Friday, August 19, 2011

Thomas Friedman Suggests We're Not Working Hard Enough - Are You F*$@ing Serious?!?

Does Mr. Friedman live under a rock? In a recent puff piece, he tries, with all of his intellectual might, to explain why people need to study harder, work smarter, and adapt quicker (his words, not mine). It's like that whole "work smarter, not harder" platitudinous bullshit I used to hear at jobs I had in corporate restaurants and department stores.

He begins by discussing the recent global uprisings, calling them all part of an "information technology revolution," and concludes that it is the "most important trend in the world today."

Here, I agree with him. He's right. It is the most important trend in the world today. But his overall points are reductive, and he fails to understand - or so it seems from this piece - that the decline in the middle class has been happening for over 3 decades, and before we were all connected with our iPhones, our Googlies, our Androids, blah, blah, blah.

But here's what gets me the most riled up about this piece - his advice. He goes on to say:
And [this trend] is a critical reason why, to get into the middle class now, you have to study harder, work smarter and adapt quicker than ever before. All this technology and globalization are eliminating more and more 'routine' work — the sort of work that once sustained a lot of middle-class lifestyles.
Hahaha. Sorry. Pardon me. Hahaha. Whoops. There it goes again. All right, I've gotten a hold of myself.

Is he serious?!? We need to study harder, work smarter, and adapt quicker?!? Is this guy a shill for neoliberalism?!? Oh, wait. I forgot. Sorry. Here in the U.S., we're clearing not studying hard. We're definitely not working 'smarter' (God, his language is so vile). And apparently we have no idea what it means to adapt.

He also argues, "unemployment today still remains relatively low for people with college degrees." That's true . . . but that doesn't paint an accurate picture. So people with college degrees have a higher rate of employment versus those who have high school diplomas. But, and this is something I've pointed out before on AEM, what sorts of jobs do these educated folks have? Because if they are flipping burgers or serving corporate-slop-hot-slurpees at a Starbucks, I don't think the figures look so good. In addition, Mr. Friedman fails to mention the fact that most of these folks with college degrees have mountains of student loan debt.

As for the comments about us needing to work harder . . . For starters, we all work our asses off, Mr. Friedman. Millions and millions of us are working our asses off, and we're no longer a part of the middle class (we're in some sort of odd limbo, and it sucks, because it's hard to comprehend). I study hard, too. I'm not a student, but I still study, and I do it very 'hard.' As for adapting . . . wow . . . where shall I start? Again, I have to ask, are you f$*%@ing kidding me?!?

You want to know how people have adapted here?

They live in trailers and drive all over the country for work, Mr. Friedman.

They live with their parents or their in-laws (I'm in this camp). That's riiiight. I have adapted, Mr. Friedman. I could be making a great living in Dubai or South Korea (I adapt so easily, I've lived in 2 foreign countries), but I have decided to adapt here in the U.S. and run a non-profit on a shredded shoestring budget. I have adapted by living with my in-laws as a married woman with years of professional experience and loads of education.

Others are leaving the country - like I did - to start afresh, and find work.

How's that for adapting, Mr. Friedman?

To add insult to injury, there is a new org called Getting Smart. Apparently, we're not smart, and that's why millions of us are underemployed or unemployed. It's our fault. It has NOTHING  to do with systemic collapse and the rise of a f*%@ing oligarchic state. Hey, Getting Smart! Did you receive the memo?!? We're smart. We're damned smart. You're pointless. That's what the memo said.

We're so damned smart, that we're ahead of you and Mr. Friedman. So ahead, you're in the damned dust. Get those cobwebs outta your head, and open your eyes a little!

 Mr. Friedman, not thinking hard enough


Peter Burr said...


C. Cryn Johannsen said...

Aw. Shucks. Glad you enjoyed it!

Terry Cummings said...

Great responce, Cryn. Rock on!

Anonymous said...

For a man relentlessly harranguing readers about globalization, Friedman is remarkably myopic.

JDpainterguy said...

His throwback real cuffs and cufflinks are like....the height of pretension....or something.

A real turn off.

DJ said...

A more reasonable (and much longer) commentary on the same topic is in this month's issue of The Atlantic.

Can the middle class be saved?

Anonymous said...

*My response is somewhat lengthy, so I've broken it into a few parts.


You make some excellent points. Your point about the middle class declining over the last three decades -- long before we were "born digital" -- is well-reasoned.

