The other day while driving, I was listening to a radio program discussing young people taking a ‘gap year’ off between high school and college. In the program they interviewed both politicians as well as young people who had taken one or several gap years. The general perspective of the adults in the program, was that while one gap year can be acceptable, taking two or even three years off between high school and college is unacceptable and ill adviced. Their argument was that young people on gap years are a high cost to society, despite the fact that most of the young people interviewed in program were working while on their gap year. They argued that it costs society billions when young people wait with attending college because they after college become more attractive to the labor market and therefore earn a much higher salary than they do if they start working straight out of high school.
The young people who were interviewed, had gone to school for at least 12 years without pause and felt like they needed a break from school, to get into the world and try their hands at different things, also to find out and discover what they wanted to do with their lives on a long term basis.
They wanted experiences from real life, wanted to work and travel and for once in their lives, be able to decide for themselves. Several of them mentioned how they had made the decision to take several gap years very deliberately, because they knew that if they had started at college straight out of high school, they would have been so demotivated that the chances of them dropping out was very high. Some of them had no idea what they wanted to do in life and so felt like they needed the time to try different things and get to know themselves better because they saw that if they simply picked some random direction, there would be a great chance of them dropping out, which would in turn be a disempowering experience. So they had taken their lives into their own hands and had given themselves these gap years to figure things out, so that when they eventually decided to continue studying, they would have had matured and be more clear about what they wanted to do in life. They also accurately mentioned that even when one finishes college, there is no job guarantee and many graduates end up on unemployment benefits.
One of the things that were very interesting about the program was how the adults spoke about the young people relative to ‘society’s demands’. They spoke about the young people as spoiled freeloaders who were causing harm to society as a whole by being egocentric and only thinking about themselves. The fact that the young people felt like they needed to take a couple of years off to find out what they wanted to do in life, was seen as entirely unnecessary and self-placating.
The adults spoke about society in a context of being nothing but a zero-sum game, through which it is a burden on all of our shoulders to keep the wheels of the economy going.
Is that what society is? Something that we grow up in, and cost a lot of money to while growing up and not earning an income, and that we must spend the rest of our lives paying back, as were we nothing but debtors coming into this world?
The solution, from the perspective of the adults in the program was that young people should go straight from high school to university (or another higher education program resulting in increased earning capacity) and as quickly as possible get into the labor force to contribute to society.
The question is whether we truly contribute more to society by rushing through the education system and rushing into the labor force.
Consider how many of us as adults work in jobs we either hate or couldn’t care less about or that we know deep inside is not where our skills and abilities best comes to use. Consider the lack of work ethic that exists in so many industries due to the fact that the only reason we work is to make enough money to survive. Spending our lives slaving away at meaningless jobs is certainly not something we do ‘for society’, at least not in any benevolent or altruistic way. Society has, in this obscure optics, become an absurd ‘overlord’ to whom we owe our lives.
Society is not a fixed and determined external structure. The earth and the ecosystems in which it is maintain its equilibrium is, to some extent. There are certain physical laws that cannot be messed with, because the consequential outflows of doing so could be potentially life threatening.
Society however, is something that we have co-created and are continuously co-creating as a social construct, a social construct with physical infrastructures like medical systems and tax systems and welfare systems, but not as something fixed or unchangeable. We decide, every day, what society is and what society isn’t. At a fundamental level, society is the way we as human beings agree to organize ourselves in our collective and individual lives. The origin of the word comes from the French ’societe’ which means ‘companionship’ or ’friendly association with others’ and originates from the Latin words ’societatem’ which means ’fellowship, association, alliance, union and community’ and ’socius’ which means ‘companion’.
Society is thus a mutually supportive and equally agreed upon union between companions, agreeing to share their lives for mutual benefit, and not a before mentioned external authority to which we owe our lives.
There are so much more important issues in this world than maintaining the economic status quo of societies on a structural level. It is important to maintain a high standard of living yes, but so is actually ensuring that we have a world to live in; in fact it is the most important issue, especially in this day and age.
Kids are our most important assets yes, but not just to keep the wheels of the economy going, but to in fact ensure that we have a future as a species on this planet. By treating them, and each other like numbers in a zero sum game, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
If we cared for and nurtured the potential existing in the future generations, if we valued each individual’s unique skills and abilities, I have no doubt that we would see an entirely different world in less than 20 years.
Imagine if young people were given the space, time and resources to try different things out. And here I do not mean on a purely theoretical level, which is what we are offered at school, but on a real, practical hands on level. Imagine if kids, already as they enter into their teenage years got to get out into the world and try their hands at all kinds of different jobs, working side by side with adults as mentors, to really find out where their skills and abilities best comes to use.
Imagine if we stopped seeing society as something that we owe our lives to, and instead started seeing it as a social network of mutual support and co-creation, as a place where we are supported to discover and develop our potential, to contribute to creating the best world possible.
We would see the most amazing inventions being created, inventions that could clean our oceans, restore our rain forests and cure diseases. We would see kids growing up taking active and voluntary responsibility for their own lives, and for the world. There is no one who does not want to contribute, who does not want to be of value and purpose to the world. But what we are doing at the moment through our school systems is not harnessing or nurturing anything of real and substantial value.
If taking one or two or three gap years is what is needed for young people to find their way in life, then let us give them that opportunity. But even more than that, let’s stop seeing society as a burden on our shoulders; let’s stop seeing society as a bank we owe our lives to. Let’s stop seeing children as a form of debt and currency, with which we keep the wheels of the economy going. Let’s see children for what they truly are: pure, unleashed life potential, and let’s remember that we too as adults, despite having been subjugated into passivity and apathy for all these years, have this life potential within us. There is nothing stopping us – except us.