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Hey Gen Y! Can You Become Untouchable?

October 26, 2009

Updated October 14, 2013

One of my favorite columnists is Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Friedman’s one of the few commentators who’s very good at connecting the dots and deciphering patterns in global trends, whether it’s in technology or competition among nations.

He’s written a number of excellent books, such as The World is Flat and Hot, Flat and Crowded.

A while ago, Friedman wrote a piece called The New Untouchables that really hit the mark for me for a few reasons. First, I’ve worked on global competitiveness issues for many years and have a decent understanding of the juggernaut of change that’s in the process of hitting North America. Second, I’ve been involved, in one form or another, in human capital development issues for some 30 years. That’s fancy economist speak for how does a nation strengthen the skills and knowledge capacity of its population. And third, when I read Friedman’s column it struck me that there’s something to share with Gen Y.

So what’s Friedman saying?

He recounts one story of a lawyer friend, who explained that the lawyers in his firm who got sacked first were those used to having work handed to them. But lawyers who had demonstrated creativity and ingenuity were kept on – The Untouchables, as Friedman calls them. This leads Friedman to talk about America’s poor international scholastic results and the need to increase the percentage of youth who continue on to post-secondary education.

However, Friedman doesn’t stop there, which is where the usual conversation on education in North America goes. Friedman urges that the “right education” is desperately needed. One labor expert he spoke to distinguishes between the separation of college grads in the top half, who possess “high-end analytical and problem-solving skills,” and the bottom half, consisting of engineers and programmers whose work is aimed towards routine, non-creative tasks.

It’s the bottom half that’s been getting creamed the most by offshore outsourcing, work that can be done anywhere on the planet–and at a fraction of the cost. We sometimes hear about moving up the value chain, in terms of producing higher value-added products and services. Well, the analogy can be made to the labor market, where time is running out when it comes to improving the knowledge, skills and innovative capabilities of North American workers.

Friedman expresses it this way at the end of his piece: “So our schools have a doubly hard task now- not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity. Bottom line: We’re not going back to the good old days without fixing our schools as well as our banks.”

So Gen Y, you can add Friedman’s advice to what I’ve shared in my recent post Top 12 Tips for Gen Y. You’re a well-educated age cohort that possesses strong skills in the use of technology and social media, including good interpersonal skills. But don’t forget to devote effort to building your creative and entrepreneurial abilities. This will help separate you from others in the global labour market, and help restore America’s place over time to being the world’s leader in innovation.

Get cracking!


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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2009 6:43 am

    I enjoyed this post. As both a Gen Yer myself and a recent college graduate who is now a Partner in a innovative marketing firm here in Portland Oregon, I would stress the importance of entrepreneurship. It is going to be this force, this element of the human condition, that will be driving much of the innovation in the near and even distant future. Good article.

    • October 28, 2009 11:52 am

      Thanks Bret. Good point about the human condition being the driver of innovation. We tend to get too caught up in the latest technologies, forgetting that it’s people’s ingenuity that can improve our quality of life, as well as address problems on our planet.

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