However, I read the article differently than you. If anything, I think Friedman actually comes across as brutally realistic yet somewhat sympathetic. Yes, sympathetic.

Even though Friedman may not explicitly state it, I think he's getting at what is at the root of the problem for so many young people: a tremendous generation gap between the skills and employment sensibility of our boomer parents and their children (that is, us). Seemingly overnight, the market changed at warp speed due to computer technology and globalization, two things our parents largely didn't have to train in, or even think about. As Friedman himself said, "All this technology and globalization are eliminating more and more 'routine' work -- the sort of work that once sustained a lot of middle-class lifestyles."

Our parents were working under the assumption that we would follow in their middle-class footsteps of (relatively) easily obtained jobs that had stability and a consistent skill-set. And how could you blame them? It’s all they knew.

It’s not that the current generation isn’t working hard, but we’re working hard the old way and expecting that to be enough to fuel upward social mobility. That is, we think acquiring a college degree (!), a limited skill-set to merely match a job description and not exceed it, and having good moral character (punctuality, trustworthiness, perseverance, etc) will be enough to land us a steady middle-class job like our parents. WRONG.

It's exceedingly painful for our generation to come to this conclusion, especially with loan debt over our heads. To succeed in today's job market, you have to be a life-long on-the-job learner, tail thumping with go-get-‘em enthusiasm. You have to be a near-constant fount of fresh ideas who innovates for your workplace and shows measurable results (how many dollars you saved the company, how many hours you saved coworkers with your skills, etc). You have to learn new computer skills constantly and not just be familiar with new tech advances (twitter, facebook, linkedin, ipad, smart phones, etc), but be able to see their potential impact for your workplace and spearhead workplace-wide changes that increase productivity and output by using this new technology. You must do all this to prove to your employer you are worth the cost of hiring, as the cost of hiring in the US is getting higher every year, considering the power of unions that artificially jack up wages, the mountains of paperwork and regulations employers must fill out and obey, the cost of paying health insurance benefits (Starbucks pays more for health insurance benefits than coffee!), and the simple fact that due to outsourcing and robots/computers/machines, companies are rapidly discovering they can do more with less. And they like doing more with less. A lot.

I believe this is what Friedman is talking about when he says, "But to get one of those degrees and to leverage it for a good job requires everyone to raise their game. It's hard."

To be continued...

Anonymous said...

Part II:

Indeed it is hard, and everyone, no matter how adaptable and flexible, wears down from the constant flux of the times and warp-speed career growth. I believe there is a limit to how much a human being can adapt/change, and how fast. Human evolution just hasn't caught up to the speed of change in this society.

There's a book called FUTURE SHOCK by Alvin Toffler that addresses just this issue of humanity's limited ability to cope psychologically and physically with the incredible pace of change in modern life. I think the quote below sums it up very well, and helps explain Friedman's "everyone raise their game" quote:

"[The new society] presents the individual with a contest that requires self-mastery and high intelligence. For the individual who comes armed with these, and who makes the necessary effort to understand the fast-emerging super-industrial social structure, for the person who finds the 'right' place...the triumph is exquisite.

Undeniably, these grand words do not apply to the majority of men. Most people of the past and present remain imprisoned in life niches they have neither made nor have much hope, under present conditions, of ever escaping. For most human beings, the options remain excruciatingly few."

Toffler wrote these words in 1970(!), and they couldn’t be more prophetic. The human beings with “excruciatingly few” options are the ones we all know about and whom you talk about so passionately on your blog: the dispossessed factory workers whose jobs aren’t coming back, laid-off working professionals whose skills have atrophied (an increasingly easy donut-hole situation to fall into, considering how propulsive the pace of technology is), and, of course, unemployed college grads swimming in thousands of dollars of student loan debt and who are wondering where all the jobs went.

The challenge for future politicians will be figuring out just how to bring the rest of the able-bodied (and able-minded) American workers into the middle-class fold, either with job-retraining programs or even programs on how to teach the new worker attitude that I’ve outlined above. So far politicians’ solutions to the shrinking middle class has been extending cheap (often high-risk) credit to make ends meet (let them eat credit, indeed!) and warmed-over Keynesian economic policies like the stimulus, cash-for-clunkers, and quantitative easing which have all failed to create new jobs and real GDP growth. Bang up job, guys. No wonder you make the big bucks!

