Keeping up with the world’s accelerating rate of change
By Larry Elle, PDC President
Spring 2017 President’s Report
Typically, the president’s report surveys the last four months and projects ahead four months. It’s good however, to take a look at where things are going long term and how we can prepare ourselves for the challenges of the future. To this end, I read New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s book, “Thank You for Being Late” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). Friedman is the author of such bestsellers as “The World Is Flat” and “Hot, Flat and Crowded.”
The essence of “Thank You for Being Late” is that today’s world is being driven by increasing rates of change in the fields of technology, globalization and climate change. These changes are interacting with each other, multiplying their impact. In addition, the rate of acceleration of change is increasing, making it more challenging for humans and cultures to adapt to change. In pre-industrial cultures, change and innovation came very slowly. People had time to adapt to changing circumstances. With the industrial revolution, the pace of change intensified, causing personal hardships and rapid and often revolutionary social adjustments. Today, the pace of change is so extreme it is turning workplaces upside down, and social customs and political systems are at risk of breakdown.
“In today’s world … acceleration seems to be increasing. That means you don’t just move to a higher speed of change. The rate of change also gets faster… And when the rate of change eventually exceeds the ability to adapt you get ‘dislocation’ … Dislocation is when the whole environment is being altered so quickly that everyone starts to feel they can’t keep up.” (pg. 28) This accelerating rate of change and dislocation is likely to continue, so the question for Friedman becomes, how can we as a society help people and systems adapt to the change?
Let’s look at education. Today we provide people with 12 years of education and, for another 25 to 30 percent of our population, up to 16 years, accompanied by lots of debt. Yet, “when the pace of change gets so fast, the only way to retain a lifelong working capacity is to engage in lifelong learning” (pg. 33). This has obvious implications for the workplace where the costs and responsibility of growing your skills are increasingly placed on the shoulders of the employee.
Friedman implies that certain parts of the U.S. population will be especially impacted by rapid change: older workers, the less educated, and the more marginalized parts of the population, e.g., minority groups and immigrants. The 2016 election illustrates this phenomenon. America’s white working class, stressed by the dislocations of technology and globalization, shifted its allegiance from the Democratic Party to Donald Trump, based on his promise to bring back manufacturing and mining jobs and shut off the flow of illegal immigrant workers employed in America’s farms, factories and even high-tech areas. (See excerpts from CBS’ “60 Minutes” on high-tech displacement of American workers via H1-B visa abuse on YouTube).
Friedman notes that when societies are stressed, there is an upsurge of tribalism, of “us versus them.” His policy proposals to alleviate this social dislocation are a range of economic, educational, environmental and community building initiatives. He calls for new “social technologies” that allow people to adapt to constant change and involve organizing forms of cooperation that bring the benefits of technological change to all people. I loved his last chapter where he discusses St. Louis Park, Minn., the town he grew up in, and how it developed policies that built community, encouraged inclusiveness and emphasized educational development. St. Louis Park becomes a stand-in for the kind of community building Friedman believes America needs.
How does Friedman’s book relate to PDC’s mission? The implications are pretty clear. There’s a tremendous need for professionals to continually grow their skills. That’s what the PDC does. We provide low-cost training using industry experts. We keep it affordable through innovative practices, partnerships with career centers and the generous labor of our volunteers. We don’t do community building per se, but we support efforts by groups like the Institute for Community Transitions in helping unemployed professionals band together for mutual support, and we urge people to utilize networking groups like WIND and Acton Networkers to help them between jobs.
Also, we would get behind efforts to make “lifelong learning credits” available to all workers, a way to underwrite the ongoing costs of staying technologically current and employable. Given the scale of retraining needed today, some form of governmental assistance is necessary.
Bigger issues, like the growing inequality of wealth and income, the challenges of climate change, the dislocation caused by technological advances, perhaps even the elimination of work as we know it, will require bold new thinking to create answers that benefit all, not just a privileged few. We’ll join with others in those efforts and welcome your thoughts and contributions to that process.