Following is a series of posts by Jesse Bernstein that started appearing on his Website on March 3, 2017. Jesse is a member of Learning to be Great™.
Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century
On February 22, 2017, Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times,
“…we’re living in a world being shaped by vast accelerations in technology, globalization, climate change and population growth… In this age, leaders have to challenge citizens to understand that more is required of them if they want to remain in the middle class — that they have to be lifelong learners.”
I read this as I was writing about lifelong learning and realized that lifelong learning is one of the keys to deal with rapidly changing trends in our world. As I work with people and organizations to identify these trends and the impact they are having on them, their families, social interactions, and public policy; the conversation often begins with the painful statement, “I don’t understand…”
This phrase manifests the frustration we feel when our realities are so different from our expectations. Our lives are impacted by changes that are difficult to conceptualize, in part because of the speed in which these changes occur. As I help my clients begin to look at these trends and get a conceptual understanding of what is going on, we develop action plans to make appropriate changes that will ease the frustration.
Friedman see the world from 100,000 feet. From ground level, I see several trends that can block or limit people and organizations from surviving and thriving. These trends interact with and also support each other as they impact our daily lives.
The next four posts will look at each of these interrelated trends in more depth, but for now, let’s end the suspense and present the trends.
We can access information, entertainment, financial transactions, and the people we know, worldwide, 24/7, 365 days a year.
We live longer because we have earlier diagnostic techniques and better treatment options.
Industries and careers disappear and new ones are invented.
Technology changes basic interactions between people and organizations.
More work is being performed on a contract basis with the decline of the social contract between employer and employee for good and bad reasons
Being your own boss is a double-edged sword
New tasks/jobs and tools are constantly invented
Whole new bodies of knowledge seem to be created every day
The scripts we expected our lives to follow may no longer be valid. The first step to getting help with the life we didn’t expect is to understand the social and economic realities that now exist. The next post, Part 2, will be look at the impact of technology on our lives.
Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century: Technology
Here are a few examples of how technology has changed our lives. I’m sure you can think of many more.
Technology has freed us from the requirement to be at a certain place at a certain time.
I don’t have to go to the bank when it is open to deposit a check (smartphone); ATM’s let me withdraw cash anywhere in the world, 24/7; loan application forms are available on-line and can be filled out and submitted without my going to a branch.
TV shows, movies, concerts, and more are available on-demand to watch on computers, TVs, tablets, and smartphones.
Jobs that are information-based can be performed from anywhere. Filing cabinets are now digital and in the cloud. Years were removed from the process of engineering a new car model when technology allowed engineers to pass their work on to colleagues in the next time zone. By the time an engineer got back to work, colleagues added two days worth of progress on the car.
Technology safely does tasks that can be harmful to people, does them more consistently, and, in the long run, does them cheaper.
In auto assembly plants, the number one spot for injuries covered by worker’s compensation insurance was where the spare tire goes into the trunk. A robot that did the job paid for itself in 16 months, with no injury insurance claims and continues to work.
In 1985, at the newly built Ford-Mazda plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, a machine the size of a house produced its own stampings, just-in-time. This computerized, robotic machine did the work of thousands of people.
Technology has improved our health.
We can swallow a camera that sends images of our entire digestive system as it travels from mouth to evacuation.
Robotic tools allow for surgeries that are less invasive, reducing risk of infections and shortening recovery time.
Technology lets us communicate with more people and interact with more information.
We download books, magazines, and all kinds of media without going to a library or book store.
Search engines drive information to us based on information we previously accessed.
We can talk and see people anywhere, anytime, on our smartphones.
It is overwhelming to consider the technology available to us in our personal lives, in business, and in organization management. Deciding which technology to adopt is daunting. Here are some steps that apply to personal and organizational decision-making that will help with the adaptation process.
Define the need. In today’s world, there are solutions to problems we did not know we had (see the story of my granddaughter and Alexa in my Five Generations post). We hear about apps, tools, gadgets, etc. from others and wonder if we should acquire them. First, decide the need. I make sure to ask myself, “What do I need?” “What will help make my life easier or save money or provide entertainment?” In businesses and non-profits the questions might be: will this increase productivity, reduce costs, reduce employee turnover, etc...
