Being "average" will no longer land you a job

This was written by Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times. This column, titled Average is over, was published Jan. 27, 2012, in The Palm Beach Post.

     In an essay titled “Making It in America,” in The Atlantic, author Adam Davidson relates a joke from cotton country about just how much a modern textile mill has been automated: The average mill has only two employees today: “a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to keep the man away from the machines.”

     Mr. Davidson’s article is one of a number of pieces that have recently appeared making the point that the reason we have such stubbornly high unemployment and sagging middle-class incomes today is largely because of the big drop in demand because of the Great Recession, but it is also because of the quantum advances in globalization and the information-technology revolution.

     In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much access to so much more above-average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment.

     Yes, new technology has been eating jobs forever, and always will. As they say, if horses could have voted, there never would have been cars. But there’s been an acceleration. As Mr. Davidson notes, “In the 10 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.”

     And you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. In April, Annie Lowrey of Slate wrote about a startup called “E la Carte” that is out to shrink the need for waiters and waitresses: The company “has produced a kind of souped-up iPad that lets you order and pay right at your table. The brainchild of a bunch of MIT engineers, the nifty invention, known as the Presto, might be found at a restaurant near you soon. …

     “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.”

     What the iPad won’t do in an above-average way, a Chinese worker will. Consider this paragraph from Sunday’s terrific article in The New York Times by Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher about why Apple does so much of its manufacturing in China:

     “Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly-line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the (Chinese) plant near midnight. A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames.

     Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day. The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,’ the executive said. ‘There’s no American plant that can match that.’ ”

     And automation is not just coming to manufacturing, explains Curtis Carlson, the CEO of SRI International, a Silicon Valley idea lab that invented the iPhone program known as Siri, the digital personal assistant. “Siri is the beginning of a huge transformation in how we interact with banks, insurance companies, retail stores, health-care providers, information retrieval services and product services.”

     Here are the latest unemployment rates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for Americans over 25 years old: those with less than a high school degree, 13.8 percent; those with a high school degree and no college, 8.7 percent; those with some college or associate degree, 7.7 percent; and those with bachelor’s degree or higher, 4.1 percent.

     In a world where “average” is officially over, there are many things we need to do to buttress employment, but nothing would be more important than passing some kind of GI Bill for the 21st century that ensures that every American has access to post-high-school education.