Young workers

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(HOST) Recently Hillary Clinton made a series of disparaging remarks about the work ethic of the younger generation. Commentator Philip Baruth spent two back-to-back weekends working with young writers this month, and he begs to differ.

(BARUTH) A few weeks back, Hillary Clinton was speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce when, for no apparent reason, she began to channnel her inner Bob Dole: “Kids today think work is a four-letter word,” Hillary suddenly groused. Now, a politician disrespects an entire generation at her peril, and the backlash was instantaneous.

It’s worth asking, though, why this little dust-up turned into a world-wide twister. Is it because Clinton has dominated fund-raising for the 2008 Presidential cycle? Yes. Is it because the word “Hillary” sounds like nails on a blackboard to thirty-five percent of American voters? Yes.

But it’s more than that: what Hillary said wasn’t just unfair or impolitic, it was flat-out wrong. This new generation not only works hard, but they’re digitally enabled, and that’s a force multiplier, as Colin Powell would say.

How do I know so much about it? Every May, I do back-to-back Young Writers Conferences, one up in Ripton at the Breadloaf campus, and one at Champlain College in Burlington. Most of the students are eleventh-graders, the creative iconoclasts at their high-schools. They don’t fit comfortably into ordinary social cliques because they like to narrate their life in third-person, out loud; or because they like to carry a journal, and curl up suddenly in corners with it. Or because they carry a quarter staff and dress in medieval robes.

But at these two conferences suddenly they see wild, creative kids like themselves, everywhere they look, and it’s a revelation for them, all week-end long.

At the Breadloaf Young Writers Conference, they honor a no-technology policy. Students write with pens and pencils, and they’re not allowed to bring Ipods, or cell-phones. But stripped of the normal tools of their generation’s trade, these students do just fine, Mrs. Clinton. They wander through the woods, they go and wonder over Robert Frost’s cabin, and they stay up late, late into the night to finish the short story I make them write, from scratch, start to finish, in two days.

The Champlain Conference, for its part, celebrates the technology. When they’re not in their workshops, kids scramble for computers, don headsets, contact electronic posses, and disappear into various digital worlds. Things are always ringing or vibrating or flashing in their pockets. One girl brought a very sweet pitbull named Lola, who would snore and snuffle quietly in her lap, raising an ear at each cell-phone chirp, but otherwise paying us no mind.

But the best moment of the Champlain Conference was the closing ceremony. My group wrote a skit based on the Wizard of Oz, a parody of the conference itself, with Dorothy as one of the workshop participants. Among the other workshop members was one without a Heart, one without a Brain, — you get the picture.

And of course we picked the girl with the pitbull to be Dorothy, with the idea that the dog would trail her out onstage. And it was working brilliantly, until the dog, Lola, suddenly developed a charged erotic relationship with the leg of one of the Munchkins.

A low-tech moment, if ever there was one.

But it brought the house down. Which offers a kind of roundabout lesson to Hillary Clinton: this generation may not always work in ways you recognize as work, but there’s no question that they work, and work hard like dogs, if you want to get technical.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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