And do colleges teach this new worker sensibility to students, as well as how to effectively sell themselves as excellent prospective employees in the new high-tech global marketplace? Not a chance. It’s because colleges don’t have to, as long as parents and students don’t demand it.

Anonymous said...

Part III:

An example from my scholastic career should do nicely to explain this painful generation gap and college’s utter failure to address it. It involves my friend Pat’s experience with a “guidance counselor” (I use that term loosely) at a heavily-endowed New England public university when he was an undergrad, circa 2003. The conversation went something like this:

COUNSELOR: So what brings you hear today, Pat?
PAT: Well, I’m just confused about what career path I should take.
COUNSELOR: Ok, what’s your current major?
PAT: Sociology.
COUNSELOR: Oh, that’s, um, not a very marketable major. I recommend you consider switching majors. Do you have any related interests?
PAT: Well, I do have some interest in being a police officer.
COUNSELOR: (smiling): You don’t have to go to college to be a cop.
PAT: (noticeably demoralized): Well, what should I do ?
COUNSELOR: Wait a sec, Pat. (Looks out window): Oh man, is that my car? Pat, could you go and check and see if I locked my car? I think I forgot to lock it.
PAT: (incredulous): Uh, OK.

Pat then proceeds to walk outside to the counselor’s car. He sees it’s locked and gives the counselor the thumbs-up sign through his office window. Pat then walks back to the guidance counselor’s office and is greeted with a locked door with a sign-up sheet and note reading, “Dear Students: I have just left for vacation. Please sign up for a time to meet with me when I return from my vacation.”

I think this anecdote speaks volumes about the gap.

In my opinion, Friedman does a good job explaining this perfect storm of the shrinking middle class. He’s right that there is now an influx of cheap high-tech labor as well as low-tech labor, and he at least hints at the fact that foreigners like the Chinese may want it more, judging by their SAT scores.

The issue of dumbed-down standards of high schools and higher-education institutions is an issue not explicitly in the article, but one I think is important as it puts our students at a distinct disadvantage, and I believe parents are mostly to blame. Since so many parents these days are high-maintenance helicopter parents, they want only the best for their children, with no blemishes or nicks and scrapes to their fragile, precious egos. So they harass the high schools (especially the private schools!) to “teach to the test” (SAT primarily) as they myopically see the SAT as the royal road to junior’s college of choice simply because it is the most obvious and measurable outcome variable of college admission and “success.” This is of course spurious logic, as the SAT is no guarantee of real-world success any more than an Ivy-league degree is these days. But since colleges have been run like corporations for the last couple decades, they have gotten very good at branding themselves, and the past generation of children is the most brand-aware of any child. And, of course, kids are aware of colleges as early as age five and are “brand loyal” to the college they simply MUST attend. And the kids won’t take no for an answer and the parents are too soft and pea-brained to realize this dynamic, so they get high schools to dumb down the standards and “teach to the test” (SAT) which makes their children less marketable employees in the long-run once they’re out of college, especially compared to students from India and China.

Anonymous said...

Part IV (conclusion):

And, of course, colleges are more than happy to soften their admission criteria and inflate grades because they need to attract as many customers (err…students) as possible, and nothing brings in the yahoo crowd like easy A’s, glossy pamphlets, state-of-the-art cafeteria facilities, and high-profile sports programs. Notice that none of these “features” of college help students excel in the workplace. But the colleges don’t care as long as they continue to enjoy obscene profits from metastasized tuition rates.

So, with all that being said, students really are on their own. It’s BA and BS for themselves. The cavalry ain’t coming, folks. Students -- and older, unemployed workers -- are out on the balls of their ass like never before, and since the government is beyond broke and owing in the trillions, Uncle Sam isn’t going to extend any more credit to help paper over their toxic situations. As Friedman put it, “Alas, for the 50 years after World War II, to be a president, mayor, governor or university president meant, more often than not, giving things away to people. Today, it means taking things away from people.”

Friedman isn’t some globalist free-market ogre for telling it like it is. I don’t think we should shoot the messenger here. He is merely a diagnostician -- it’s up to us as a society to find the treatment. Things are going to get VERY interesting in the next decade.

Anonymous said...

"Is this guy a shill for neoliberalism?!?"

