Average is No Longer Good Enough

by Michael Haberman on February 6, 2012 · 3 comments

In a piece published on January 27th, Thomas Friedman wrote about the effect that the ever increasing use of technology and the increasing global competition is having on unemployment in the U.S. His conclusion is that average is no longer good enough for American workers.

Friedman says “In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But today, average is officially over. Being average won’t earn you what it used to be.” Technology and foreign competition has been eating away at our manufacturing base and it will continue to do so. So we have shifted to an information and service economy. Yet Friedman gives an example of technology eating away at the service economy as well, with Ipads replacing servers in many restaurants. (See E la Carte)

To me what Friedman means by average is mediocre. I think we need to eliminate the use of the term “average”. There will always be an average regardless of how good workers are. Average moves up. What we have fallen into is mediocre work and mediocre is not going to help us in the future.

Friedman reports the latest unemployment figures for American’s over 25, by education level.

  •          Less than a high school degree-             13.8%
  •          High school but no college-                     8.7%
  •          Some college or associate degree          7.7%
  •          Bachelor or higher                                   4.1%

He then says “… the one thing we know for sure is that with each advance in globalization and the IT revolution, the best jobs will require workers to have more and better education to make themselves above average.” Friedman ends his piece by saying we need to pass “some kind of GI Bill for the 21st century that ensures that every American has access to post high school education.”  This will only work however if people realize the value of that education and I am not sure how much this message is getting across. There are mechanisms that exist today for people to get education and improve their skills yet I know many people who not taking advantage of those opportunities. They continue to look for jobs that require the same set of expired skills they have. What is that old definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Whatever the solution, we need to get the message to people that “average” is not going to make it anymore. To be better than average as Friedman suggests it is going to require technology and education. Employers need to be as aware of this as do employees. We need to make sure that we are educating our workers. We need to make sure we are letting them know that their continued employment requires ongoing education and an ever greater understanding of the use of technology.   

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Hebert February 6, 2012 at 1:44 pm

We could avoid this if we just gave everyone a better “pre” high school and high school education. I say this after reviewing the Harvard Entrance Exam from 1869. Yeah… 1869 (you can see it here in pdf: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/education/harvardexam.pdf )

Greek and Latin translations aside – there are few high school graduates that could pass the math and geometry sections – I’d say even READ the math and geometry sections.

Before we start adding new levels of spending let’s get something out of the existing ones.

BTW – sorry to not really respond to your post but you’re right – averages will always be – mediocrity we can rise above. I’d rather be an “average” earner in a room with Bill Gates any day!

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Michael Haberman February 6, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Paul thanks for the comment. I am in total agreement with you, though I don’t think Friedman sees that as a quick enough solution. It certainly doesn’t do anything for the over 25 crowd. But one solution that does work is using WIA funds that are available and many people have no idea they are out there. Let’s get people to utilize what is available before we start spending on something new. Of course those solutions do not have to mutually exclusive. But people also need to face reality (as my post on Feb. 7 talks about) and take some personal responsibility and do something themselves to advance their skills. It is possible. I am in my 6th decade (just) yet I sit here and write a blog, use other forms of social media and cloud computing, all because I saw those things were going to be necessary for me to advance in my profession. You have done the same thing. I get frustrated with people saying “I can’t get a job” and doing nothing about it!

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Paul Hebert February 6, 2012 at 4:52 pm

Agreed. My father used to say – no one gives you anything you have to earn it. Therefore, I’ve always assumed it was my job to do the job I wanted before anyone handed it to me. Same goes for education and learning – put in the effort before you need the skills. Unfortunately – there are no quick solutions to retraining and re-educating an entire workforce. That in itself is part of the program – spending time on quick solutions instead of working a solution that will show results, but not right away.

Great post as usual.

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