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The Long Goodbye to Literacy

Chances are, you’re not highly skilled at tracking sly animals through dense forests and slaying them with a bow and arrow. And you’re probably not especially adept at the kind of agricultural techniques used by most Americans a little more than a century ago. Times and technologies have changed, and our daily skill sets have changed with them. We understand this.

Yet, when some futurists argue that humanity is headed into an era when necessary work skills won’t include a high degree of literacy, it strikes many people as incredible, depressing and even dangerous. That isn’t just because we have an emotional attachment to the 6,000-year-old technology we call the written word. It’s because there’s a huge apparent disconnect between the need to get work done in the Information Age and other social trends pushing us into what some call a “postliterate” future.

In a recent edition of The Futurist magazine, Megatrends author John Naisbitt writes, “Our literacy, and with it our verbal and communication skills, are in decline.” There is growing evidence for this. The U.S. government just released data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showing that, even after years of educational reforms, high school seniors scored worse on a national reading test than they had back in 1992. Fewer than three-quarters of U.S. 12th graders scored at least at the “basic” level, down from 80% in the early 1990s.

There have been other signs as well. A study conducted by the National Endowment of the Arts found that there had been a drop in the percentage of Americans who read literary works from 57% in 1982 to 54% in 1990 and 47% in 2002. Declines were especially steep among 18-to-24-year-olds, who used to comprise one of the most likely groups to read literature. Just 43% of this group now reads literature, down from 60% in 1982. There’s also been a significant drop in the proportion of people who read newspapers, both in the U.S. and other parts of the developed world, including Europe and Japan.

Most observers point to the same root cause of these trends: modern entertainment technologies, from TVs to PCs to video games to MP3 players. Yet, no one seems certain whether such devices are truly eroding literacy or just causing it to evolve, as so many—and especially the young—engage in blogging, text messaging, Web surfing, and the like. Some experts argue that today’s kids may actually be reading more than they used to, though much of their typical reading material is online. Others say this is wishful thinking, noting that adolescents and young adults spend growing amounts of time playing games, listening to and downloading music, watching movies, and other nontext-oriented activities.

William Crossman, author of VIVO (Voice-In/Voice-Out): The Coming Age of Talking Computers, isn’t especially concerned about the erosion of traditional literacy. He writes, “Just as the car replaced the horse and wagon, speech and graphics and video streaming over the Internet will replace written texts, and talking computers will replace text-driven computers.” He predicts that by midcentury, writing—as we currently think of it—will be an “obsolete technology.”

Perhaps. In the meantime, however, the erosion of conventional literacy is turning out to be a major headache for many employers. “The future workforce is here—and it is woefully ill-prepared for the demands of today’s (and tomorrow’s) workplace,” asserts the study Are They Really Ready to Work?

The study—based on a survey of 431 HR officials and conducted in April and May 2006 by The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management—found that high school graduates coming into the workforce are particularly deficient in terms of writing skills.

When asked to rate the basic skills of these new entrants into the workforce, almost three-quarters of respondents said such entrants were deficient in “Writing in English,” a category that includes spelling and grammar. And, when asked to rate high school graduates’ applied skills, a whopping 81% said new entrants with a high school diploma are deficient in the area of “Written Communications.” In short, the majority of respondents said these new workers lack both a basic understanding of written English and a practical understanding of how to communicate via the written word in the workplace.

The study also indicates that employers view reading and writing as critical basic skills. Yet, these skills seem to be eroding. How can employers help slow down or even reverse this erosion? Traditional answers range from partnering with local school systems to providing students with mentors and internships to offering basic skills training in the workplace. These all seem like worthwhile pursuits, but so far they’ve proven insufficient. In coming years, business will probably need better methods of boosting literacy in the workplace as society is drawn further into what could be a multisensory, computer-mediated, postliterate future.

For much more on current trends, visit HRI’s Website at www.hrinstitute.info.

Documents referenced in this article include the following:

The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management. “Most Young People Entering the U.S. Workforce Lack Critical Skills Essential for Success.” Press release. October 2, 2006a.

The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management. Are They Really Ready to Work? Employers’ Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century U.S. Workforce. 2006b.

Crossman, William. “Voice-In/Voice-Out Computers and the Postliterate Age.” The Futurist, March–April 2007, pp. 27–28.
“Facts on Literacy.” The Futurist, March–April 2007, p. 30.

Hardy, Lawrence. “Forgetting How to Read, or Just Re-Locating It?” Education Digest. ProQuest. February 2005.

“Literary Reading in Dramatic Decline, According to National Endowment for the Arts Survey.” Press release. July 8, 2004.

Naisbitt, John. “The Postliterate Future.” The Futurist, March–April 2007, pp. 24–26.

Tobin, Thomas C. “12th-Grade Scores Gloomy.” St. Petersburg Times, February 23, 2007, pp. 1A, 15A.