No, but he is a shill for globalism. I guess we should all bend over and just accept the fact that our public/private universities will eventually be populated by a bunch of Chinese students with 800 math SAT scores. Doesn't the US government have a role in insuring that the best interests of the US populace is paramount relative to foreigners with oodles of cash in hand??? It's f'in disgusting. Having obtained multiple graduate degrees in science (my last leaving a Ph.D. program prematurely to attend law school), I can honestly say that what is happening inside academia is a complete fraud on the public. In my doctoral program, I was the ONLY American student accepted in my admission year. Yet, US taxpayers are funding these foreign students since public universities are using federal grants. We need to start denying foreign students admission to our educational institutions and promote educational experiences for our own goddamn citizens.

Jasper said...

Yes, we should all work sayeth the 1%er who married rich and probably hasn't done much truly honest work in his life.

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

@Anonymous 9:32 PM, etc., etc., etc. Thanks so much for your lengthy response(s). I appreciate your perspective, and I will follow-up soon. I'm headed to DC, and pounding out a proposal for about 10 congressional offices at the moment (this is after some hefty writing, and other pieces for a magazine). However, your remarks are enormously substantive, so you deserve a full answer.

Have a wonderful weekend.


Stay tuned!

Anonymous said...

I think your last point is the best one. Frankly, from an intellectual perspective (not a jobs one) our university system is the envy of the world. We are smart enough, and we have worked hard enough. No question there. The only question is adapting, and as for that, yes, there are any number of problems with his making that demand, not the least of which is his implication that we should be patriotic enough to sacrifice further for country that just doesn't love us back. I've never had anyone in D.C. actually advocate for anything I care about. America, and its 17 minutes of pharma ads during the world news and it's president's lip-service to the young voters who put him in the White House, just wasn't made for you and me. But putting that arrogant, cultural condescension aside, adapting just isn't a demand that you can shove down the hierarchy and expect to be complied with. As far as I know, the only way adaptation has ever really occurred has been through sexual selection, so the idea that somehow I'm going to "adapt" and help save America from itself is just laughable. Even were I inclined to do that, how should I begin? What would that look like? Should I go into my parent's garage, set up a folding table and start tinkering until I'm either completely donkey balls insane or the new Steve Jobs? I suppose I should, like water, just find the creases and crevasses? Of . . . NAFTA (or something)? Should my Americanness just magically make me clever enough to "win the future" because the Greatest Generation defeated the Nazis and we've been making exceedingly poor propaganda films about the virtues of the "Aw Shucks" Captain Americas that saved the world just on the strength of their good intentions and their love for the red, white and blue for about the last 60 years. We are adapting. We're leaving. And, if we aren't, then we and everyone around us is being every bit as "American" as we always were and is taking on enormous burdens to fight against the longest odds to change something that is absolutely, personally devastating not only for us but for everyone who loves us and for everyone who depends on (or will depend on us) - and by that, yes, I do mean Mr. Friedman and the rest of this goddamned country which, trust me, will be much the worse off for pissing off the most innovative, most capable and hardest working among them.

One Who Survived said...

A 21st century heir of the Pharisees. Now you can see why Jesus cursed them.

Justice will be done when Americans stop leaving the country, and instead deport the likes of Friedman back to his real country of allegiance, bloody Israel, in particular to the "Israeli" territory of Gaza.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Chilean students brave freeze to protest

Anonymous said...

We need to start denying foreign students admission to our educational institutions and promote educational experiences for our own goddamn citizens.

No...we need to give American students the academic chops and the inclination (a lot harder, I admit) to pursue programs in the sciences instead of marketing, communications, etc.

One Who Survived said...

As for "Getting Smart" (a phrase Americans of a certain age associate with buffoonery as per the TV show "Get Smart"), "information technology" is the Emperor's New Clothes, a great hoax and a superstition.

Sure, computers are useful, but the internet is merely a very fast telegraph. The only difference between the internet and a circa 1850 telegraph is speed. And guess what, SPEED IS NOT INTELLIGENCE! In fact, speedy "communications" of stupidity and lies just expedite the proliferation of stupidity and lies.

So now here's a lesson that perhaps even the (evidently to me) truly well educated Cryn might not yet have learned, and surely will enjoy: "Intelligence" comes from the Latin phrase "inter legere", literally meaning "reading between the lines"...

...a PERSONAL skill that has very little to do with speed, and absolutely cannot be cultivated nor aided by any machine. If anything, "outsourcing" Human intelligence to material things (computers) reduces intelligence.

Similarly, the word "information" orignally referred to "forming" our "inner" selves. And so although I appreciate the potentially useful speed of computers - and of the internet as a speedy telegraph - still I've not fallen for the superstition of idolising a material thing, a computer, as something inherently intelligent.

