“Who’ll be my role modelnow that my role model is gone?”

Paul Simon

“You Can Call Me Al”

When my children were growing up in the small town of Industry, Maine, back in the 1970s, the coolest parents were those with the biggest toys. The dads (and occasional big mamas) with dump trucks, backhoes and skidders were the ones all the kids looked up to, literally and figuratively.

They were the adults whose status as adults was clearest because their way of being adults was most obvious. Whether sailing down the hill, swerving into the curve at the foot of the lake with a load of gravel, sliding greasy armed out from under an enormous engine parked in the dooryard or coming home with the hottest vehicle from their used car lot, these skilled, confident and always busy providers were clear examples of how one got on successfully in the world after high school. They didn’t claim to be role models; indeed, no one even spoke of role models. But they were forever present in the daily lives of the young children growing up underfoot and around them.

At about the same time on the other side of the country, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were piecing together simple electronic components for a display at the Homebrew Computer Club and poking curiously around Xerox Corporation’s West Coast research facilities in what has become Silicon Valley. In their world, adult role models were inquisitive engineers, stubborn entrepreneurs who dreamed of better mousetraps and risk-taking millionaires willing to give those dreams a try.

Neither set of role models was “better” in any social or moral way. Both presented examples of persistence, imagination and “making do.” The effective difference is that today in much of Maine, our traditional role models are gone, victims of the globalization process that replaced neighborhood skidders with building-sized “feller-bunchers” confined to remote logging camps staffed by immigrant workers. Not every place can be Silicon Valley, and Maine, like much of our country’s pre-World War II industrial heartland, has not replaced its traditional role models. And our young people are suffering that loss in ways we barely understand.

For some, the loss of both role models and jobs has led to the dead-end path of substance abuse — alcohol, heroin, painkillers and now bath salts. For others, it has led to departure along the unknown path of “I don’t know what or where, but certainly not here.” For still others, it has led to a listless, debt incurring and ultimately unsatisfying and unrewarding amble through the halls of higher education.

Our national and state capitols and the parks in front of them are filled with shouts of “jobs, jobs, jobs,” but the shouting has all the authenticity of Orwellian party members participating in a ritualistic two-minute “hate” from “1984.” Everyone feels the need to join in, but few know why or to what effect, and fewer still have confidence that the effort will have any lasting impact.

Our country and our state don’t need jobs, we need realistic, adult role models. We don’t need lottery winners, super models, super athletes and American Idol vote getters. They aren’t role models, they’re escape valves, diversions. We need concrete, step-by-step, there-every-day examples of how to turn interest into skill, vague curiosity into passion and desire into discipline. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to develop mastery. But he didn’t say 10,000 rote hours or 10,000 hours of drudgery. He said 10,000 hours of motivated, self-directed work accompanied by regular, brutally honest feedback. The Beatles’ 10,000 hours in the cellar clubs of Hamburg weren’t about screaming teenie boppers and limousines.

Jobs are far too big, too formal, too bureaucratic a thing to solve our economic malaise. Jobs involve formal descriptions, resumes, searches, selections, human resource policies and departments, health insurance, payroll taxes. Jobs are big, mysterious and threatening both for the enterprises that want to “fill” them and the applicants who want to “get” them. We don’t need jobs, we need hours — hours of internships, hours of exposure, hours of mentoring, hours of practical experience, hours to test ideas, to pursue passions, to experience different worlds. The best way to get our economy moving again is not more jobs but more work. We must find ways to allow more people to work and let the jobs take care of themselves.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at: [email protected]