You May Have to Invent Your Next Job, Says Tom Friedman


New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote a column last week headlined, “The Start-up of You” in which he described some of the factors behind the persistently high U.S. unemployment rate. He concluded there is something different about the unemployment we’re seeing today from high unemployment in the past. The companies with the biggest growth are Silicon Valley technology giants such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn. Yet, compared to yesterday’s leading companies, these new corporate giants aren’t giant employers: they don’t hire many people. The rest of the business world has cut back drastically on hiring, depending instead on outsourcing, using robotics and deploying software.

Rick Wartzman, executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, wrote in this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek, “What took 1,000 people to churn out in 1950—the dawn of a golden age for blue-collar work—now requires about 185, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.”

We are hearing from economists that many large companies are making excellent profits now. They can afford to hire, but they’ve learned how to get by without hiring. In addition, Wartzman wrote that a third of the nation’s joblessness results from a discrepancy between the skills employers seek and those of the workers available (figures he attributed to Narayana Kocherlakota, the president of the Minneapolis Fed).

This “jobless recovery” has created a very unstable employment environment. The spoils go to those who can’t be easily replaced by outsourcing or robotics. Those who are irreplaceable are “people who not only have the critical thinking skills to do the value-adding jobs that technology can’t, but also people who can invent, adapt and reinvent their jobs every day, in a market that changes faster than ever,” Friedman wrote.  He was not only talking about young people fresh out of college, he was referring to everyone looking for a job.

Friedman quoted from a soon-to-be-published book by one of Silicon Valley’s star entrepreneurs, Reid Garrett Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and on the board of Zynga and Mozilla: “…You should approach career strategy the same way an entrepreneur approaches starting a business…For entrepreneurs, it’s differentiate or die – that now goes for all of us.”

Differentiate or die. That’s exactly what we in public relations and marketing tell our clients.  We had better learn to apply this maxim to our own marketing and communications careers, because it’s not just blue collar jobs that are disappearing. A few years ago New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that when she was in Pasadena, Calif., she was told by a publisher of a local news website that the company planned to outsource reporting positions to India.  About a year ago I heard from an extremely reliable PR industry source that at least one of the very large international public relations companies was outsourcing media relations to India, also. 

Both of these were shocking revelation to me, since I firmly believe that local reporting can only be done well by people in the community who understand local issues and attitudes.  I also believe that a good job of media relations requires a clear understanding of both a client’s business goals and of the mind-set of American journalists.

An employee at a big international management consulting company told me that his firm has two New York offices – one in New York, and one in India. I’ve also read that some medical centers have outsourced part of the work that local physicians used to do to doctors in India. They read the results of CAT scans and other such tests while doctors in the U.S. sleep.

If local news reporting, PR, management consulting and medical jobs can be outsourced to India, then just about any job can be.

I began to think about what kind of upbringing best prepares people to think critically and constantly reinvent their jobs.  Certainly, growing up in an authoritarian culture can’t be helpful. Parents and teachers are stifling, not rewarding critical thinking when they tell children, as many do, “It’s not your place to question me, you do what I tell you!”. Quite a different message is communicated by adults who treat children with respect, feel that they deserve to be listened to just as much as adults, and are comfortable allowing them to deviate from the norm.

One formative experience that provides a lot of practice in adapting is spending some time working overseas. Those who learn another language and experience first-hand the cultural differences that affect business style not only differentiate themselves, they also learn that there is more than one “right way” to do something.

Lucy Siegel

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One Response to “You May Have to Invent Your Next Job, Says Tom Friedman”

  1. Michael J. Critelli Says:

    This may be an 18-month-old blog, but the sad fact is that it is even more on target than it was when first published. I found it through a search to locate Tom Freedman’s column in the March 31, 2013, New York Times. Unfortunately, we see relatively little discussion by our political leaders about how to tackle this complex problem, because it requires unemployed individuals and the people who support to embark on a more long-term strategy to get and stay employable.

    Additionally, it threatens the authoritarian and conformist orientation of our K-12 educational system, and the powerful economic forces that support them.

    Keep plugging away. I would welcome an opportunity to discuss this issue with you.

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