Should Employers Care That Gen Y Can’t Write?

The demise of cursive writing has given rise to a generational conflict between older workers and Generation Y. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard from Baby Boomers and Generation Xers about how inappropriate, even rude, it is for a candidate or employee to send a thank you note by text and email. For many of these experienced workers, this digital mode of communication results in an immediate rejection or dismissal. 

The inability to handwrite a legible thank you note is just one more indication of how unprepared and ill-mannered the newest workforce entrants are.  But in the immortal words of the late Paul Harvey, “now let’s hear the rest of the story.”

The inability to write a simple thank you note in a flowing, somewhat artistic yet legible art form may not be the fault of these young workers. You can rightfully blame a young worker for not applying what he’s been taught.  But you can’t blame him for not knowing something that parents and educators decided wasn’t worth teaching.

Just as the computer keyboard helped kill shorthand, it's now threatening longhand.  The Christian Science Monitor wrote that “cursive writing is an endangered species given the rise of computers… and the increasing perception that cursive writing is a difficult and pointless exercise.” The Washington Post reported in 2006 that cursive handwriting is a dying skill. The USA Today wonders if cursive writing is worth teaching.  It seems to me the decision has already been made.

But considering that many of the best college students and graduates today can’t handwrite a legible note using the Palmer or Zaner-Bloser method, the chances of finding a qualified worker goes from bad to improbable if cursive writing is a job requirement.

There is a blind assumption that cursive writing is a fundamental skill taught in elementary school today, just like it was in the 1990s and earlier. Most are in shock when I tell them that cursive writing is no longer taught in most schools past the 3rd grade. In some schools, it’s not taught at all. 

Parents and experienced teachers recall the days when students spent 45 minutes practicing handwriting every day. Penmanship was a separate grade on report cards. The decline of cursive writing is happening as students are doing more and more work on computers. Today, handwriting instruction might get 10 or 15 minutes a few times a week. Many school districts stop teaching cursive writing in the 3rd grade but start teaching keyboarding skills in kindergarten.
It’s not only that students struggle to write cursive, but read it as well. Stacked up against teaching technology, foreign languages and the material on standardized tests, penmanship instruction is a relic. In 2005, the SAT began including a written essay portion, and a 2007 report by the College Board found that about 15 percent of test-takers chose to write in cursive. The rest? They printed… in block letters.

Think about the implications of that.  If a candidate sent you a block-printed note looking like a 6-year old wrote it, would he or she instill any more confidence in their ability than if they sent a well-articulated, spell checked text message? Should it matter what form a candidate uses? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on the composition, not the form?

Even the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which sets the standards to which many schools are required to meet, will be requiring 8th and 11th graders to compose on computers by 2011, with 4th graders following in 2019.

The problem with workers today isn’t penmanship, it’s the inability to compose even a simple memo. That means the emphasis in schools and subsequently in the workplace must be focused on articulating ideas and writing composition not the formation of letters. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that 26 percent of 12th graders lack basic proficiency in writing, while two percent were sufficiently skilled writers to be classified as "advanced." 
Handwriting is increasingly something people do only when they need to make a note to themselves rather than communicate with others. The ability to tap a keyboard quickly and accurately is a more desirable skill these days.  In fact, penmanship is likely not even a required skill for most jobs. 

So here’s some advice to Baby Boomer and Gen X managers – focus on the clarity and appropriateness of the message, not the vehicle of communication.  And if you receive a thank you note, be grateful! At least that indicates your candidate has some sense of good business etiquette.


Ira S Wolfe


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  2. Kate Gladstone October 30, 2010 at 4:38 pm -

    Given the topic of the article, it should surprise no one that there’s now an iPad app to take Generation Y’s handwriting past the SESAME STREET level: