Maintenance is a part of everyday life. Our bodies and minds require us to sleep for eight hours a day so we can make repairs and feel refreshed for the day ahead. We have to go to the gym regularly if we want to stay in shape. We have to wash our windows if we want them to stay clean enough to see the outside world.
But for the past couple of decades, our culture has disproportionately focused on innovation, rather than maintenance. We’d rather unlock a new capability or launch a new device than prioritize the care and longevity of things we already have. So how did this happen, and what does it mean for the future of our culture (as well as innovation)?
The Sexiness of Innovation
It’s not hard to see why we tend to favor innovation over maintenance. Which do you suppose looks better as a newspaper headline for a city," New Bridge to Replace Old, Crumbling Bridge," or "Old, Crumbling Bridge to Be Repaired to Last Another Decade"?
Innovation introduces us to new things, and in many cases, better things. That novelty has an immediate appeal. So does the promise that innovation will make some ugly part of our lives nonexistent. For example, automobiles make it far easier for us to travel to new and distant places, and in the near future, self-driving cars may be able to upgrade even that advanced experience.
Innovation is also sexy because of the reward system built into capitalism.
Inventors of new gadgets and processes have the rights to their production and distribution, which means they’re likely to make millions, or even billions, if their unique idea catches on. Compare that to maintenance; you can be the best maintainer in a given field, but it’s unlikely that you’ll ever make as much money as your innovative counterpart.
For example, the engineering team that comes up with the first self-driving car will probably make far more money than the mechanic working 40 hours a week to keep those cars operational.
The Neglect of Maintenance
You might argue that there’s nothing wrong with favoring innovation over maintenance. After all, innovation can, in some cases, make maintenance unnecessary.
Consider the robot vacuum cleaner, now ubiquitous, which forgoes the consumer need to manually run the vacuum cleaner on a regular basis.
However, the neglect of maintenance can lead to some devastating consequences.
For starters, we aren’t designating enough funding for the regular maintenance of our nation’s infrastructure — and as a result, it’s practically crumbling. Millions of miles of roadways and millions of bridges across the U.S. are in pressing need of repairs, yet we aren’t addressing these problems because we’re more focused on building the next great gadget or making some landmark, innovative breakthrough.
We can also look at the dichotomy between innovation and maintenance as influencing the great shortage of trade workers.
In multiple disciplines, such as construction and ironwork, there are thousands of open jobs available, none of which require a bachelor’s degree or special training. Yet the vast majority of modern high school graduates clamor to get into a university. A college education is considered the new normal, yet the average college graduate today has more than $37,000 in debt when they graduate, and unemployment rates among millennials and new college graduates are astoundingly high.
In other words, kids are driven to get an education on the path to becoming innovators, and frequently see maintenance-oriented careers as beneath them, or at least undesirable. As a result, we have a dramatic shortage of maintainers in our society, and a painful surplus of hopeful innovators.
Co-Existing in Harmony
None of this is to suggest that we should abolish our love for innovation. Innovation has the power to make resources more available and make necessary services much cheaper and more efficient. However, we can’t afford to focus exclusively on innovation at the expense of maintenance. We need both if we want our society to exist in balance, and achieve its maximum potential. Because no matter how far our technology progresses, we’ll still need people to help keep that technology running.
Larry Alton is a professional blogger, writer, and researcher. A graduate of Iowa State University, he's now a full-time freelance writer and business consultant. Currently, Larry writes for Entrepreneur.com, Inc.com, and Forbes.com, among others. In addition to journalism, technical writing and in-depth research, he’s also active in his community and spends weekends volunteering with a local non-profit literacy organization and rock climbing. Follow him on Twitter (@LarryAlton3), at LinkedIn.com/in/larryalton, and on his website, LarryAlton.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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