To fetishise computers and other "information technology" as embodiments of any kinds of intelligence, is the 21st century equivalent of idolatry, worshiping graven images as gods.

The ancient Hebrew prophets used to rail against idols in words like, "They do not speak, they do not think, why do you Israelites worship dumb things that cannot see or hear or think?" Substitute "information technology" for "idols".

I wonder what my favourite Prophet, Ezekiel, would say about the false prophet Thomas Friedman? (I want to PARTY with EZEKIEL! Whatever he was on, I want some!) Maybe something like, "And I saw one whose eyes glowered contemptuously upon the widow and the orphan and the alien and the workman deprived of his just wages, and instead of offering them bread and work and wages and justice, he commanded them to sacrifice their children to an idol made of sand (silicon!) And behold, an Angel of the Lord blew upon the idol of sand, and the idol became sand in the eyes of the nation, and the eyes of the nation were opened, and false prophet was shown to be naked, yet he was not ashamed."

warwick555 said...

As an educator with a doctoral degree in education from Harvard, I have some important points to make here. Academia is responsible for providing educated workers who can adapt and grow to not only meet the demands of the workplace, but to create the workplace. Creating the workplace involves challenging those in power. I see young people adapting, just as Cryn has. They are educating themselves about the true reasons for a our failed oligarchy (by the way, Bill Moyers, who is a liberal but not a radical -- used that word to describe our current political power structure). Once educated, they start sending emails and writing letters, and since those are being ignored, they are now turning up at the protests with old grey hairs like me -- wait, I am going to dye my hair today, so I won't be grey at least for a few months :)!

Anonymous said...

Please use the term plutocracy, not oligarchy. It's more accurate to what is happening.

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

@Anonymous 10:23 AM That's how Stiglitz describes it, and I think that's accurate. See his VF piece, "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" -

Reid said...

So working 70 hours a week isn't enough? What a bunch of horse shit. Pardon my language, but this guy really pisses me off! This guy is so out of touch with what he is writing about it's insane. I've had to give up so much in my life to work to survive. The promises of six figure income with my MBA has yet to surface. About the only thing that will ever be six figure is my student loan with compounding interest.

Anonymous said...

Cryn, that is great that you are "pounding out proposals." Are you dividing them up into budgetary "savers" and "costers"?

Dona Furiosa said...

I loved this post!

If Friedman saw New Orleans inundated, he'd say that cities shouldn't be built in the paths of hurricanes.

I used to think that George Will was the best proof that education is not the same thing as intelligence. That is, until I read Friedman. He's worse than Will because he's a lot more pretentious. Plus, Will can actually write about some topics, like baseball. Friedman has no such virtue.

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

@Dona - delighted you liked the post. It was fun to right, and I think hit on important points. It seems the majority of my readers agree.

@Anonymous 5:55 PM - that is an excellent question! Yes! There are several of them that are savers, and now I need to assert that a new one would also fit in that category. It's pretty critical to show that a bill/proposal is a saver. That's what makes sense, especially when it comes to saving taxpayers' dollars.

Jonathan said...

Friedman says there are no jobs, will not be jobs, except for those desperate enough to give 300% at the vanguard of a dying global economy, people mysteriously dignified as "innovators" or "the creative class." This is true, and I would contend that attempts to put the rest of society Back to Work ("Get America WORKING Again" per the Rick Perry tour bus; "Get a job, Al!" per American Psycho's Patrick Bateman) are not a solution. What, after all, would people do? More meaningless and unnecessary service sector bullshit for $10/hr or less (the only so-called jobs out there)? And so as not to default on student loans or a mortgage, an inevitable outcome at such a wage? Why play out the string? A trip to a mass grave sounds just as attractive, and we may head there yet.

Here's a great, related take on neoliberalism, from an estimable young anarchist: Quote: "Here is neoliberalism in a pork rind: the poverty of the many is preferable to the idleness of the is the global-gulag mentality demonstrated at its uttermost absurdity; it posits the human condition as a work camp; empty toil is better than unemployment insurance; a society universally engaged in moving piles of sand from place to place is preferable to a mere 80% engaged in real work. Of course that 80% is charitable.... The point is that there are more people than available work. The solution? Impoverish the entire society.... At least they won't be idle! That would be absurd!"

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

@Jonathan - thanks for the link to that piece about neoliberalism and the quote. I agree with all your points. Well said.