The Awful Truth

I won’t dissect the entire vision of the future described by Tom Friedman in his latest New York Times column. I want to focus on one small part of it:

My friend Heather E. McGowan, a future-of-work strategist, puts it this way: “The old model of work was three life blocks: Get an education. Use that education for 40 years. And then retire. We then made the faulty assumption that the next new model would be: Get an education. Use it for 20 years. Then get retrained. Then use that for 20 more years and then retire.”

But in fact, in the Next America, argues McGowan, the right model will be “continuous lifelong learning’’ — because when the pace of change is accelerating, “the fastest-growing companies and most resilient workers will be those who learn faster than their competition.”

The problem with this view of the future of work is that it’s a lie. How do I know it’s a lie? Not only does it not describe most of the financially successful people I know or have heard of, it doesn’t describe Tom Friedman’s own life experience. It characterizes the life experiences of very few.

Here’s a description of the future of the work more tethered to reality. People in Jobs that are protected or subsidized will prosper. Everyone else will struggle.

Let’s dissect his claim a little more. “Continuous lifelong learning” does not mean continuous lifelong learning. It means creeping credentialism. Everyone learns through experience. If that were the sort of learning that is increasingly valued, you would expect that older workers would be in demand. But that is not the case. Agism, whether against the law or not, is rampant and everyone knows it.

Additionally, Americans cannot win the credentials race. Outsourcing companies like Tata or Infosys can essentially deliver workers to order. That the workers they deliver do not have the knowledge or experience to do their jobs doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they’re cheaper.

People gain responsibilities through life. They have families and children. They purchase homes. And they work. That means they cannot take time off to improve their skills unless their employers allow it and, frequently, they don’t.

Their spouses have their own jobs tether families down. It’s no accident that Americans are less mobile than we used to be.

7 comments… add one
  • Roy Lofquist

    “That means they cannot take time off to improve their skills unless their employers allow it…”

    Time off? What are they doing when they’re on the clock and getting paid for it? You improve your skills by doing. Those who can’t do teach.

  • You improve your skills by doing.

    But that is clearly not what is meant. It is clear that Mr. Friedman and the individual he is quoting mean new credentials, unrelated to current work.

    And experienced people are being laid off to be replaced by workers without meaningful experience but better credentials who will work for less.

  • Andy

    Most of my experience is in government and construction. The 40-year model still works in government.

    Continuous improvement has long been how the trades function – the path from apprentice to master.

    People like Friedman and those in the educational industrial complex have done their best to try to kill that tried-and-true method off.

    Also, the focus on the “fastest growing companies” is probably wrong. Fastest growing by what measure?

  • Roy Lofquist

    “It is clear that Mr. Friedman and the individual he is quoting mean new credentials, unrelated to current work.”

    I have this vision of Mr. Friedman stranded on a dark, lonely road with a flat tire and no bars on his phone. Then I realize that he probably doesn’t know how to drive.

  • steve

    It still shocks me how much kids move around from job to job today. As to continuous lifelong learning, it is certainly true for some parts of medicine. Most of the drugs I use now I did not use in residency. Much of the equipment had not been invented. When I find guys who aren’t keeping up I have to sit down with them and have the talk about retiring. However, I don’t have to go learn an entirely new specialty, which seems to be more akin to what goes on in parts of the job market.

    Steve

  • Guarneri

    Don’t you guys think its very situational rather than monolithic? I take steves comment at face value, you slowly adopt best practices as you go. My brother, a systems guy, tells me its just continual adaptation or a year later you are a dinosaur.

    I deal with an awful lot of contract law. Innovation is glacial. The biggest change in my lifetime is R&W and escrow insurance in lieu of residual purchase price money parked in accounts for 2-4 years. Heh.

    As far as the daunting reality of needing really new credentials or expertise. Metallurgical Engineer (classic process engineer) —> Small business ($25MM revenue) manager —> LBO banker —–> Active (vs passive) private equity investor. Meh. Admittedly, I couldn’t have taken that path without the Chicago MBA, although the engineering BS and MS helped. But I could have gotten in a similar place by following the totally operating career path.

  • But I could have gotten in a similar place by following the totally operating career path.

    Years ago you’re right. But things have changed. You wouldn’t even have gotten an interview. Without the proper credentials your resume would have been screened out without ever having been seen by a human being.

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