for us.