Motivating Youth: Some Psychic Considerations

by Adam Yarmolinsky - 1971

Military service is only one of the chores that needs to be undertaken in our society, and not necessarily the most important. But to get all these chores done, the author suspects that we have to renew our appeal to the sense of responsibility and to the sense of accomplishment that respond to challenges. In an affluent society where the most affluent class is the young, we can afford to rely less and less on the acquisitive instinct to get the chores done.

We all begin with prejudices. When Edward Bellamy conceived his 1890 version of Utopia in Looking Backward, it was only natural for him to assume that if drudge work was to be shared democratically a disproportionate share should go to the young. Social historians have observed that Bellamy failed to anticipate the impact of mechanization on personal services, and the consequent decline in demand for some of the kinds of service, in the absence of a servant class, which he expected young people to be organized to provide.

What the historians have thus far overlooked is that, rather than being a time for service, youth has become increasingly a period of leisure, not only for the upper-class young but for the working-class young as well. Expanding productivity has increased the value of human labor, and raised the price of most personal services far beyond most people's means, while the services that have not been mechanized are performed not by young people for their elders, but by the elders for themselves—and sometimes for the young people as well. The image of the boy doing the chores is replaced by the image of the middle-aging parent moonlighting to meet the payments on the appliances that are more or less adequate substitutes for help around the house.

It used to be that only juvenile delinquents failed to take steady work. But recently Edwin Harwood has suggested that perhaps one reason for the mixed record of job training programs for young people, and particularly for young males, is that they don't need steady work, and don't want it, at apprentice wages, when they can be paid well enough for casual labor to keep themselves in pocket money, at least until they are ready to set up households of their own.1 Only then does the economic rat race begin for them, and it gets worse, not better, as they get older.

Even middle-class young people, traditionally upwardly mobile in the country, are showing signs that every worm has its turning point. The kinds of questions that they increasingly address to potential employers indicate an increasing unwillingness to serve acquiescent apprenticeships. In fact, youth may be coming to have more economic significance as a special market for consumer goods than as a general labor market.

It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that even the oldest tradition of national service for youth, the tradition of military service, is being transformed by the same pressures that have made Bellamy's vision charmingly obsolete.

Seen in this light, the idea of a volunteer army, or a zero draft, is of a piece with the more and more inflationary rates of pay offered by parents to their offspring to shovel the snow out of the driveway or to carry out the garbage— and its success is likely to be equally ambiguous.

But military service—even peacetime military service—is not like doing household chores. Nor is it quite like taking an apprentice job in civilian industry, since the overwhelming majority of first enlistments do not re-up, and the proportion of re-enlistments is not likely to change enormously in an American all-volunteer force. Further, the issue of voluntary versus compulsory military service is inextricably entangled with attitudes toward an unpopular war, still dragging on, in my view, against the better judgment and moral sense of the American people.

Yet it seems worthwhile to sort out some of the issues involved in the concept of national service, military and nonmilitary, so that the relationships can be clarified between possible changes in the mode of recruiting for military service, and changes in recruiting for other essential tasks not now being adequately staffed by the employment mechanism.

The demand for national service is in part at least a function of changes in the capacity of the public sector to attract the labor force it needs. In a mixed economy the private and public sectors are often strange bedfellows. A regulatory proceeding brought by a government agency may pit a team of lawyers representing the public interest, at an average salary of x thousand dollars, against a team representing private interests, at an average salary of 2x or 3x At the same time, state and local government is often unable to compete with private enterprise in the delivery of services, not only because of bureaucratic rigidities but because of lower productivity as well—higher wages per unit of service produced.

Changing Economic Facts The classic theory of compensation for persons in the public sector (and its penumbra of private nonprofit institutions) was that it justified a substantially lower pay scale by making up in additional job security what it lacked in economic opportunity. There was also the notion that certain public professions assumed a kind of vow of poverty on the part of their members. At least one congressman resisted federal aid to education because he remembered his old grade school teacher, whose status in the community had been in inverse relationship to her salary.

This traditional view has been modified by changing economic facts and social attitudes. Job security in public sector jobs is less attractive, both because the private sector has caught up and because of social security and related legislation. Public sector blue-collar wage levels are now customarily determined by wage board proceedings or their functional equivalents, so that blue-collar wages in the public sector are roughly equal to those in the private sector. White-collar wages have not yet caught up, at least at state and local government levels, but the gap is beginning to close. Professionals are increasingly unwilling to settle for psychic income, except at the highest levels of public service. And indeed the line between professionals and other levels is increasingly blurred. When the air traffic controllers went on strike—or into a job action— the whole pattern of public employee behavior was changed. If a $15,000-a-year air traffic controller is prepared to leave his post in a dispute over the terms and conditions of his employment, this is persuasive evidence that his employer has failed to convince him that his public office is indeed a public trust. It may be soul-satisfying to reflect that the economic opposite number of the air traffic controller in say, Britain, would never contemplate such ungentleman-like action, but Britain is another country and a different society.

Job actions by city employees seem to be the rule rather than the exception currently. In New York City the first month of 1971 saw the welfare workers emulate the firemen and policemen by initiating a work stoppage when three welfare workers were suspended for sending a welfare family to the Waldorf Astoria. And the penalties of the state's Taylor Law have yet to be effectively applied.

Most job actions go directly to the issue of wage levels. City employees have discovered that their political leverage can win them greater economic benefits than economics alone might justify. The city does not have the private employer's option of going out of business, there are only limited opportunities to replace men with machines, and the added tax burden of uneconomic wage raises is less immediately felt than the loss of city services. Yet cities are particularly ill-equipped to absorb the additional costs of employee militancy, as they face shrinking tax bases with inadequate taxing instruments. The unsmiling prospect is for continuing decline in the quantity and quality of municipal services.

