When Thomas Friedman writes “average is over” in The New York Times, he isn’t talking about average recipes, or average haircuts, or average first dates.
He’s talking about people.
Friedman discusses how the wealth of cheap labor options overseas and the rapid innovation of technology eliminates the need for American workers capable of only average work.
His piece ends with a push for the modern-day equivalent of the American G.I. Bill, which would encourage post-secondary education. But long before that, our minds were racing: Could it be true? Is average over?
And should we be worried?
Companies Send Jobs Abroad
Friedman refers to the story of Apple, the American company that employs disproportionately few Americans: When Apple decided last-minute that the newest iPhone model needed to swap out its current screens for an improved version, 8,000 factory workers in China were summoned from the factory dormitories around midnight, given a cup of tea and a biscuit, and set immediately to work refitting the screens in 12-hour shifts. By the end of four days, the factory was producing 10,000 phones per day.
We acknowledge that there are serious issues surrounding Chinese labor regulations, but also that many companies are prioritizing the bottom line. An executive is quoted in the Times as saying, “The speed and flexibility is breathtaking … there’s no American plant that can match that.” The late Steve Jobs is known to have told the President himself that there was no way Apple could bring those jobs back to the States.
Technology Replaces the Rest
Nothing makes restaurant-goers happier than exemplary service … because they receive it so rarely. But what if the variability of service was eliminated? That’s the aim of the Presto, an iPad-like console for ordering from your table, amusing you while you wait (for what would a tablet be without games?), and paying on your way out, without ever speaking with a server. The Presto, brought to us by startup E-La Carte, does an above-average job for a below average price. Friedman quotes Annie Lowrey of Slate, who writes: “Each console goes for $100 per month. If a restaurant serves meals eight hours a day, seven days a week, it works out to 42 cents per hour per table—making the Presto cheaper than even the very cheapest waiter.”
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More School, More Jobs?
Friedman points out that technological progress has always been a danger to human employment, but that the danger has increased in the recent past. He quotes The Atlantic’s Adam Davidson, who writes: “In the ten years ending in 2009, [U.S.] factories shed workers so fast that they erased almost all the gains of the previous 70 years; roughly one out of every three manufacturing jobs—about 6 million in total—disappeared.”
Taking this into consideration, it isn’t surprising that President Obama made a point of mentioning his intention to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States in his State of the Union address.
Friedman presents the latest unemployment rates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for Americans over 25 years old, which show how unemployment levels are inverse to level of schooling:
- Less than a high school degree, 13.8%
- High school degree and no college, 8.7 %
- Some college or associate degree, 7.7%
- Bachelor’s degree or higher, 4.1%
There is clearly still space for above average—above-educated, anyway—workers in the U.S. For many, access to higher education could help level the playing field, and provide valuable opportunities.
But, in meantime, there’s something you, too, can do in the moment: As Friedman points out, “Everyone needs to find their extra—their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment.”
How do you do try to do that every day? Tell us in the comments.
LearnVest would like to clarify that we are summarizing Friedman’s article, not necessarily sharing his stance. The story has been slightly edited to better reflect this.
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