Work Doesn’t Work Anymore

About 10 years ago, I read a book called The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman. I don’t remember all the intricacies of Friedman’s arguments, but I do remember one point very clearly still – probably because as a young person at the time it scared me.

When I speak with highschool and college students today in the US and Europe most of them still don’t appreciate the gravity of the point that I learned back then. So I feel that it’s worth repeating in condensed form.

Most highschool and college students today think that when they graduate, they will be competing for jobs with their classmates. This is true, but it’s only a partial truth. In reality graduates today are competing for jobs with the entire world.

The Job market is flat

As the world has become flat, so have inflation adjusted American wages. If you’re American (Or in Western Europe) there are millions of ambitious young people in places like India and the Philippines willing to work longer hours than you for far less money. And they don’t complain about working conditions or ask for benefits. This is undoubtedly one of the major drivers behind the stagnant real wage growth we’ve seen in the USA over the last few decades.

No amount of protest or politics can stop this trend, the cat is well and truly out of the bag and nothing short of a complete technological regression could ever contain it. Regulation can slow this process in some cases, but previous attempts have shown that the global markets are quite efficient at circumventing regulatory roadblocks. There will always be a country willing to cave in exchange for investment or economic growth.

Employees in America today are playing in a rigged system. They live in a high cost of living country, but are competing with employees in areas with a much lower cost of living. This is why jobs such as plumbing and construction have seen faster wage growth than other segments. They cannot be outsourced as readily.

Eventually this trend will reach equilibrium as standards of living and wages in developing countries converge with American and European norms. But we are decades away from that point at a minimum. While some parts of Asia have almost reached or possibly even exceeded this threshold, Africa is barely getting started.

Don’t play by the old rules

The rules of the traditional job market have changed forever, but a new paradigm has also emerged. This new system doesn’t follow the old rules. Good grades, good behaviour and the ability to follow instructions won’t get you very far. The ability to rapidly learn and apply that knowledge effectively is far more valuable than anything you already know.

Fortunately, you don’t need to become the best in the world at a single skill. Due to the law of diminishing returns and extreme competition at the top this is incredibly difficult. Instead consider focusing on reasonable mastery of 3 complementary domains. Mastering a second or third field complementary to the first is often easier due to the knowledge crossover from your existing expertise. Many of the things you learned mastering the first, will also apply to the second and third.

If you’re at a crossroads deciding what to study or learn next, pick something that interests you and apply efficient learning techniques to master it. As you become more skilled you will be in a better position to know what complementary fields you should also study.

For example, being a top 20% programmer will certainly get you a well paying job but it’s not exactly a rare skill. If you became a top 20% expert in NLP (Natural Language Processing) and also learned legal terms and procedures to a reasonable level, you’d suddenly become very valuable to any number of companies working in the legal automation space. In fact at that point you’d be competing with just a handful of other professionals worldwide.

If that sounds extremely difficult or borderline impossible, then you’re not very good at learning. That’s not an insult. Most people have never been taught how to learn new skills effectively. We spend the first part of our lives memorizing lots of things and learning very little.

There are many better teachers of effective and rapid learning methods, so I won’t get into the details of effective learning in this post. It’s enough to be aware that you can actually get better at learning new things, and this is a skill which can be taught. But you have to start with learning how to learn.

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