As a proud member of Generation X, I tend to push back against whatever the common thought processes are. When I hear about labor shortages in meat processing and other important trades, one of the common refrains is “Kids today don’t want to work” or “Young people are lazy.” I don’t believe that. I didn’t believe it about Millennials, and I don’t believe it about Gen Z. I think what we’re seeing is a generation who were educated without purpose and are trying to find their place in the working world.

This is partly based on my experiences as a parent in suburban Atlanta. I’ve had my kids in the Fulton County Public School system, and I’ve had them in private schools. What I see in either case is an education business that depends on academic excellence at all costs, and preparing its students for a career is secondary at best.

Some public schools are criminally underfunded, and as a result, they struggle to give their students a proper education. That’s a completely separate discussion, but one that we as a country are going to have to have in the future. But what about the schools that have funding? Their funding, and their status as “good” schools, is largely dependent on good grades and good standardized test scores. So to maintain that funding, they push their kids as hard as possible, frequently past their emotional breaking point.

When I was in high school, I was in an honors program, which meant that if I kept up my grades, I might – might – get to take an AP course or two in my senior year and get a couple of college credits. Now, honors and AP classes are the bare minimums. High school students are supposed to start with honors and AP courses and eventually move up to dual-enrollment classes in their junior and senior years. It’s not enough anymore to get a couple of college credits. High school students are expected to actually attend college while still in high school, so they can shoot through college faster than normal and get out into the real world with a degree and a career. Oh, and they also need to partake in plenty of sports and other extracurricular activities, because merely achieving in high school doesn’t get you into college. You have to overachieve to get anywhere.

The predicable result of all this is that all the stress of adulthood is being dumped onto kids who don’t have the neural pathways or the life experience to handle it. There are a lot of reasons why teenage drinking, vaping, drug use, prescription pill addition and suicide rates are all so high, but I have to think that a sizable part of it is that teenagers are under more pressure than ever before.

How much could we improve the education system, not to mention young lives, if we brought back the concept of trade education? Education shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. Not everybody excels in a classroom. Some smart kids who are bored and unmotivated might be energized with an introduction to ag science or auto repair. They could discover a career path that doesn’t involve a college degree, or they could go to college with a defined career and objective and focus on the classes that will get them to that objective. Not everyone needs to take AP Calculus, but they deserve help to find a career that can bring them happiness.

Sam Gazdziak