Saturday, April 19, 2008

I'm better than everything!!

I've had occasion to think about Thomas Friedman's book, The World is Flat, since my review of it, and I failed to talk about something in sufficient detail. Friedman's idea of a strategy for Americans is that we should each make ourselves over, that our current method of choosing careers is wrong. If you go into a job that anyone can do, then it will be someone cheaper who will do it. So don't do that.

His advice boils down to, specialize so as to become invaluable, do something that no one else can do as well. Or, become adaptable, which Friedman leaves a little vague, but essentially boils down to acquiring skills that will work in every situation.

Let's say you're talking to a young man or woman poised at the brink of making decisions that will define their futures. What do I study?, they ask you. Since you have been fully steeped in Friedman-ology, you know enough not to give them a straight vocational answer (unless you suspect they might be ideally suited to home health care). So you urge them to, wait, to be adaptable...which one?

Of course, there's essentially no answer. One cannot predict what specialization will be worth money and non-outsourceable in 5 years, much less 20 or 30. When you have a world in which medical care can be sourced to other countries, there are no eternals.

And what skills make you adaptable? One might say writing, but we can see that proficiency in that skill is less important than it used to be. An ability to deal with people, what falls under the term "emotional intelligence," maybe, but there is some controversy over whether that can really be taught, and you're still left up in the air as to what major to pick. I can't think of any others that don't have similar flaws.

It's not even clear that working toward a job such as New York Times columnist is worthwhile. The next Thomas Friedman may well be Rahul or Li-Chin, based in Mumbai or Shanghai, closer to where the international action is, but able to turn out Big Think pieces (and charge very little for them).

Some would say that we will just need to steel ourselves for five or six careers in our lifetimes. I will ask the question I ask of such proposals, What is the mechanism by which this will be accomplished? I will probably return to this point another day; for now I leave it as an exercise for the reader.

Back to the original point, we have a dilemma. There is no coherent piece of advice we can give to that young person, no path we can suggest for them that is not fraught with risk. Perhaps that's a way of keeping a society vital, to throw everything up in the air constantly, keep everyone on his or her toes. But it's difficult to think of that as the national goal, to continually call everyone to change their hopes and dreams, and change their skills and attributes as the market demands.

Because then you subsume experience to the market, commoditize everything, assign no value to an actual skill, and, at that point, the only real talent is marketing yourself, turning yourself into a brand. And there is my advice to the young person: Make yourself into a brand, but a flexible one. And then I walk quickly away, hoping there will be no follow-up question, because to that I have no answer at all.


Red Oak said...

I wish these gasbag "advisors" would just put a sock in it. I'm struggling right now to help my high-school age kids prepare prudently for the future. Their guidance counselors seem to think it's still 1985, and (according to the kids), mainly harangue them about filling up their "resumés" with meaningless extracurricular crap, because the purpose of existence is to get into Harvard, and the glory of life, to base your worth on the opinions of admission committees. Real prospects for real careers? Huh?

A life of no continuity, no place to call "home", no faith in or chance at all for a tolerably stable future is inhumane and a recipe for larger social insanity. It's a life suitable for eternal adolescents or people with no interest in families or normal human connections. (Don't know if you're old enough to remember Logan's Run, Androcass. Advice for life in Flatland sounds more and more like like it's assuming the rules of that place as a premise.)

To never have any stability or security in life is what used to be known as "being poor".

Citizen Carrie said...

Do I dare say it wouldn't hurt for students to assess their talents and interests and envision a career for which they are well-suited? Or maybe, if they have a passion for a certain career, they should go ahead and pursue it? They may be doomed to a life of relative poverty, but it can't be any worse than a whole series of miserable jobs in bubble industries punctuated by long periods of unemployment and expensive additional career training. I say, kids have nothing to lose at this point.

Red Oak said...

Hear, hear, CC!

Androcass said...

Good point, CC, and I would add that "relative poverty" won't be so bad when everyone else is coming down to meet them.

But, red oak, you're absolutely right in your assessment, that we are creating social incoherence. I know that I, in order to maintain my career, now have to contemplate moving to another place, and all my ties to the community, and my wife's relationship to her sisters, would just disappear. Multiply me by however many million, and what do you have? And we never get compensated for that cost.

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