Tao of the Zentropist

December 29, 2009

The Zentropist Reflects: As Another Year Winds Down

Perhaps it is natural that as the calendar year draws to a close, we tend to look back in time and attempt to draw lessons, inspiration and even wisdom from our experiences, regardless of whether we deem them “good” or “bad.” As we close the books on a second year since the global financial recession gained steam and overtook both the guilty and innocent in its path, it is important to celebrate and acknowledge one’s survival, as dicey as circumstances may be.

The truth is, nobody can say for certain that we are in “recovery” or that future shocks won’t knock the U.S. or world economy off the precipice after years of irresponsible societal and individual actions, but understanding mistakes of the past means that we are not doomed to repeat them. There is no denying that many Americans are in serious financial pain, and following on the heels of fiscal stress are the deleterious effects on emotional, psychological and even physical health. Perhaps most ominously, some of these effects may not be immediately obvious but will manifest over time. Of course, this is not to dismiss the daily struggles of millions around the globe that continue to live in abject poverty, but we Americans, as a lot, have grown comfortable with our First World “Superpower” status and only now is the bloom off the rose, and the resulting fall more pronounced.

WHITE COLLAR WORKERS FACE “FUTURE SHOCK”

What’s truly terrifying, and the pink elephant in the room, is the possibility, which I suspect is very real for many, that barring significant changes in our own country and global trade, diminished standards of living and lifestyle expectations may prove permanent and not temporary. Previously in the Post World War II world, Americans in general have enjoyed a “rising tide” of prosperity and this is especially true of college-educated “white collar” workers. Many of us believed that if we pursued an education, learned some useful skills (or at least cultivated the capability to think, which is surprisingly lacking in many) and displayed a good work ethic, we’d reap the financial benefits accordingly.

Well, that assumption is as baseless as those made in creating CDO’s by the many charlatans of Wall Street.

WHEN THE WORLD FLATTENS, IT’S EASY TO BECOME ROADKILL

As Thomas Friedman famously observed, the “flattening” of the world is at this point a fait accompli and has brought many benefits to not only those in emerging or underdeveloped nations, but even those of us in America. After all, in a society where we generally want everything to cost as little as possible but we all tend to want to be well compensated for our work, a balance must be struck, and off-shoring (a sub-set of outsourcing) manufacturing  began in earnest during the 1990’s. However, as technological infrastructure improved globally, we began to see not only goods but services  sent overseas to lower-cost providers, perhaps most noticeably with customer service operations, although it wasn’t long before “higher horsepower” services such as financial and legal research, radiology (tele-medicine anyone?) and a host of other “professional class” offerings were sourced overseas. This in turn enabled better profit margins, especially if the cost of the services did not markedly change to the consumer.

While no one can fault the ranks of workers in developing nations from wanting to enjoy the material benefits and conveniences of the modern world, it is clear that this has placed enormous pressure on compensation, job security and stability in countries such as the United States, which increasingly cannot seem to compete with cut-rate prices, less litigious legal systems, lack of intellectual property protection safeguards, and more lax environmental regulation. For all the talk of creating a “knowledge based economy,” the U.S. educational system as a whole seems incapable of turning out an educated cadre of graduates up to the task, while many foreign nations, seeing education as vital to uplifting their populaces, are sending their best and brightest to learn the hard sciences, mathematics and engineering and then return home with that knowledge. To put things into perspective, realize that the middle class population of India exceeds the entire U.S. population, and those people will need jobs commensurate with their own rising expectations and consumption habits.

COMMIT TO LIFELONG EDUCATION AND SKILLS UPGRADES (OR ELSE)

So what are we to do? Well, as I see it, much as with the development of nuclear weapons, the genie is out of the bottle and wishful thinking won’t be cramming it back in anytime soon. It seems that even well-educated Americans will need to prepare for constant reinvention, re-tooling and re-calibration of their skill sets and knowledge base to keep up with rapidly evolving developments.

For some the answer may be accumulating even more formal education, since even four-year undergraduate degrees seem to lack the prestige accorded to them even a generation ago, mandating some form of graduate or post-graduate study or industry specific certifications. Of course, educational institutions, being in the business of education, are only too happy to provide coursework to meet demand; for example, look at the proliferation of project management certification courses from both established and virtual institutions to meet alleged demand for what is now being billed as a profession in of itself (rather than a skill set that any competent executive or manager holding any position of real responsibility would be expected to have). Never mind that for all the alleged demand, the supply of talent looking to fill project management positions appears to exceed current hiring slots, and the Internet is filled with advice on how to create the appearance of having sufficient hours of professional experience to qualify for some popular certification. So long as HR departments in some private, public and governmental institutions feel that a credential somehow validates a candidate, to remain competitive it becomes another hoop (and expense) that the applicant must be willing to address.

BE ADAPTABLE OR FACE BEING MADE REDUNDANT OR PREMATURELY OBSOLESCENT

At the end of the day, events of the past two years simply illustrate just how important adaptability and willingness to continuously accumulate new knowledge are in our hyper-competitive and connected world. While we may long for a slower pace or simpler times, the current trajectory suggests this is unlikely to happen, and the further one falls behind, the more difficult it is to ever recover.

So like it or not, it’s time to “cowboy up” and evolve with the times, remaining true to one’s dreams and passions but acknowledging that our best laid plans sometimes require modification if we wish to reach our intended destination.

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