Work – necessary evil or fulfilment and self-realisation

by Marita Koch

“We have trouble finding qualified and motivated employees who are committed to the company and willing to work on Saturdays.” That’s what Mr and Ms Bieker say, owners of a medium-sized family business in a major German city. They run a studio for high-quality kitchens and are known for their expertise and reliability in fulfilling even tricky and unusual customer wishes. This requires both high-quality craftsmanship and commercial expertise and experience. Recently, they were looking for a new employee to work in consulting, planning and sales. A qualified young man applied. Mr and Ms Bieker would have liked to employ him. But there were some obstacles: The young man’s salary expectations were many times higher than the salary of the company owners. Furthermore, the applicant did not want to work on Saturdays in any case. But this is difficult for a retail company whose customers seek advice on Saturdays. In addition, the applicant wanted to work  one day at home office and announced already in the interview that he had four children, and if one of them was ill, he would stay at home. The list of demands is incomplete here. The business owners did not employ the applicant.

Fewer and fewer craftsmen

Not only in retail companies you will encounter such claims. There is also a shortage of skilled workers in other sectors: according to kitchen specialists, painters and tilers have to be booked ten weeks in advance if a kitchen is to be replaced. This is the case throughout the republic. Other trades also lack people; for example, bakers and butchers are becoming fewer and fewer. In numbers: Between 2008 and 2017, the number of bakeries and butchers in Germany fell by 20%. Between 2014 and 2018 there were almost 58,000 vacant apprenticeship places in the food trade. A large, long-established family business that manufactures high-quality electrical household appliances has difficulties finding technicians and engineers because it is based in Gütersloh, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Gütersloh is not considered “hip”. Companies in Munich or Berlin are different, they find personnel easier because the cities are “chic and sexy” and offer party qualities.
How does this fit in with the many working poor that also exist in Germany? People who have to do two jobs in order to make ends meet or top-ups who don’t earn enough in spite of a full-time job and have to top up with welfare? I learn that such people have extremely badly paid jobs: Warehousing, temporary help, unskilled labour. They are poorly trained people who also lack the basic skills to practise a trade. This is despite the fact that Germany is not a developing country, actually has a good school education and – like Switzerland and Austria – has a dual vocational education and training.
“Craft – that’s too exhausting for us” was the recent headline of the German “Bild”.1 The situation in Switzerland is not much different. The classic craft trades are no longer trendy among young people, says Armin Broger of the Thurgau Trade Association2. Dennis Reichhard of the Thurgau Chamber of Industry and Commerce adds: “We are increasingly having problems to find and recruit enough good skilled workers. Our commercial enterprises are suffering from the migration of young, qualified skilled workers to the metropolises.”3
In order to understand this situation – and to consider whether and how one could take countermeasures – different strands have to be brought together. More and more, the gap is widening between well-trained people who can and do make demands and those whose school education is barely enough for auxiliary jobs. This raises the question of the quality of school education. Despite massive investment in education, an increasing number of people is less qualified. Current Concerns has repeatedly and extensively written about the reasons for this.

Fun oriented into the professional environment?

The question arises as to the attitude towards work among the young generation. As a teacher of 7th, 8th and 9th grades, you accompany students into professional life. Thereby you are supported by text books. However, such teaching aids today focus on areas that are more likely to hinder a reasonable entry into professional life. They occupy the pupils with an intensive examination of their own sensitivities and needs. The focus is less on the question: What demands does the profession put on me? Rather: Which demands do I put on the profession? Where do I feel comfortable, what am I enjoying, are the people nice, do I have enough vacation and not too long working hours, do I earn enough, what is the prestige of the profession like? Of course, a young person must enjoy his or her job, that’s not the point. It is a question of weighting. If young people instructed in such a manner are supposed to describe the first day in the company in an internship report, one often reads the answer: “Everyone was nice to me.” Many people cannot say much about the company because they do not pay attention to it. Often one hardly learns what the company actually does. But you almost always find out when there was a break and when work finished. When they have to hold on to a job for a longer period of time without any variety, many complain about boredom. In this way, the students continue what they have already learned at school: Making demands. Not their performance, their contribution is important, but that one is nice to them and does not ask too much of them and that they have fun. They come to school in the morning, they are taught by the teachers, they are entertained, they participate when they are interested, they complain when they find it “boring” or when they do not understand, etc. In any case, they feel little responsibility for what happens at school. Often they have not been made familiar with the idea that they are also the ones that matter – and that performance brings far more joy and satisfaction than passive consumption. The child and youth psychiatrist Michael Winterhoff warns: “It can be foreseen that an increasing number of young people, who are not able to work, will continue to burden the already overworked and empty social security funds in the future. However, the even greater social risk potential will lie in the fact that in the near future an ever-increasing number of young people will lack all sorts of social skills. These people live purely fun oriented, only for the moment, do not waste any thought on tomorrow. They are not able to take responsibility, neither for themselves nor for other people, neither in a private relationship nor in a professional context. Like young children, they always demand everything for themselves and thus place a considerable burden on social peace.”4 Sarah Konrath, a US psychologist, published a study in 2011 in which she was able to prove, using standard tests, that today’s adolescents have about 40 % less empathy than their colleagues 20 or 30 years ago, the result of excessive media consumption.5 And – I might add – young people, when they are fobbed off with fun culture and media consumption, do not have the satisfaction that they can achieve something, that they are really important for others, for a common work. Real satisfaction cannot be consumed, it does not come from the smartphone and not from the amusement park. It comes from effort, from overcoming difficulties with one’s own strength, from making an important contribution to a common cause, which is really important, which is reflected in reality, not only in school grades.

