Why Is Average Over?

Libby Kane

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.”

So, How About Grad School?

Hear from fellow LearnVesters about the pros and cons of grad school, and share your two cents, in LV Discussions.


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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  • Nobody special.

    Thank you for telling me that my future is hopeless.    I cannot go to school.  I cannot take classrooms.  I do not like people.  My job is serving people with a high school diploma, so I cannot make enough money to even make ends meet.  This article gives me no hope for the future.  I think that this article makes me more suicidal that I have been recently.  Life sucks.

    • http://www.thatssomartha.blogspot.com/ Kelly

       Do you think maybe it’s your attitude that is creating your destiny? 

    • Nancy L

      Have you considered an online college program?

    • Anonymous

      Hi there:

      This article covers only one point of view, and a counterpoint is that research shows focusing on the strengths you have already leads to high levels of health, happiness and
      success. Undoubtedly, many of us are above average already! http://au.reachout.com/find/articles/strengths-and-their-influence-on-your-happiness


      Much of the research we discuss examines how changing our
      outlooks can improve our lives, such as controlling our own emotional reactions
      to stress. Please do take a minute to read some of our more uplifting, doable thoughts on happiness and money:

      And please, if you are seriously considering drastic action,
      reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/. 


      • Neceshrum

        My takeaway from this article is that
            “focusing on the strengths you have already leads to high levels of health, happiness and success”
        makes your “light shine through.”

        I think the point is that we need to shine through no matter what path we choose, with or without an education.

        If we choose to be the waitress, we need to be a waitress that a computer cannot replace.

        If we choos to be a factory worker, we need to be a factory worker that a Chinese factory worker cannot replace.

        If we choose to be an engineer, we need to be an engineer that another engineer cannot replace.

        You light shining through is the part you do that no one else can, in a way that no one else can.

        I think this is a great article.  It is our perspective on it that needs to shift.

        Have a great day in determining what your light is!

  • Gypsryom74

    Why employ average people in America when you can have slaves in China that you can summon at midnight and require them to work for 12 hours on tea and a biscuit? Apple should be ashamed of itself. Reading this story makes me ashamed for purchasing an Apple product.

    • pamorama

      Reading it has encouraged me to NEVER buy an Apple product–I was under the mistaken impression that because they are pricier than the competition, that perhaps they were willing to swap quality for extra profit because they had pride in their labor team and product, but alas, that is apparently not true. My one and only Apple product was a beautiful, sleek little iPod that died after about 3 years. My friends with iPhones all enjoy the interface but bemoan the usage issues. I get it now.

  • http://www.thatssomartha.blogspot.com/ Kelly

    In meetings, I actively listen for clues.  I step up and ask the right questions.  I offer unsolicited expertise.  Last week (in a private meeting that I was not involved in), a vendor asked the director and program manager to include me in an onsite meeting coming up.  Seems they took note that I was engaged.  Status quo is not going to get me noticed.

  • tdmmom

    Yes, you are special.  God made you that way.  You can make a difference.  Everyone’s job is important.  This article doesn’t give a lot of “real” information as far as what’s really behind those percentages.  If you are willing and able, you can make a wonderful life for yourself.  This is where the government is mistaken…..The govt. should help out those who work and need additional assistance….not, well, don’t do anything, and we’ll give you all that we can.  Shame on them.  I taught children with special needs for 14 years, and I plan on returning once my children are in school.  Even if someone has an IQ of 70, they are very capable of living and working by being reliable, etc.

  • http://www.amateurvagrant.com/ Rae

    “Labor regulations aside”?! I expect more from you guys. You should be ashamed of yourselves for upholding that kind of “efficiency” over human rights. And besides, I think that most of the people reading your web content aren’t in direct competition with Chinese factory workers. Also, if you want to speculate about why Americans are losing factory jobs, it’s not only because Chinese laborers have so few options that working for $100 a month in an Apple factory is a good deal, but because so many Americans are resting on our sense of entitlement that we aren’t as hard-working and productive as we need to be to be competitive. That’s the direction this article should have taken.

  • Maddie

    This is a slightly disturbing and disheartening article.  One that states the already obvious, sadly.  I recently graduated with my Bachelor’s, and in all honesty, I feel like I just spent a lot of money and four years of my life to come out on essentially the same level as having a high school diploma/GED.  You have to be incredible, or nothing at all.

    • Raziel

      I totally feel the same way. I have a Biology degree, currently working in a small Biotech company. I currently get paid $12.50, which I would be getting paid about the same in my previous job right now, and that job didn’t require a Bachelor’s degree. $12.50/hr in the state of Florida isn’t enough for me to live by myself. And come on, $12.50/hr after $40,000 of college? EFF THAT! It’s pathetic. I’m going to ask for a raise soon….

  • Ljbuckle

    @Nobody special–I agree with Kelly and tdmmom. First, God did make you special. Second, your attitude sucks. You can make excuses, or you can make a life. Not both. Life is hard for everyone. Suck it up and find your light.

