The 'Average Worker' Is Dead
There's a new buzz-phrase making the rounds these days: The death of average. A kid who does decently well in school, and does what she's told, is no longer guaranteed a job. And the average worker who does everything his employer asks shouldn't expect to keep his until retirement.
"The recession is a forever recession," said Internet marketing pioneer Seth Goodin in an interview on the Canadian talk show "George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight." Something bigger is going on; the industrial age, which lasted 80 years, is now coming to an apocalyptic end.
"For 80 years, you got a job, you did what you were told, you retired," he explained. "And good people could make above-average pay for below average work."
"Average Is Over" is the title of a chapter in Thomas Friedman's most recent book, "That Used to Be Us." In his Tuesday column with the same name, he explains, "so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation, and cheap genius."
"Being average," he said, "just won't earn you what it used to."
Right now, the U.S. is producing more goods than ever. But while production has increased by a third in the past decade, factory employment has fallen by the same amount, notes Adam Davidson in The Atlantic. New technologies have always replaced jobs, but today it's happening at a blinding rate.
The careers predicted to grow the most over the next several years, according to government data, are medical scientists, civil engineers, software developers, computer systems analysts, surgeons, nurses and consultants -- jobs that demand high levels of education, and exceptional problem-solving skills. In other words, they're jobs for above-average people.
Entrepreneurship has been heralded as the panacea for our current crisis: If no company will hire you, start your own company; if you can't find a job, make one up. But Americans weren't prepared for this reality. We still expect that we deserve a good job, with decent benefits, and a reliable pension, for doing OK.
"Our schools, our systems, our retirement things, our taxes, are all built around this notion of doing what you're told," said Godin.
He added that Americans have two options: Be cheaper than everyone else, or be better than everyone else. If you'll accept a lower wage for your work, then sure, you might get the job. But that, he says, is "a race to the bottom." On the flip side, the Internet has enabled people to get attention for their talents in an unprecedented way.
"If you can figure out how to do something interesting, or unique, or noteworthy, people will find you, and pay you extra," he said. And that's "a race to the top."
Friedman echoed this sentiment in an interview with CNN's Piers Morgan last September. People should "think like an artisan," and make sure they're so proud of everything they do at their jobs that they would carve their "initials into it." And think like an immigrant: "Nothing is owed me, I don't have a place waiting for me at Harvard, I better understand the world I'm living in, and boy I better work harder than the next guy, because I've got nothing else going for me."
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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