Self-confidence by achievements in real life

A student, 13 years old, helped as a roofer. The roof was completely covered when it began to rain. Immediately all the craftsmen formed a chain to give the new roof tiles from one to another and so they covered the roof at full speed – the young man in the middle, an important link in the chain. What a feeling, when the work was completed together! Such experiences make strong, wake joy and responsibility. From time to time a student in a longer practical training makes the experience of being truly required, he can make a real contribution to the adult world, not just a pedagogically arranged one, he is indispensable to the business. A young woman who in a long internship in a bookstore, is completely tired in the evening, because she was constantly in demand during the Christmas business. A young man, who makes the experience of being able to advise customers in a sports shop. Child and adolescent psychologist Allan Guggenbühl states: “At work, the adolescents or children experience that they are important.”6
When such a young man comes back to school, he often seems to be matured for years. He is different in life, learns differently, knows why. So it  seems like a crime, to help young people learning always by “fun”. You do not take them seriously by asking them always for their “needs”. Nor they are taken seriously when they are held with computer programmes on the leash, even if its called “independent learning”. To take them seriously means to give them responsibilities that are appropriate to their age, so that they can feel like a significant and not merely consumptive and dependent member of the community. Winterhoff focuses on the forming of relationship between parents and children, between teachers and students.
A cause for the immature behaviour of many young people he sees in the efforts of many parents and teachers to maintain a collaborative relationship with the children instead of meeting them as adults. “Parents are not primarily friends, partners and mentors of their toddlers, but their guardian angel, leading figure and limitation in a positive sense.”7 In school too, the relationship is the most important, says Winterhoff, criticising: “Teachers are often only allowed to be mentors who are no longer responsible for teaching matters but who are supposed to watch the youngest learning everything themselves.”8

Child labour? Child labour!

Guggenbühl advocates a new way of child labour. He makes a difference to the child labour of earlier times, where child labour was often necessary due to the great distress of the families. Under miserable working conditions the children often suffered. Therefore child labour has been banned finally. Today, according to Guggenbühl, “we have exceeded the target. Children are forced to unemployment. Not being able to work and being allowed to work only on the computer – that is a devaluation of older children and adolescents. They feel degraded because they bring nothing and do nothing for the community: a degradation and not a privilege.”9 Impressively he describes a school in Kyoto where students are actively involved in caring for the school, welcoming guests, and so forth.
According to him the students of this school “had a great  self-assurance and competence!” He advocates that children from the age of nine should work for one or two days a week and earn money. He makes concrete suggestions as to what kind of work fits for which age, how this work could be accompanied and regulated, so that the children benefit and not get harmed.10
A proposal that deserves serious discussion. And we also need to rethink and change our parenting and schooling behaviour, if we want to enable our youth to have a truly fulfilling occupation, and if we want our society to have good professionals and a functioning economy.     •

1    “Bild” from 16.2.2019
2    Thurgauer Zeitung from 6 February
3    Ibid.
4    Winterhoff, Michael, Persönlichkeiten statt Tyrannen. Oder: Wie junge Menschen in Leben und Beruf ankommen. Munich 2010, p.15
5    Konrath, Sarah, Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time. 2001
6    Guggenbühl, Allan, Für mein Kind nur das Beste, Zurich 2018, p. 206
7    Winterhoff, loc. cit., p. 162
8    Ibid., p. 160
9    Guggenbühl, loc. cit., p. 198
10    Ibid.