The Rise (and Fall) of “Trophy” Workers
We have all seen them. We might have even made fun of them. They “hover” over their kids, protecting them from the many horrible harsh realities of life – like losing a baseball game, getting a “C” for average work, or even being disciplined by a teacher or boss for bad behavior or poor performance. Meet the helicopter parent!
Their off-spring, appropriately called “trophy kids” because every child gets a trophy win-or-lose, have been so coddled that they often have a hard time functioning on their own in the larger world. Afraid or unwilling to challenge them because self-esteem might be dinged, parents and teachers have nurtured a generation that has entered adulthood (and the workforce) without much of a sense of how to work on their own or think for themselves. Too many young adults are not only afraid to struggle and fail, but unprepared to pick themselves up after a fall.
This is creating another crisis in the world of work. In a world where winners win and losers lose, too many people lack the ability to navigate complicated challenges and bounce back. Instead they wait for the helicopter to whoosh down and rescue them.
The expectation of equal outcomes regardless of effort doesn’t stop at young adults.
Many workers, from their teens through their sixties, have been spoon fed for decades. I’m not saying that workers haven’t sacrificed and worked hard. But at some point in their lives, many of them have stopped seeing a job as an opportunity but an entitlement. Learning new skills and growth through personal development as well as formal education somehow became the responsibility of the employer, not the worker. Even preparing for retirement, saving for a rainy day, and health care became the responsibility of the employer, not the employee.
I can’t count how many people I’ve heard say, “my company doesn’t pay for it” so I can’t afford to go to school. What happened to “if I don’t go to school or learn new skills, I won’t have a job?”
Learning new skills for many workers, especially older ones, often times stopped the day they graduated high school or college. If an employer or the government didn’t pay for additional training or school, it didn’t happen. Even when the employer did pay, many workers participated reluctantly, dragging and kicking to and from training. They expected to be paid for the training and time missed from work in addition to tuition and other expenses. And G-d forbid if training interfered with vacation or some other personal event. Even if the training was structured merely to bring workers up to minimum skill level, the employee upon completion expected a reward or promotion.
Employers became the hovering helicopter, offering guarantees of job security, benefits, promotion, and even a comfortable and guaranteed retirement. All a worker had to do was show up, put in his hours, and count down the days. It was like employers encased workers with bubble wrap, protecting them from the realities of a changing and competitive labor market which required new and advanced skills. They insulated the worker from reality.
Well, it takes two to tango, as the old cliché goes. The employer-employee partnership will never learn to dance if one partner keeps dragging the other around the dance floor, doing all the steps for both of them.
Many employers are to blame. They played a big part in this epidemic. They discouraged learning and career advancement because they didn’t have enough open positions for advancement. Others feared losing a more skilled worker to its competitors. If you could convince a worker that average was good enough and minimal effort guaranteed success, then you were pretty much guaranteed a life-long employee. A complacent worker was considered a loyal one. Those conditions lasted for decades.
That bubble burst when technological advances, globalization, and the Great Recession collided in 2007. Companies found themselves in need of workers with more advanced skills and millions of workers with average skills and a complacent mindset were unprepared to face the new world of work. Without the bubble wrap and hovering helicopters offering safe and secure passage into retirement, millions of workers were exposed to the elements of a new world of work.
And the painful reality set in – that millions and millions of people – young and old – lacked two fundamental life skills: how to be successful in a competitive environment and how to grow through opportunity, not seek protection from change.
Just as technology now tethers many of us to each other 24/7, young adults as well as many mature ones are tethered to false promises and expectations that employers and society in general can hardly meet. At least two if not three generations of workers have been led to believe that participation, and not effort, guarantees equality of outcomes. The hard cold truth is that effort creates opportunity and there are no guarantees.
So where do we go from here.
First, both employers and workers – the employed and unemployed – must begin to take responsibility for their future viability. Without workers, companies will cease to be competitive or exist. Without the skills that companies need, workers won’t be employable. It’s time that everyone takes a deep breath, takes one step back, and work together.
Second, companies need to treat workers as human beings, not physical assets and line items. They need to engage workers and provide opportunities that employees value, not just paychecks. They need to provide adequate resources and support so workers can do their jobs. Workers, on the other hand, need to embrace the opportunity and exert effort to continuously improve skills that add value to the employer. Employer and government-led training is a privilege, not a right. Workers need to view a job as an opportunity, not an entitlement.
The moral of this story: both employers and workers need to suck it up and take responsibility for employability. Both seem stuck in a transition between the way things were and the way they will be. Everyone needs to make an honest effort to adapt to this new world of work. Increased competition, globalization, and accelerating technology aren’t going away. Lip service and pointing fingers may fuel the fire, but generate little heat.