LIFE LESSONS

This is the skill that determines your child’s future employability

Whether a college education is becoming obsolete is debatable. The competitive advantage is shifting away from the smartest people in the room to those who can relate to others—those with a high emotional intelligence and strong interpersonal skills. Harvard economics professor David Deming’s research suggests that within next 20 years, the highest paying jobs will go to those not with education alone, but to “people people.”

Twenty years from now is when my children (ages eight, six, and three), and their cohorts, will be finding their place in the workforce. I can’t help but wonder if the up-and-coming generation will be ready to take on the demands of the emerging economy. These are kids who have been raised with devices—tablets, smartphones—as baby-sitters and who are “protected” by their parents to a point of near dependency.

While parents have engaged in plenty of hand-wringing (much of it warranted) over kids sexting, cyber-bullying and gaming, many experts agree that technology is not the most pressing concern here. We may have the image of adolescents glued to screens and unable to interact with people in the real world, but the reality is that children do have plenty of time away from screens in which to develop basic social skills: places like school, sports teams, or music and art lessons.

In fact, we should be more concerned about the example we set as adults. Michael Robb, director of Digital Learning and Research at the Fred Rogers Center told Quartz, “That [the example adults set] concerns me more than children’s use of media. Adults can be easily pulled away or distracted. And as a society, it’s hard to resist that itch. And it’s giving kids a model for how to act.”

Parents can set a better example by using technology with their kids in more meaningful ways.

Joani Geltman, a parenting coach and author of A Survival Guide to Parenting Teens, offers this example she recently observed while riding the train: a two-year-old child was sitting with his parents with a tablet shared among them. Together, they followed the route of the train on the tablet, which excited the toddler immensely. Using technology in that way not only introduces it as a tool and a resource, but it connects the child with the world around him—something that Geltman has noticed is sorely lacking in many of today’s youth.

She mentioned young adults whose familiarity with their own neighborhood was so limited that they were incapable of making a 15-minute walk home and called an Uber instead. She told me of watching teenagers with their families in restaurants asking their moms to order for them, ostensibly because they didn’t dare take a risk.

It is this lack of curiosity and unwillingness to think creatively or take risks that most worries Geltman about the way we are raising our children. Being able to engage with the world with confidence is important not only for aspiring workers, but for anyone looking to lead a productive and fulfilling life. And many parents are actively hindering that impulse by not allowing their children to make choices for themselves, speak to adults or participate in planning family activities—much less, any part of their own lives.

The constant hovering, “rescuing,” and mediating parents often engage in has been shown to produce anxious and depressed children. And anxious and depressed children grow up to be unproductive and unhappy employees.

Anabel Jensen, president of 6 Seconds, an organization dedicated to teaching people to develop and use their emotional intelligence, has a solution to that problem. She has seen striking increases in productivity and general well-being as she has worked with companies and their employees to increase their emotional intelligence—and improve their interpersonal skills.

Jensen’s company has been in business for 18 years now, but it is only in the past five to 10 years that American companies have begun to take notice of the value of emotional intelligence in the workplace. Before that, most of her business came from overseas. And Jensen says she can see the neglect of social skills reflected in our society, where in 2011 Gallup reported that 75% of workers were not engaged with their employment. That lack of engagement, she says, is connected to poor interpersonal relationships.

But while the American workforce is already suffering by neglecting social skills, parents don’t have to wait until they send their kids off into the world before they teach them to find fulfillment (and productivity) in whatever employment they choose.

They can begin, Jensen says, by teaching empathy. In her youth classes, she has kids walk around in other people’s shoes—big red clown shoes, towering stilettos—so they can talk about what it feels like to be someone else.

“If you want to build a better salesperson, teach them empathy. That helps them relate better. If you want to build a better grocery cart, teach empathy,” she says. Learning to empathize can help them understand what people want and what is important to them, which can lead to better grocery carts and other products that are more in line with consumer needs and abilities.

Teaching kids gratitude and to recognize and name emotions are also high on the list of ways parents can help their kids make their way. It’s worth giving kids the space and the tools to navigate the world, and their relationships—with waiters and bus drivers as well as with teachers and friends—by themselves.

You can check out Lizzie’s podcast Cocoon: Stories of Gestation.

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