Mark C. Perna’s Answering Why is a relatively brief volume addressing the growing generational disconnect between those coming of age at the end of the 21st century’s second decade and their predecessors who are gatekeepers, in a sense, of the young’s professional future. Perna’s introduction acknowledges a conundrum facing Americans in various walks of life – countless unfilled skill positions in the United States economy exist due to a lack of training among the current pool of prospective employees. Perna’s book looks to determine why this has happened and what both sides of the equation can do to bridge the skills gap between older generations and those beginning to find their way through the world.
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Perna does an exceptional job identifying the dominant traits of those he dubs Generation Z. Rather than being wholly consumed with wealth and power, this generation wants to feel like their jobs serve some larger purpose and, thus, traditional employment holds little allure for them. They are cultural transients of a sort, drifting from one job to the next, defiantly untethered from the template their elders followed into careers of their own. Perna asserts our workforce development and educational systems alike are broken. Perna, in his capacity as a consultant specializing in increasing employee and student retention for businesses and educational institutions alike, has an unique perspective on these issues he brings to bear throughout the entirety of Answering Why.
He divides the book into three sections dovetailing into his proposed path towards addressing the “creaking branch” metaphor he describes early on. Noting that we are on the precipice of a crisis, as Perna believes we are, isn’t something we should fear. Instead, Perna argues, this scenario is one we should embrace as an opportunity to focus on the situation at hand, embrace strategic planning to deal with critical issues, and then take appropriate action to deal with the matter. He structures the aforementioned three sections along these lines. The first section examines what we can do to close the skills gap, how we can surmount generational fracture points, and what makes the “Why Generation” tick. The third chapter in this section is perhaps its most important. He is right to identify we can never deal with these problems unless we achieve a meaningful understanding of the passions and feelings that drive the Why Generation rather than fixating on how they are different from their older counterparts.
The remaining two sections of the book tackle the Why Generation head on and discuss why they don’t grasp the enormity of the issues at hand and how rethinking their approach to making ends meet in an increasingly competitive world can benefit them. Perna also deals with how they and older generations alike can overcome what he labels an “awareness gap” while centering on that phenomenon amongst the young. The final section delves with greater detail than before into how our fractured educational and workforce development system and wrangles with how imbuing learning with a sense of higher purpose can inspire young people.
Perna maintains a certain amount of distance from the material rather than personalizing the volume in a significant way despite his insights and obvious intelligence. Some readers will find this unappealing – particularly the young who likely want to know about his personal relationship to these experiences. There are gestures in this direction. He dedicates the book to his two sons and alludes, early on, to the mistakes he made with them – potential unsatisfied readers of Answering Why might benefit from Perna’s willingness to reveal more of the human being behind these ideas. Answering Why, nevertheless, is an important study of real problems festering in our society today and deserves serious attention.