'There is this attitude of expecting to come into the big job straightaway. It’s not laziness. It’s more: entitled.'
DESIGNER, PAINTER AND TELEVISION PERSONALITY DEBBIE TRAVIS TALKS TO LINDA FRUM ABOUT THE WORK ETHIC OF TWENTYSOMETHINGS
No one could ever call Debbie Travis lazy. A former model, raised in an affluent family in England, Travis moved to Montreal when she met her husband, a Canadian television producer. Travis has fashioned an international career as a designer, painter, author, television personality and producer. If there’s anything this mother of two teenage sons cannot abide it’s a poor work ethic, a notion that inspired her new TV reality program, From the Ground Up, in which 12 languid young Canadians are challenged to build a house from scratch.
Q Let’s begin with the premise of your new show. You believe the generation of twentysomethings is a bunch of slackers. How did you first come to notice this? A: I employ quite a number of young people on many different television shows that we produce. And about three years ago I started to notice a problem with attitude. I guess this will make me sound like my mother, but when I was an intern I was always so passionate and excited. Whereas the young people who worked for me had this attitude that if they were told off, or if they made a mistake, they would just leave. Or, if they had graduated from film school, they really expected that after two hours they would move straight to directing. There is this attitude of expecting to come into the big job straightaway. They are the highest-educated generation
we’ve ever had, so I think slacker is not the right word. It’s not laziness. It’s more: entitled. It’s not expecting to pay their dues.
Q: So what’s your theory on why it has become like this?
A: Some of the kids on the show explain it by saying: “We were the generation that was mollycoddled. We were given so much self-esteem. We were never told that we were wrong. Either at school or by our parents or at university.” And so it is a shock when they come out of university and they get a job and they are working the photocopying machine for a few years. Also—and I don’t want to be a party-pooper—but at the age of 29 they act the way I did at age 19. They make their money to spend on the club scene.
Q: You also believe this generation has made an error turning up their noses at jobs in the skilled trades. Are you really suggesting that there are greater rewards as a plumber than as a lawyer?
A: What I’m saying is there is more opportunity. We have an overabundance of lawyers and a shortage of good trained people in the trades. There is an enormous building boom going on. And the shortage of trades is affecting business. If we don’t train people, who is going to be building these homes? I’m not saying to any kid: “Don’t go to university because you’ll be better off as a plumber.” What I’m saying is we are pushing everybody now to go to university and some kids may be better off going to trade school. We closed down the trade schools 15
years ago in high schools. I don’t know what it’s called in Canada, but in Britain I went to what we called “shop” when I was 15 or 16. I wasn’t very academic and I was put into knitting. But I’ll tell you something: I am never cold and I make a very good sweater. But it was either Latin or knitting and I was frogmarched off to knitting. You were made to feel so small. You really were the dummy in the class. I think what we have to do is bring the trades back with pride. I’m proud of using my hands. I’ve come a long way by being a painter. And I became a painter because I couldn’t get a job in production in this country because I didn’t speak French and I was living in Montreal. I just feel it’s a very healthy option because in this decade, and probably the next, it’s where the jobs are.
Q: You say that the young people on your show lack a work ethic. Is that something you can teach them at this stage in their lives?
A What I’m trying to get across is that I can’t teach them to be a master carpenter or master plasterer in five weeks. That’s impossible. But what I am trying to teach them is that there are people out there who are very passionate about the job they do. One episode is about respect. We brought in some of the best tilers in the country. And there was this old Italian man who is 76 years old and sings opera while he’s working—they started to mock him. And I got very upset. I don’t
know if it’s the Britishness in me, but to me it’s like looking at the teenage boy on the bus who doesn’t stand up for the old lady. There’s this man. He’s passionate. He loves what he does. He’s come out of retirement just to show you his passion. Now you may take that passion into another world. But so many kids today don’t have that passion. When we did our casting interviews—we interviewed about 5,000 to 7,000 kids—lots of them didn’t have it. And they wanted to know how to get it. I’m just trying to teach them, yes, there is an opportunity in the trades. They don’t all have to go into the trades. But they should be passionate about what they do. And that’s what the viewers will be voting on at the end. Not who has the best ability but who has the best attitude.
So unlike some other celebrity reality TV show hosts, you are on a social mission?
