I must be getting older, because my first reaction when I read about “safetyism” was that no one ever bothered to make me feel safe when I was in college. In fact, I expected my professors and campus organizations and speakers to push me in ways that would cause me to think differently than when I started college as a seventeen-year-old freshman—and I expected that I would be uncomfortable with some of the ideas I heard. I could control some of my discomfort by choosing certain courses and programs and events over others, but I didn’t expect to have total control. Sometimes I stayed away from campus events because I didn’t want to hear what was being said. Other times I went to events, even when I didn’t think I’d agree with the speaker—I went because I wanted to learn something.
But apparently, many college students these days do not view college the same way I did.
In The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018), authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt discuss the growing trend on campuses to make the environment “safe” from threatening ideas. After growing up with helicopter parents and participating only in supervised activities, today’s students are not prepared to cope when confronted with ideas and conduct unlike what they have experienced in the past.
I haven’t read The Coddling of the American Mind, and so this post summarizes the book based on several reviews I have read. My purpose in citing this book is primarily to comment on what it means for the workforce of the future.
The first section of this book explains what the authors believe are three “great untruths” that children are being taught: That pain and discomfort make them weaker; that they should trust their feelings completely; and that the world is composed of a dichotomy of good people and evil people. The book then discusses the authors’ perspective on the historical, social, psychological, and political causes for these untruths. Finally, the authors attempt to offer solutions, such as intellectual humility (no one has all the answers), courage to think independently (pursuing truth wherever it leads), and emotional resilience (handling adversity by controlling your emotions and reactions).
So why is the notion of “safetyism” a relevant topic for a blog focused on corporate and employment issues? Because the college students of today will be employees within just a few years. How will young people who believe that discomfort makes them weaker, who rely on their emotions, and who see the world as a battle between good and evil survive in a corporate environment? I see serious problems when these new adults enter the workplace.
- If young people cannot deal with emotional pain, how will they react to having their errors pointed out to them? Will they expect to have their every action praised and applauded, whether it was productive or not? How will they respond to bosses who push them to work harder or smarter? What will they do during frank performance discussions? How will they handle merit pay decisions when they don’t come out on top?
- If they rely primarily on their own emotions, how will they react to the personality quirks and behavioral foibles of other employees with whom they must work? How will they deal with bosses who rant or make cutting remarks on occasion? How will they cope with budget cuts and other decisions that differ from their preferred courses of action? Like families, workplaces operate best when there is some give and take between the members—not every snappish comment is worth reacting to, and not every decision is all about you.
- If they see a dichotomy between good and evil, how will they deal with people who think differently than they do? How will they compromise or find the best ideas after sifting through a number of possibilities? How will they interact with coworkers from different backgrounds and cultures than their own? How will they learn that the truth is often in the middle, and that people on both sides of a controversy can have developed their opinions rationally?
Keeping children and teens emotionally safe and protected from controversy does not turn them into adults able to speak for themselves. This emotional coddling does not prepare young people to live independently, nor to contribute openly and resiliently in the changing business environment we find ourselves in today.
Trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, safe spaces, and avoidance of unpopular viewpoints do not foster strong thinkers. Tolerance of this coddling in the interest of making students feel “safe” is no way to raise the next generation of leaders. We should hope that college campuses where these aspects of “safetyism” are rampant change their approaches to higher education quickly. Because corporations cannot afford to continue the coddling. At some point, young people will have to become adults, which might come as a rude awakening.
What do you think about the culture of “safetyism”?