Are We Losing Practical Life-Skills?

Poverty and lack of life skills are causally connected.

Are we as a society losing the basic practical life skills? Longtime correspondent Kevin K. recently submitted his informal survey of two basic skills: repairing a flat bicycle tire and changing a tire on a car.

I recently asked one of my tenants (a student at a top-tier public university) if she needed a pump when I saw that her bike tire was flat. She said that the tire would not hold air so I offered to let her use my pump, patch kit and tire irons to patch the tube. She had no idea what I was talking about and said she was going to bring it to a bike shop.I offered to patch the tube for her (and did it in about 10 minutes) and asked if she knew how to change a tire on her Honda car and she said no. When I went home I asked my wife (a Stanford Grad with a Masters degree) if she could change the tire on any of our cars if she got a flat, she said “no”. I asked if she could patch a bike tube and she said “maybe” (she said she learned how to replace a tube and air it up with a mini bottle of compressed air when working with a triathlon coach after college).

In the next week I asked 5 other guys and three other girls (all students at a top-tier public university) and of the 10 people I asked only two of the guys said they could change a car tire and fix a flat bike tire.

Kevin also recommended this blog entry, which I quote at length for reasons that will become clear as you read it:

Learning About Cars And Life Through An Old Man’s Toolbox…

I am a “Millennial”, just under the age of thirty. This is a title I have not quite embraced because of the negative connotations associated with the word, but it is something I have come to terms with accepting. A big part of the reason I take issue with being a Millennial is because I see people get completely lost in the simplest of basic life tasks because they cannot be bothered to learn a new skill or use practical self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, as a generation, many of us were not taught about the importance of life skills outside of formal education and social skills.Going back even twenty years, people were a bit more self-sufficient for the most part. I remember more families back then having an actual dinner with each other a few days each week and take-out was something reserved for Friday nights. During the week, the family helped cook food or at least cleaned up the dishes afterward, but not us – not now. Did you know that most millennials spend more money on eating out than they do on groceries that could be used to cook our own food? Never in history has anything like that happened before and I can name far too many people around my age who cannot cook a meal for themselves. Self-sufficiency is eroding and this is only one example of many.

Those before us usually had some sort of backup plan for the rough patches they went through in life. Yet, we have not been taught to think that far ahead and I have seen too many people my age go after one goal, only to fail and then crash and burn because they have no idea of how to do anything else. They have no other skill set because most were not ever told to expect their world to possibly fall apart.

I have relied on the more mechanical examples of things we are capable of but choose not to embark on, but that is the most constant self-sufficiency model I have in my own life. I am not a technician, but I learned everything I know from necessity and research because I refuse to pay anyone to do anything I am capable of doing just as well on my own with a little research and practical education, but I know few people who hold that same mindset in my generation.

When I help someone with a task they are not very keen on, I would rather teach them what I know so they can retain it for the future. As an example, my friend’s car had an issue and I figured out it was her alternator (read more about that here). She stood right beside me the entire time I was working on her car and I explained how everything worked as well as what I was doing through the entire process. When I needed a little assistance, she jumped right in and had no issue getting some dirt on her hands. Though I could tell it was a little taxing on her patience, the smile on her face when it was all back together made the whole thing worth it. She is an exception to what I most often see in our generation because she is never afraid to learn anything new, even though her chosen career is not even remotely close to parking lot automotive repair. I admire people like that. I admire those who are not afraid to learn something new.

I admire those who solve their own problems.

This is not a generational slam on Millennials: how many Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers can fix stuff when it breaks? How many maintain their own vehicles, homes, computers and appliances? How many are seeking out new life-skills to master?

In my view, our education system is self-serving, i.e. the goal of institutional education is to qualify the student to enter the next level of institutional education, rather than prepare students to create value and solve problems in the real world, which is the only source of premium available to labor, i.e. the only reason anyone will pay a human being rather than get the work done by software or robotics.

Only the wealthy can afford to have someone else fix their bicycle, walk and wash their dog, change the oil in their car, repair their house, etc. Practical skills enable an individual or household to lower the cost of living to the point that savings (capital accumulation) is possible. Practical skills are human capital, which is the means of production in a knowledge economy.

The Knowledge Economy’s Two Classes of Workers (March 29, 2013)

In a very real sense, those with few practical skills are doomed to a zero-capital life unless they earn enough to pay somebody else to do everything for them, i.e. a minimum of $150,000+ a year, i.e. a top 10% household income. Even at that income level, people who can’t do anything for themselves may not be able to save any money.

Poverty and lack of life skills are causally connected.

Science fiction author Robert Heinlein famously listed the skills of the generally competent in his book Time Enough for Love:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

I propose amending Heinlein’s list for the modern era: The marginally competent person should know how to:

1. Look up how to fix something on the Web

2. Use WD-40

3. Get a bicycle chain back on the gears

4. Apply superglue without gluing their fingers together

5. Change the oil in a car

6. Replace a lockset

7. Troubleshoot network connections on a PC/laptop

8. Make a stir-fry meal using multiple fresh ingredients

9. Compose coherent instructions that explain how to do something useful

10. Keep a variety of plants alive and producing fruit, vegetables or flowers

This is obviously a very short list, but we have to start somewhere.

Of related interest:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (March 15, 2007)

Self-Reliance II (March 16, 2007)

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  • You can look up how to fix anything on youtube. I replaced my dryer motor for about $25. I put the laptop next to me, paused it for each step, never did anything like this before, done successfully/easy. Anyone can do this. I wish this existed years ago.

    Here’s another one: I used to be in a band in the 80’s, and to get the song down we’d play a record or cassette over and over trial and error the parts, and guess how they played it. NOW…any song you want, some guy shows you how to play it on youtube. Boy do I wish that existed back then.

    • kimyo

      re: learning a song – you can also ‘stretch’ and loop audio quite easily nowadays using free tools (audacity). stealing solos is much easier at 1/2 or 1/4 speed with no need to rewind.

      also, when repairing an item with lots of screws or parts, take photos or video as you disassemble it.

  • jo6pac

    I’m from the trades from millwright to facility maintenance but my neighbor changes my bike tubes. He has the tools and take him about 10 min. me since I don’t do it about a hour I’m guessing. I did build a greenhouse and a few sheds for toys (tools) but yes it’s gotten bad but there hope in Japan at lest.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-04-06/humans-replacing-robots-herald-toyota-s-vision-of-future.html
    BD right you can find it on the net if you look. I needed to know how to store the garlic and shallots I’ll be digging up next week and there it is just like magic

  • goingnowherefast

    I’m happy to report that my 30 something sons excel at all the things on your list except maybe growing green things. They rely on me for that as that is my area of expertise. They both work on their own cars and bikes and can fix things around the house. And they cook.