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.