Staying Middle Class (Or Don’t Cede Any Century to a Country that Censors Google)

By Terry Calhoun

Thomas L. Friedman addressed the assembled 4,000+ attendees at the Campus of the Future Conference on the morning of Monday, July 10. Friedman, author of the influential book, The World Is Flat, provided a condensed and vigorous summary of the key points of his thinking in the book and shared some additional thoughts of interest to educators.

Friedman delineates three eras of “globalization” in human history.

Globalization 1.0: This era took place up until the 1800s and involved countries themselves globalizing through conquest and colonization. During this time, the world moved from being XXL to a size medium.

Globalization 2.0: This era is from the 1800s until 2000 and involved globalization through the activities of corporate and commercial interests. During this time the world moved from a size medium to a size small.

Globalization 3.0 has been happening since 2000 and has resulted in the world becoming “tiny.” Globalization 3.0 flattened the economic playing field and “requires individuals to globalize themselves and to see themselves as competing and collaborating as individuals with individuals anywhere around the world.”

What happened? Friedman says ten factors were involved in this flattening:

(1) At about the same time as the Iron Curtain fell, Microsoft published Windows. “Wall down, Windows up.”

(2) In 1995 Netscape went public, the Internet bubble that popped up from that move resulted in unintentional, even accidental, investment into more optical fiber network being installed than was needed. So everyone could get connected via that fiber and its speed can be upgraded over time without digging into the ground.

(3) Then came what Friedman calls the “workflow software revolution.” Many SCUPers will remember that, over just a few years, multiplatform, multisoftware interoperability became standard and suddenly people could share their digital files and work over that optical fiber network.

The next six factors all involve the development and acceptance of various forms of collaboration:

Open Source

The tenth factor is what Friedman calls the “steroids;” forceful productivity multipliers like nearly ubiquitous wireless, VOIP, and file-sharing, all of which supercharged the various forms of collaboration.

These complementarities all converged around 2000 at what he calls the “Mother of All Inflection Points.” What has happened since then is a radical change from vertical command-and-control operating structure to horizontal and collaborative organization structures. For example:

Remember when you had to have a travel agent do your ticketing for air flights? That was Globalization 1.0.

When you could go online and make your own reservations, that was Globalization 2.0.

When you now can go online and print your own boarding pass, that’s Globalization 3.0. The process has flattened out to where you, the customer, are what Friedman jokingly called “an unpaid airline worker; or even a paid one.”

Basically, Friedman wrote The World Is Flat, so that his children could read it and understand what he had lived through when they were young. And the changes have affected, or will soon affect, the lives of nearly everyone.

Friedman shared a friend’s story of whether you would prefer to be a “B” student in Poughkeepsie, NY, or an outright genius living in rural China. He says that 35 years ago, that was a no-brainer. If you had the choice, you would choose to be the “B” student in New York. Nowadays, it’s not so clear. In fact, it’s probably better to be the genius in rural China than the “B” student in New York and, in fact, “B” students all over the world may be in trouble.

Why? Because the world is now flat. If you have the idea and the energy, you can connect with this new horizontal, collaborative world and make things happen from anywhere. A downside for Americans is that the societal roles/jobs that used to provide a solid middle-class living for Americans in a bell-jar-type distribution are changing so quickly that our society is threatened with a “dumbbell” distribution. We face a class of rich folk, a class of poor folks, and a skinny dumbbell distribution of middle class.

What to do about this has occupied his thinking since the book was published, and he is coming out with an addition to the book soon. That addition takes a look at the idea of “more education is needed, but what kind of education? And with what jobs in mind for the educated?”

Friedman did not give any solid, concrete answers, but he d'es place what he calls jobs that can anchor a person in the middle class in this new flat world. (With appropriate implications for higher education.) He has eight categories (not counting people with incredible artistic or other talent, like musicians and athletes):

Great Collaborators: More and more things done by global supply chains (think Walmart). The last time he visited Bangalore, he was surprised to find that the CEO’s reference to “Infosys” interns who wanted to meet him was to American interns working in India. In fact, these smart kids were the select few with internships selected from among 9,000+ applications, mostly from business school students who knew that they’d get a leg up in their employment searches if they could demonstrate experience at international, horizontal collaboration.

Great Leveragers: These are people who can leverage technology to do more with less. You can maintain that middle class role if you are the kind of person who can make technology let you do the job of 20 offshore employees.

Great Explainers: These are obviously teachers, but also administrators and middle managers who have the talent to explain and teach, and even better, to explain and teach to others who can then teach and explain to more.

Great Synthesizers: These are the people who can see “A” and “B” and make “C” out of it. In a horizontal world, if you can think outside the box and find connections and ways to make bits and pieces into more, you are valuable.

Great Localizers: If you can take the global platform that now exists and use it to serve up localized information and services, you can stay in that middle class. These would be small- to mid-sized businesses.

Green: Yep, this category is just plain called “Green,” because of the certainty that we all have to go green and this will be a boom industry for the foreseeable future. Be sustainable, save the environment, slow or stop global warming: a big industry of the near future.

Passionate Personalizers: Friedman’s example here was of a lemonade vendor in the Baltimore baseball stadium who didn’t just sell water + sugar + lemon juice, but made it into entertainment and got lots of tips. The fellow now d'es his lemonade thing at private parties. (Maybe this g'es under the special talent category that preceded these eight?)

Great Adapters: These are the people who have learned how to learn and can flex with circumstances. Friedman’s example was a person named “Marsha,” who has worked for a big company for 15 years, and had gone through a series of jobs, each of which was downsized or offshored, but her ability to learn and flex had kept her in increasingly more responsible positions.

Friedman closed with a few final points:

Educators need to understand how very important it is for young people to focus on the ability to learn how to learn. His formula “CQ + PQ is greater than IQ” means that passion and perseverance are more important to individual success than basic intelligence.

C = Curiosity; P = Passion; I = Intelligence

He shared a point made by Dan Pink: When the world is flat, everything on the boring, functional, organized left side of the brain can be done by an overachiever from India or can be automated. That creative, innovative, passionate, right-brain is more important. The left brain is useful.

He noted that American students excel more and more at right-brain stuff and finished by saying that even in a year when Washington is brain dead and Congress is paralyzed, the explosion of innovation, especially in the fields of education and energy, combined with the openness of our economy, may yet keep America at the forefront.

Some people see the 1800s as the European era, the 1900s as the American era, and the 2000s becoming the Chinese era. Friedman jokingly finished by saying that his grandma had an old saying that helps him to be a little more confident that we do not necessarily have to cede the 21 st century to China.

She used to say, he said: “Don’t cede any century to a country that censors Google.”

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