  • Edie

    I have to say, it’s pretty disturbing that workers suffering abuse at the hands of employers is what Friedman classifies as “above average”. China doesn’t do it better, China does it cheaper, by grinding through a labor supply seen as utterly disposable. I’d like to think America would look for a different type of “average”. 

  • http://www.amateurvagrant.com/ Rae

    I don’t know…do all 307 million+ of us have a light?

  • Sue Peterson

    A few things…First, if people reading this have not already, you should listen to NPR’s All Things Considered show about visiting the Apple factory in China.  Disturbing to say the least.  Second, I choose to go through the line at the grocery store with the actual human vs. the computer checkout a majority of the time because I LIKE human interaction – foibles and all.  Although the iPad waiter sounds intriguing at first, I think I would find it a little disappointing if going out did not lend itself to human interaction.  Finally, I am guilty as the next person when it comes to buying cheap goods without considering all the consequences.  If there were a truly national, patriotic and BIG push to buy American made goods (truly American made goods, which is often difficult to do), than we may be able to get some jobs back here.  But, unlike the strong feeling to buy American I remember from the 70s, I think we have bought into the cheap goods means international production and we don’t see a real way around it now.  But, I do think its making us weaker, both financially and morale-wise (look at some of the comments on this post) as a country.  

  • Good enough.

    What’s the message here?  Work like slaves or perish?  Perish or perish, then.  That’s not the standard I want to live up to.  I refuse to take part in the race for power/money/”prosperity,” either as a slave or as a master using my “unique value contribution” toward making myself, but mostly people working above me, richer than any person needs to be.  I’ve cut back on all the unnecessary crap that companies insist I need to lead a more fulfilling life, and that’s making me happier than endlessly grinding my axe.

    • Claire Bates

      Yay! Me too!

  • Frugal Mom of Two

    I’m agree with many people in these comments.  Sure China may be fast (due to horrific labor conditions) but they’re certainly not better.  I still regularly use my parent’s mustard yellow hand blender that was given as a wedding gift 39 years ago.  I bought a new one a few years ago and it broke within the year.  How many times do I look at clothing, computers, furniture, etc, and think “boy this is poor quality?” in one day.  Too many times to count.  I’d venture that all of those products were made oversees.

  • pamorama

    This article  is perhaps one of the most offensive I have read here on Learnvest: In myriad ways (as other commenters have pointed out) you are suggesting that American workers literally become automatons and at the beck and call of a corporate whim any time of day or night, as well as slaves to a bottom line. You are also completely ignoring numerous important aspects of production, such as skillful labor, in addition to pure robotic output.

    Firstly, we all know about the QUALITY of products from China, particularly in regard to more complicated/sophisticated electronics. Secondly, in numerous other articles on your site you propose we focus on balance, centering, self-realization. Yet here you suggest we should be afraid, very afraid of largely uneducated, un-benefited, bullied and abused labor that many of us liken to the old days of serfdom. I’m so unhappy with the tone and suggestion I think I’ll unsubcribe. I have an undergraduate degree and graduated at the VERY top of my class. I was editor of our university literary magazine, tutored refugees, wrote memoirs for the elderly. I have not been able to find a job where I live that utilizes any aspect of my education for over 2 years. You are squarely blaming the American worker for what is, IMO, corporate greed and focus on immediate profit rather than quality, pride, fair working conditions and a decent quality of life. I hope the majority of your readers fight against this big brother blackmail–it is precisely the thing our ancestors fought and died to relieve us from. We are perhaps replacable, but only until the replacements get tired of being abused. 

    I’ll close with a quote from Arthur Miller:”Don’t be seduced into thinking that that which
    does not make a profit is without value.”

    • pamorama

      Before someone decides to slam me for not “producing” well enough, After about 6 months of searching for work without luck, I started my own business. I struggle, but I’m trying and feel I provide an excellent product. I will not, however, fly out of bed at midnight for tea and a biscuit because someone at Apple feels changing some iPhone screens can’t wait until a decent hour.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Pamorama,
      We want to make clear that this piece is summarizing Thomas Friedman’s article from the New York Times, not stating our agreement. Please see the addendum at the end of the article above. Thanks!

      • pamorama

        I’m sorry, I missed that. I’d actually suggest putting it at the top, but perhaps I’m overly sensitive to the content and by the end was only seeing red! ;-). While I would never espouse that the American worker aspire to mediocrity, I also think that life and humanity have meaning that exceeds mandates that are purely serve a profit margin. I have always been taught to do the best job I could do–and I think we (Friedman, et al) are selling the American worker short by suggesting we tend to be average.