A: There’s a radio station in Toronto called the Edge. It’s very popular with young people. I went on that radio station just before the casting call in Toronto. And I thought— oh my God, these DJs, they are really young and they are going to slam me. And the guy told me that they ran a local competition to train the next DJ at the Edge—which is the No. 1 hip radio station for young people— and one guy won. And he was there for two hours, and they sent him to Second Cup and he never came back. So they also think there is a problem. If kids don’t like something, they move on. And you know, in my generation, people understood that life is boring. There are times in your first job, your second job, your third job, when it is bonechillingly dull. And you know what? You have to get through that.
Q: Is the problem that our society is too affluent? People have no incentive to put up with dull work?
A: Well, you know what? My kids are teens. And they will do homework with music blaring, the Internet going, Game Boys and machinery all around them and I’m thinking: how do they focus? Life is moving much faster for them. Everything is immediate gratification. And then, when they go off to their first jobs, they’re bored. And they don’t want to be bored so it’s: whatever. I’m out of here. I think I’ll go to Thailand again.
Q: Now you sound like my mother. She knew that she had one of the greatest jobs in Canada. But she would tell me that even her job was boring at times because that’s just the way jobs are. And while she accepted that as normal, she too was frustrated by a younger generation that didn’t seem to understand that...
A: Well, exactly. She was the best of the
best but it didn’t happen overnight. To get to where you want to be, you struggle, you push, you work hard, and you get through the boring bits. That’s why on the first show we made the kids do the gofer work. They rip out the nails from the wood. They clean up the porta-potties. They rake the land. They do the disgusting work. Because that’s what happens.
Q: Is this a gender neutral issue? Are males and females equally disinterested in hard work?
A: Yes, I think so. But what is interesting is, we found it very hard to get ethnic people on the show. The second-generation Canadians, who did not come out to the casting call, they are the ones who are working. Especially the Indian population. They have to make their parents proud.
Q: So what should parents of young children do differently to prevent this from happening to the generation that follows next?
A: I remember when I came to this country and the things I used to do with my kids. In Britain, people are very verbal. My mother used to say things like: “If you don’t behave I’ll wipe the floor with you.” I remember saying that to one of my kids in the supermarket and I was almost carted off by social services. My kids would come home with a drawing or something—and I think it’s okay to say: “That’s good but next time maybe you should make the sun yellow instead of black.” But I found that my friends wouldn’t do that. They would say: “Oh my God. You are absolutely perfect. You are going to be the next Picasso.” And this would go on all through their lives and I think that’s ridiculous.
Q: We coddle our children too much? We give them too much?
A Yes. And we have a generation of kids who have been raised by two working parents—and I’m a working parent—and sometimes it is easier, on the way to a restaurant, to buy your kids a box of Lego to keep them quiet. Well, when I was a kid that Lego box would be my birthday present.
Q: Two weeks ago I interviewed a writer, Caitlin Flanagan, who said it’s important for us to give children their chores back.
A: Oh yeah. Last October I asked one of my sons to rake the leaves. And we actually filmed it. Because it took him 19 hours to fill a bag. It’s the funniest piece of footage you’ve ever seen. He had every excuse, from lying all over the lawn to his cellphone constantly going off. And I said: “You don’t come inside until it’s done.” And we just put the camera on the kitchen table and filmed it. It was dark by the time he was finished. Finally, he filled the bag and went
to bed. If we can get teens watching this show, maybe we can get them to admit that, yes, there is a problem. There was a school in Oakville, Ont., that actually did a tour of the house at the beginning. Because the teacher there was bringing back a trades program and she didn’t have one person apply. She brought two or three different grades to come and look at the house and by the end she had 29 kids.
Q: Are Canadian kids especially soft? Or is this a Western phenomenon?
A: The only countries I really know are the U.K., America, and Canada. And yes, it is exactly the same thing. But we’ve also sold the show across Europe. In Belgium they said, “Oh my God, it’s even worse here.” So I think it’s a phenomenon. Yes. And especially in countries like Italy, where the trades once were very respected and now, no young people want to go into them.
'I asked my son to rake the leaves. We actually filmed it. Because it took him 19 hours to fill a bag.1
Q: I remember seeing a documentary recently on the Murano glass industry in Venice and how it is in peril because there are no young Venetian craftsmen interested in doing that kind of hard work anymore.
A: I just don’t think young people realize that there is an amazing sense of accomplishment working with your hands. I want to get it across that there is pride and honour working in the trades. And even if you’re not interested in the trades, bring passion into whatever you do, and stick with it. M
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