E-letter: Doing the math on success

I was fascinated last month by a new study on adult skills from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Economic Development, in cooperation with the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in the U.S. According to the report, OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, North Americans are not bright.

In fact, in terms of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE), Japan finished first in all three and Finland finished second in all three, while Canada finished 11th of 23, 15th of 23 and 13th of 20 respectively, and the U.S. finished 17th, 21st and 18th. In terms of numeracy, the U.S. ranked above only Italy and Spain, and the U.S. ranked only above Ireland and Poland in PS-TRE.

Kerry Knudsen
Kerry Knudsen

At this point, the study focuses directly on Americans, so we need to keep our performance relative the Americans’ in perspective. In this study, we had nothing to brag about. Of the Americans, the study found that the group they (and we) seem to rely upon more than any other, Millennials, not only scored lower than most other nations, they scored lower than any other age group of Americans, and they performed especially low in PS-TRE.

Conventional wisdom, of course, has it entirely opposite of the study’s findings. We are constantly pounded with the mantra that Millennials can work with TV clickers and other people’s computer programs, and we should, therefore, accept that Millennials are smarter than others and we should let them lead our businesses, our associations and our countries.

I resisted this idea a few months back in a column, light-heartedly proposing that there has never been a society anywhere in space or time that looked to its children for leadership. In my opinion, an even worse situation exists when adults desert their posts out of ignorance and frustration. Young people don’t stop needing old people when they hit voting age.

Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the OECD, says it like this: “If there is one central message emerging from this new survey, it is that what people know and what they do with what they know has a major impact on their life chances…. Those with low literacy skills are also more than twice as likely to be unemployed. The survey also shows that how literacy skills are distributed across a population has significant implications on how economic and social outcomes are distributed within the society. If large proportions of adults have low reading and numeracy skills, introducing and disseminating productivity-improving technologies and work-organisation practices can therefore be hampered. But the impact of skills goes far beyond earnings and employment. In all countries, individuals with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely than those with better literacy skills to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and not to participate in associative or volunteer activities. In most countries, they are also less likely to trust others.”

In the end, says Gurria, low skill levels leads to social polarization, political unrest and economic malaise.


Assuming that Canada is not much better off than the States, based on our own unbrilliant position in the overall scores, it seems this topic needs addressing.

For one thing, how is it that our Millennials are not as smart as they think they are? One hypothesis might be that we worry more about self-esteem than about performance. Another might be that our educators are doing a poor job, but set up student performance evaluations to cover the facts. Another might be that we are willing to let discipline and excellence slip in favour of avoiding confrontation and calling random brain farts “art.”

I mean, can anybody really explain why we idolize people in Hollywood and B.C. that make a living out of pretending they are something they are not? Then, to top it off, we pay them more money than the entire economies of some nations and ask them their opinions on social order and international law?

Since television and movies seem to be the foundation of the “new” social media, I learned back in the day that audience presentations were made up of two, never-balancing values: teaching and entertainment. Stories we call Classic are entertaining, but they also carry a message. From my seat, the current crop of movies and shows teach nothing, reaching only toward getting paid for showing off impossible acts as special effects. The “good guys” are only good guys because they are cooler, know how to dodge special effects and can attract damsels in distress. No need to know anything about the damsel or the distress. She is cool, too. And she hates Stephen Harper and loves wombats. But then, I repeat myself.


We all know we suffer from a skills vacuum in Canada. We also know several incongruent facts. For example, we need skilled workers, Millennials go to school to get skills and the Millennials can’t get a job that pays six figures for drawing buxom cartoon blondes so they hide in their mothers’ basements and write letters supporting the forgiving of student loans.

I always wondered what that “forgiving” word means in that context. I have a sense they want their politicians should excuse their $200,000 debt and put it back on me. You can bet their professors don’t intend to support the forgiveness with their paycheques.

Did you hear about the teaching assistants in Toronto? They went on strike against their students because they, the assistants, were only making $44,000 per year and $44,000 is not a “living wage.” This is what happens when you let Millennials define words and phrases. In the first place, $44,000 certainly is a living wage. In the second place, you are not SUPPOSED to get a living wage for hanging around campus past the age of 40.

Of course, you have to give it to them …. It appears, contrary to the OECD study, that they are better than average at Problem-Solving in a Technology-Rich Environment. And just look at who is paying.


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