Nor is local and state government the most acute case of the public sector employment crunch. Consider the problem of the general hospital, public or voluntary. Hospitals are traditionally dependent on large amounts of unskilled labor, compensated at something less than the legislated minimum wage from which they are traditionally exempted, and also on long hours of very highly-skilled professional time, compensated at a good deal less than it is worth on the market. Hospitals are being squeezed at both ends. Unskilled labor is being organized to demand wages comparable to what is paid in industry, while interns and residents are demanding, and receiving, something closer to the starting compensation in other professions. Meanwhile, the overall doctor shortage has its impact, as well as the critical shortage of nurses and other allied health professionals; and more people come to expect more complicated and expensive medical care without any more money to pay for it.

Increasing Psychic Income No wonder there is a good deal of current interest in voluntary national service, as a way of meeting the employment deficit in the public (and nonprofit) sector at minimum economic cost by increasing the psychic income of the participants in some kind of national volunteer effort. Some of the advocates of these programs see a possible additional incentive in making them an alternative to compulsory military service, as proposed in legislation advanced by Congressman Jonathan Bingham, among others. In fact, although Peace Corps and VISTA legislation specifies that such voluntary service shall not carry with it any exemption from military service, as a practical matter it has often been taken into consideration by draft boards, at least as a basis for deferment, and has apparently been a significant recruiting inducement for this civilian service.

In a recently published book, I advanced the suggestion, for purposes of argument, that perhaps instead of abandoning compulsory service in the military, we should extend it, on a limited basis, to apply to certain essential and critically undermanned civilian services. The point of my suggestion was to emphasize the shift in national priorities from an automatic preference for the needs of national defense to a consideration of competing claims for national resources on a case-by-case basis. I even suggested that the claims of national security might go as much to schools and jobs and housing as to tanks and planes and aircraft carriers.

But the trend of events is almost certain to be in the opposite direction. The renewed draft law, for instance, was not extended in scope or coverage. The most interesting set of questions will arise when the military gets down to, or close to, a zero draft.

When that happens, however, the military establishment will not have created a volunteer force in anything like the sense that other elements in the public sector may be seeking to solve their manpower problems through appeals to voluntary national service. The military will simply have raised the pay of entering recruits sufficiently to attract the number needed to maintain peacetime strengths, while modifying some of the personnel practices that serve actively to discourage young men from seeking military employment.

All the problems that confront public and nonprofit employers will still confront military employers: pressures for continuing wage increases, resentment of any differential between public and private wage scales, quite conceivably demands to be relieved of extra duties and uncompensated overtime, and, would you believe, even the specter of trade unionism—already a reality in the German armed forces.

The possibility remains of developing the kind of volunteer spirit that might help to overcome or at least to reduce the frictional loss of manpower that troubles all the major institutions in our public sector. That people—including young people—respond to challenges not associated with material rewards is evident from the successes of the early days of the Peace Corps, the appeal of Nader's Raiders, and the proliferation of other groups constructed on the Nader model. Developing this kind of spirit must be extraordinarily difficult for an organization as enormous, as hierarchical, and necessarily as risk-conscious as the military—despite Z-grams and psychedelic barracks decor. But it is not impossible. It cannot be said that the military lacks a tradition of service, in the field, and even in the Pentagon. It would be difficult to devise a more concisely eloquent slogan for a volunteer organization than the infantry's "Follow me."

But if the military establishment is to generate the kind of interest among young people that will lead them to volunteer in significant numbers—and not just to compare hourly wage rates—it will have to offer more than slogans and more than traditions. One benefit that the military already offers to young people for whom life has been a series of unsuccessful experiences is the opportunity to be taken on their own terms, in a social situation where, as Morris Janowitz has pointed out, the possibility of failure is not admitted. The extraordinary success of Project 100,000 provides a foundation on which an even more extensive program could be developed, opening military ranks even further to dropouts and others who have not been able to make it in civilian society.

At the same time, a further expansion of Project Transition, or its equivalent, could make it clear that the military recruiters are not looking only or even primarily for "lifers," but rather for young men who would take their military service as a genuine voluntary experience, a departure from past and future routine, and a preparation for a more rewarding civilian career.

Between enlistment and discharge more thought needs to be given to making the military experience a life-enhancing rather than a deadening experience. It might even be argued that one of the moral equivalents of war is, or could be, peacetime military service.

This is asking a great deal of the military establishment. It is clearly impossible unless the officer and the noncommissioned officer corps are imbued with a sense of public service and of mission which transcends the narrowing forms of bureaucracy. But to ask any less of the military is not to admit of the possibility of a genuine voluntary force. And in the wage race for manpower, it is not at all clear that the military will be able to keep up with the police, the fire department, or even, given the power of municipal unions, with the sanitation department. Nor, if the wage race goes a few more rounds, is it clear that the American people will be willing to support a military establishment in which

E-l's (or even E-2's) are paid as much as $10,000-$12,000 a year, and still authorize the purchase of the sophisticated equipment and the intensive research and development which are equally essential to an effective modern military.

I still tend to come back to my prejudices. One of my prejudices, when it comes to getting the chores done, is strongly against eking out lagging motivation by upping the financial ante. Military service is only one of the chores that needs to be undertaken in our society, and not necessarily the most important. But to get all these chores done, I suspect that we have to renew our appeal to the sense of responsibility and to the sense of accomplishment that respond to challenges. In an affluent society where the most affluent class is the young, we can afford to rely less and less on the acquisitive instinct to get the chores done.

  1. Edwin Harwood, "A Tale of Two Ghettos," The Public Interest, Fall 1969, pp. 78-87.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 73 Number 1, 1971, p. 41-46 ID Number: 1593, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 10:02:52 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review