        Quite frankly many of these “redos” that require rousing a worker living in a factory dorm to be roused at midnight are the very result of having to fix problems caused by exhaustion, despondency and lack of education. And here’s more food for thought for Friedman–I actively look for products NOT made in China (and most of my friends do the same), as they are notoriously of poor quality and even dangerous. I paid triple or more for a blow dryer made in Italy, and guess what? After a series of blow dryers that either flamed in my hands or died after 6-12 months, I have one that has now lasted for 4 years. And if you’ve ever been to Italy you realize that the workers there are skilled, but quite relaxed.  

  • Reluctant Realist

    I think the main message here, which perhaps could have been better stated, is that surviving in today’s job market means avoiding complacency at all costs. In an ever-changing business landscape, it’s up to each of us to consistently build our skills and experience to remain relevant and valuable. As exhausting and anxiety-producing as that fact may be, it’s a truth that will not be changing any time soon.

  • Maracujation

    The way I look at it is never stop doing what you are good at, what you enjoy…you never know an opportunities arise when least expected.  It usually in those things you enjoy and are good at where you are waaaaay above average.  It may be a hobbie, something that has nothing to do with how you bring money to the table (for NOW)…you may say you have no time…but I am positive you have at leat the time to incorporate that something as a way to keep yourself sane.  Some may call me naive or dreamy but being negative and pointing fingers don’t get you anywhere  

  • Michelle

    I think this article is spot on.  There are two sides to every coin, and the common denominator here, as with most human conditions is ego and greed.  From both the management and labor point of view, they’re both guilty.  Until these two parties start caring about issues other than production rates and bottom line, and focus more on human-driven emotional factors, one side will continue to blame the other.  Non or delayed resolution does nothing to propel any of us forward. 

    I do think a shift in thought has begun, and so certainly the conversation.  Innovation is not exclusive to technology!  My belief is that we have a real opportunity here to challenge “nomal”.  Central to this entire process though is a culture of caring relationships, coupled with a sense of passionate purpose, which automatically leads to added value.  Intuitively, we all know those companies, those brands, those people, who exude something special.  For me, showing authentic interest in others, and having a constant curiosity to learn more, has been beyond beneficial.   

  • http://twitter.com/lavendargoose Melissa Baker

    I must have missed something – how does the food get to your table if not brought by a server?

  • Leah

    “You are utterly replaceable, lazy and unwanted by most companies.” Worst way to start a Monday EVER.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mellonie-Sorensen/1446115047 Mellonie Sorensen

      ^^agreed^^  I’m sorry, I don’t care how good any one person is at what they do, mistakes will happen; it’s called being human.  The ones who acknowledge their mistakes (because they would like to figure out what they did wrong and how to do better next time) are now frowned upon and seen as that “average” or less.  Likewise, the ones who keep getting promoted are (most but not all of the time) the ones who have become really good at blaming others or hiding their mistakes.  What kind of corporate culture is being built here?

  • http://twitter.com/kinglet749 kinglet749

    Our economy is built on a diversity of people doing a diversity of jobs. There are simply too many of us for us all to be above average. It goes against the definition of average. Not everyone can get ahead. I think your readership knows this already- it will usually, not always, be the smartest and luckiest who will have their choice of work. Nothing you can do will guarantee it, so the best thing we can do for ourselves is stop overanalyzing our worth and do the best work we can with what we have. Remembering the dignity of manual labor should not be lost on anyone, because we all depend on it.

    • Cynical1

      Totally agree. The reason that the “above average” stand out is because they are the exceptions of humanity, not the rule. The vast majority of human beings are not very beautiful, not very talented, and not very smart. The vast majority of us, in other words, are average; the above-average are the ones who are the “freaks of nature,” even though they are the ones who often treat the rest of us as “freaks.”

      And here’s another ugly little reality that you’ll seldom hear in your history and economics classes (at least not in the US); without a plentiful source of unskilled, uneducated and easily exploited labor, our vaunted system of Capitalism dies. It has always been thus, and always will be.

  • Raziel

    China manufacturing places emphasis on quantity, not quality. As many American would agree, anything made in China probably doesn’t last you over a year or 2. While that which is made in America can last a lot longer. For example, I got this T-shirt 20 years ago. Still doesn’t have a hole in it. It was made in America. Any clothes I have bought in the last 5 years that have been made in China, they barely last a year or 2. So in a way, we do work above-average, We take our time and do things right, unlike our manufacturing counterparts that rush and make mistakes and only care about numbers.

  • Terraleighbell

    In regards to “the QUALITY of products from China, particularly in regard to more complicated/sophisticated electronics,” ALL of your complicated/sophisticated electronics come from China.  99% of everything we own comes from China, and we don’t want to admit that we are such a large part of the problem.  It takes awhile to listen to, but this story from This American Life is amazing, and gutwrenching.  Hearing that the people making your (and my) electronics are committing suicide in droves at the very factories where they work just might make you rethink your evaluation of speed an productivity. 

  • thee captain

    Thomas Friedman is an average, narcissistic asshole, and he’s next in line.