If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
— Henry David Thoreau
In “The New Untouchables “, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues that in this downwardly mobile economy there is no room for average. Extraordinary is what it takes to survive and thrive in the modern workplace.
I get that.
Yet for all my appreciation for education — I hold two degrees so I do, in fact, lean in favor of Friedman’s premise that education is key to American competitiveness — his education-as-a-panacea argument oversteps its reach.
Most strikingly, Friedman’s description of a successful “untouchable” American worker isn’t a portrait of educational endowment at all. Friedman’s favorite descriptors, instead, refer to personality attributes: entrepreneur (risk taker), creative (visionary), analytical (critical thinker), and persuasive (charismatic). The obvious problem with Friedman’s pin-the-tail-on-the-wrong-donkey premise is that temperament is inborn — teachers, let alone parents, cannot instill personality characteristics that are not there to begin with.
Friedman’s eagerness to finger the usual suspects — schools — also ignores six reasons why Americans are at a competitive disadvantage in the global era. Here we examine those realities, and the future these changing times have in store.
First, there are more of us occupying this country — and this planet at large — than ever before. At some point, the mathematics of population growth have to matter. The sheer number of people in today’s workforce suggests more and more people are competing for the same jobs even as we adopt more and more technology to displace human hands. That’s not a sign of a lack of education; it’s a sign that business owners comprehend that productivity gadgets and gizmos don’t require breaks, a salary or workers’ compensation.
It comes down to the numbers.
Second, I would argue the inverse in response to Friedman’s suggestion that there just isn’t enough talent to be had here in the States. Over the past 50-some years there are more colleges turning out more graduates on an annual basis than employers of the past had access to. Many foreign nationals, in fact, come to the US for higher education opportunities. On the flip side, there are only so many engineers, M.B.A.s, lawyers, scientists and the like universities can churn out before higher-end fields become saturated in much the same way low-end jobs are chalk full of contenders.
It’s no longer merely a question of whether there are clear winners and losers on the academic front.
Job scarcity is a threat, in part, because of the decades-long trend of mergers, acquisitions and a globalized labor pool. Consider: There are generally fewer than a dozen heavyweights in a given industry — everything from mainstream media to appliance manufacturing. This trend does not bode well for domestic job expansion. And if jobs aren’t available to begin with, it is tough to gain a competitive advantage even with above-average potential. So what we are seeing, in this author’s opinion, is an over-supply of talent.
But that doesn’t mean the proponents of Friedman’s dire self-fulfilling prophecy won’t get their wish.