I don't care to have that conversation with my girls, so my advice to
them in this flat world* is very brief and very blunt: "Girls*, when I was
growing up, my parents used to say to me, `Tom, finish your dinner—
people in China and India are starving.' My advice to you is: Girls, finish
your homework—people in China and India are starving for your jobs."
The way I like to think about this for our society as a whole is that
every person should figure out how to make himself or herself into an
untouchable. That's right. When the world goes flat, the caste system gets turned upside down. In India untouchables may be the lowest social class, but in a flat world everyone should want to be an untouchable. Untouchables, in my lexicon, are people whose jobs cannot be outsourced*.
So who are the untouchables, and how do you or your kids get to be one? Untouchables come in four broad categories: workers who are "special," workers who are "specialized," workers who are "anchored," and workers who are "really adaptable."
Workers who are special are people like Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, and Barbra Streisand. They have a global market for their goods and services and can command global-sized pay packages. Their jobs can never be outsourced.
If you can't be special—and only a few people can be—you want to be specialized, so that your work cannot be outsourced. This applies to all sorts of knowledge workers—from specialized lawyers, accountants, and brain surgeons, to cutting-edge computer architects and software engineers, to advanced machine tool and robot operators. These are skills that are always in high demand and are not fungible. ("Fungible" is an important word to remember. As Infosys CEO* Nandan Nilekani likes to say, in a flat world there is "fungible and nonfungible work." Work that can be easily digitized and transferred to lower-wage locations is fungible. Work that cannot be digitized or easily substituted is nonfungible. Michael Jordan's jump shot is nonfungible. A bypass surgeon's technique is nonfungible. A television assembly-line worker's job is now fungible. Basic accounting and tax preparation are now fungible.)
If you cannot be special or specialized, you want to be anchored. That status applies to most Americans, everyone from my barber, to the waitress at lunch, to the chefs in the kitchen, to the plumber, to nurses, to many doctors, many lawyers, entertainers, electricians, and cleaning ladies. Their jobs are simply anchored and always will be, because they must be done in a specific location, involving face-to-face contact with a customer, client, patient, or audience. These jobs generally cannot be digitized and are not fungible, and the market wage is set according to the local market conditions. But be advised: There are fungible parts of even anchored jobs, and they can and will be outsourced—either to India or to the past—for greater efficiency. (Yes, as David Rothkopf notes, more jobs are actually "outsourced to the past," thanks to new innovations, than are outsourced to India.) For instance, you are not going to go to Bangalore to find an internist or a divorce lawyer, but your divorce lawyer may one day use a legal aide in Bangalore for basic research or to write up vanilla* legal documents, and your internist may use a nighthawk radiologist in Bangalore to read your CAT scan.
This is why if you cannot be special or specialized, you don't want to count on being anchored so you won't be outsourced. You actually want to become really adaptable. You want constantly to acquire new skills, knowledge, and expertise that enable you constantly to be able to create value—something more than vanilla ice cream. You want to learn how to make the latest chocolate sauce, the whipped cream, or the cherries on top, or to deliver it as a belly dancer—in whatever your field of endeavor. As parts of your work become commoditized and fungible, or turned into vanilla, adaptable people will always learn how to make some other part of the sundae*. Being adaptable in a flat world, knowing how to "learn how to learn," will be one of the most important assets any worker can have, because job churn* will come faster, because innovation will happen faster.
Atul Vashistha, CEO of NeoIT, a California consulting firm that specializes in helping U.S. firms do outsourcing, has a good feel for this: "What you can do and how you can adapt and how you can leverage* all the experience and knowledge you have when the world goes flat—that is the basic component [for survival]. When you are changing jobs a lot, and when your job environment is changing a lot, being adaptable is the number one thing. The people who are losing out are those with solid technical skills who have not grown those skills. You have to be skillfully adaptable and socially adaptable."
The more we push out the boundaries of knowledge and technology, the more complex tasks that machines can do, the more those with specialized education, or the ability to learn how to learn, will be in demand, and for better pay. And the more those without that ability will be less generously compensated. What you don't want to be is a not very special, not very specialized, not very anchored, or not very adaptable person in a fungible job. If you are in the low-margin, fungible end of the work food chain, where businesses have an incentive to outsource to lower-cost, equally efficient producers, there is a much greater chance that your job will be outsourced or your wages depressed.
Source: The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Globalized World in the Twenty-first Century von Thomas L. Friedman von Penguin UK (Gebundene Ausgabe - 28. April 2005) , pp. 237-240
* flat world - By a 'flat world' the author suggests that by the means of the Internet, affordable computers, the use of email, networks, teleconferences or dynamic new software even people in Third World countries have obtained equal chances and opportunities. So people in the USA or Europe now have to compete with people from India or China, as all have the same sources of knowledge.
* Girls - here: author's daughters
* to outsource - Dienstleistungen oder Produktion nach außen bzw. ins Ausland verlagern
* CEO - chief exectutive officer = Firmenboss, Generaldirektor
* vanilla (coll.) - nullachtfuffzehn, einfach, durchschnittlich
* sundae - Eisbecher
* job churn - Jobabwanderung, -verlagerung
* to leverage sth. - sich etwas zu Nutze machen
1. What does the author mean when he tells his daughters to finish their homework because people in China and India are starving for their jobs?
2. Explain in your own words the four categories into which the author divides the 'untouchables'.
3. What does the author understand by 'fungible' and 'nonfungible' work? Think of examples from your own surroundings.
4. 'Outsourcing to the past' and 'outsourcing to India' are two different things. Why?
5. The author maintains that one of the most important abilities for people to possess is to be adaptable. What does he mean by this?
6. Compare the lives of two young people choosing their careers in the 1960s and at about 2010 respectively.
7. The impact of a flat world also has consequences on people's electoral behaviour and politics in general. Why?
Adaptierte Ausgaben für die Schule:
Oder: (erscheint im Okt. 2011)