December 25, 2025 — Educational doomsayers are again up in arms at a new adult literacy study showing that less than 5 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it.
The obsessive measurement of long-form literacy is once more being used to flail an education trend that is in fact going in just the right direction. Today’s young people are not able to read and understand long stretches of text simply because in most cases they won’t ever need to do so.
It’s time to acknowledge that in a truly multimedia environment of 2025, most Americans don’t need to understand more than a hundred or so words at a time, and certainly will never read anything approaching the length of an old-fashioned book. We need a frank reassessment of where long-form literacy itself lies in the spectrum of skills that a modern nation requires of its workers.
We’re not talking about complete illiteracy, which is most certainly not a good thing. Young people today, however, have plenty of literacy for everyday activities such as reading signs and package labels, and writing brief e-mails and text messages that don’t require accurate spelling or grammar.
Text labels also remain a useful way to navigate Web sites, although increasingly site design has evolved toward icons and audio prompts. Managers, in turn, have learned to use audio or video messaging as much as possible with workers, and to make sure that no text message ever contains more than one idea.
In 2025, when a worker actually needs to work with text, easy-to-use dictation, autoparsing and text-to-speech software allows him or her to create, edit and listen to documents without relying on extensive written skills. And any media analyst on Wall Street will confirm that the vast majority of Americans now consume virtually all of their entertainment and information through multimedia channels in which text is either optional or unnecessary.
In both the 19th and 20th centuries, the ability to read long texts was seen as an unquestioned social good. And back then, the prescription made sense: media technology was limited and in order to take part in both society and workplace, the ability to read books and long articles seemed essential. In 2025, higher-level literacy is probably necessary for only 10 percent of the American population.