As Gen Z enters the workforce in greater numbers, employers, colleagues and consumers are noticing a pervasive decline in work ethic that transcends demographic and political divides. Tales of “quiet quitting” (a conscious determination to do the bare minimum at work) and complaints about the reality that work is not always fun, lucrative or logistically easy pervade social media, where today’s young adults spend so much of their time. 

Although some older Americans applaud these developments, saying that Gen Z is prioritizing mental health and the examined life over the rat race, many of my fellow millennials and our elders are alarmed and perplexed about this devolution in professional standards. It is especially worrisome because the decline in young Americans’ productivity is happening in conjunction with worsening mental health and academic achievement

Is there any simple way to reverse this tide for the next generation, and bring back a culture of professionalism alongside improved mental health and academic competence?

Here’s one thing we could try: Assign homework to primary and secondary school students, and expect that homework to be done correctly and on time. 

Today, a bias against homework is brewing among educational researchers at universities and ideological activists in elementary and secondary schools. 

Critics of homework say it increases disparities in educational outcomes between socioeconomic and racial groups because children with familial and economic resources benefit from homework the most and need reinforcement the least.

In other words, those with an attentive adult at home in the afternoon or evening tend to do their homework and enjoy the academic benefits of doing so, while children whose parents are working outside of school hours may not have parental encouragement, fail to complete the assigned work, and thus fall further and further behind.  

Additionally, those concerned about the mental health crisis among children and teens contend that homework contributes to kids’ anxiety — both as a source of stress in itself and as an opportunity cost compared to emotionally and mentally restorative activities such as spending time with friends and family. 

Each of these concerns has merit.

But eliminating homework, as many school districts around the country are doing, is unconscionably counterproductive.

The poisonous logic of equity is to pursue equality of outcome between groups at the expense of individuals. As we demand less from students across the board, we lower the ceiling without raising the floor. So, yes, it’s true that the gap between higher-achieving and lower-achieving students may shrink when we cease to offer students the incentive to improve their academic performance through the repetition and reinforcement of assigned homework. But, as plunging test scores across the country suggest, shrinking achievement gaps in response to equity measures are mostly the result of higher-achieving students doing worse, not of lower-achieving ones doing better. 

This is not just true academically, but in terms of executive function, including the expectation of individual responsibility for universally mandated, nondomestic deliverables for which there are no regularly accepted excuses. If we no longer seek to inculcate the habits of impersonal, clinical accountability in our nation’s children and teens, can we really be surprised when those habits are missing in so many young professionals of every demographic? 

Closing academic and professional achievement gaps should entail measures like mandating an after-school study hall with academic attention available for those who are not getting their work done at home, not eliminating the work itself. Sacrificing the pursuit of academic and professional excellence on the altar of ideology is unparalleled in its perverse capacity to foster both educational mediocrity and personal fragility. 

Meanwhile, concerns about the toll that homework takes on students’ mental health are concentrated among middle- and upper-middle-class families. Middle- and upper-middle-class children tend to be the simultaneous beneficiaries and victims of today’s norms of “intensive parenting,” in which scheduled after-school activities crowd out free play in primary school and paid work in secondary school, foster intense anxiety about academic achievement en route to college, and rob kids of needed sleep. 

Excessive amounts of homework can contribute to children’s stress levels in ways that are counterproductive. Yet, drastically reducing or eliminating homework in deference to concerns about kids’ stress can contribute to their inability to manage life’s demands effectively as adults.

The disposition to fragility that is so concerning among today’s young people does not come about because we demand too much of them as kids and teens. It comes about because we demand far too little. 

Many parents and educators now manage children’s challenging behaviors with kind redirections rather than no-nonsense reprimands. They also respond to students’ complaints of stress with appeals to reduce work loads, and emphasize kids’ feelings over their interpersonal skills.

In this infantilizing climate, requiring that children do reasonable amounts of homework is one way to push back on both our academic decline and our professional and interpersonal fragility.