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YouTube, the Protestant Work Ethic, Meritocracy, and Public Schools

May 3, 2019

JSTOR Daily issues a weekly compendium of articles on history that often includes fascinating articles that describe the history of our existing paradigms… and Livia Gershon’s recent essay, “How YouTube is  Shaping the Future of Work“, is a good example of the kind of sweeping overview writers often provide in the on-line magazine. The essay asserts that our existing construct that equates hard work with high status-high compensation work is a construct that only emerged since the industrial revolution and is now being toppled by the advent of technology like YouTube that implicitly suggests that creativity– not hard work– should be linked with compensation and even more startlingly– a rewarding life– not the accumulation of wealth— should be the ultimate goal of those in the workforce.

Ms. Gershon does not explicitly describe the impact of this shift away from the hard work->high wealth  paradigm, but she does offer this insight to how schools are organized now:

As this new work ethic spread across and within societies over the past two centuries, hard work, virtue, and success became fused into a singular new measure of status, while other sources lost their power. For example, when middle- and upper-class American women increasingly entered paid work in the mid-twentieth century, employment displaced other activities—like keeping an orderly home and volunteering in civic, religious, or charitable activities—as central sources of social esteem for these women.

This shift has had certain undeniable benefits. The meritocratic ideal has driven many elites to support widespread public education and—at least in theory—a level playing field for all children. And blatant contempt for people based on old-fashioned status marker—like social class, race, or gender—has become unfashionable in many circles (though of course our supposedly meritocratic systems still erect barriers to “success” for racial minorities, working-class people of all races, and even privileged white women).

Ms. Gershon doesn’t say so, but the so-called “meritocratic ideal” is based on the industrial age premise that hard work will lead to economic well-being which, in turn, will result in mental well-being. As any observer of our culture today can attest, this notion is fundamentally flawed on many counts. There are too many children in our “meritocratic” system who are born into communities where the underfunded schools cannot provide them with access to the “level-playing field” and there are too many adults who have achieved salaries that would qualify them to be classified as economically well-off but who do not feel fulfilled emotionally or creatively. The YouTube generation that has witnessed the flaws in this supposedly meritocratic system has a new way of thinking about “success”. They are willing to trade hard work for shorter and less stressful employment with the hopes of attaining wealth through their creative talents or through pure luck. And so we have children who are competing in video games instead of little leagues, children who are making their own videos instead of performing in school plays, and children who are writing “music” using electronic apps instead of instruments. The  dream of today’s children is to find a unique niche that can generate enough followers to earn them enough money to allow them to continue their creative “work” and, if need be, work in the gig economy when they need some additional cash. These creative types look like “slackers” to those of us raised on the Protestant Work Ethic and look like “victims” of the new economy to those of us who believe that unregulated free enterprise is spreading misery and diminishing opportunities for meaningful work. Ms. Gershon’s article makes me ask this question: who’s got a better grip on reality?

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