Research Options. Technology can actually help us with this joy. I haven’t purchased an item or downloaded an app recently without checking with others either in person or online, or both. Helpful Hint - There is no reason to use technology just because it is available. Do I need an electric broom or can my old-fashioned bristle broom with the long handle and a dust pan do the job? It’s OK to get books from the library and not buy a Kindle (although my library lets me borrow e-books from them).
Acquire. Technology has changed the process of purchasing, to include downloading, trading, whatever comes next.
Learn how to use it. This is often the most challenging step. More on this in the last post on Lifelong Learning.
Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century: Career Evolution
In 1900, factories and farms employed 60 percent of the work force. By 1950, a half-century later, those two sectors employed 36 percent. In 2014, they employed less than 10 percent.
"Hidden Figures" is a movie about a group of African-American women who worked at the fledgling National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the 1960’s. This was the time of the space race with Russia, to see which country could get a man into space quicker. These women were called “computers” because that is what they did, they checked the mathematic computations of the engineers. They were mathematical geniuses, but their race and sex held them from the status they deserved. Dorothy Vaughan supervised the segregated unit of African-American women, but did not receive the commensurate pay or title.
One day, IBM showed up with a mechanical computer. The installation was a disaster. The machine did not fit in the room and the installers could not get the programming to work. Instead of trying to sabotage or undermine the innovation that would end her job and those of her colleagues, Ms. Vaughan went to the segregated town library and “borrowed” a book from the “Whites Only” section to learn computer programming. Within days, she was helping the installers get the machine up and running. Within weeks, she was assigned to supervise an integrated team of women to program the computer going forward.
This is a beautifully presented example of how careers evolve, often disappear, and how to survive this reality. Dorothy demonstrated two important coping mechanisms of the 21st Century: life-long learning (which we will discuss at length in its own post) and intrapreneurship. She decided to collect data on the needs of her workplace and figure out how she can solve the problems that existed. This helped NASA and herself as she evolved her career.
There are many examples of careers and skilled trades that have evolved. As the automobile replaced horses, many saddle and bridle makers went to work making car interiors, but there were not enough jobs for all of them. This scenario occurred with linotype operators in the newspaper business and tellers in the banking industry. I’m sure you can think of many more examples.
Through the 1960s, we got our Bachelor degree, maybe a Masters, and had a life-long profession. Maybe we went to a conference or continuing education class once a year. But more and more of us are changing careers and learning new, unrelated bodies of knowledge. For example, a friend of mine has a degree in mental health treatment, is a Certified Gemologist, and is now a Pharmacist.
Another friend went from prosecuting attorney for eight years, to owning an ad agency for twenty years, to organizational development consultant and trainer for about the same length of time. Years ago, this friend shared a question he asks himself everyday. This question still resonates and has deep meaning today: “Do I want to get out of bed and do what I have to do today?” If he answered “no” for too many days, he then asked: “What can I do that will motivate me to get out of bed every day?” He then engaged in a process to determine what he really wants to do.
Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century: The Gigification of Work
Musicians introduced us to the term “gig.” A gig is a contract to perform. It could be for one night, a weekend, or an extended engagement. They had no job security, so gigs were vital to their financial well-being. Think about it – many industries are like this. Certainly the entertainment industry. Watch the credits after a movie – hundreds of people worked on it for a limited time. How many of them have full-time salaried jobs with a studio or production company?
Food growers in Michigan are deeply concerned that there will be no migrant workers to harvest crops this summer due to the political climate in Washington.
Since I entered the workforce full-time in 1970, I watched a major deterioration in what was referred to as: “the social contract between the employer and employee.” There was a sense of connection in the booming economy of post-World War II between the employer and employee. This is not to say there weren’t issues and many industries had unions to protect workers, but I watched as the 1970s brought us “at will” employment. These laws gave the employer the power to terminate an employee for no reason. Either you had an employment agreement that defined the relationship or you agreed to be “at will.”
There were always contractors who were available to do jobs cheaper than hired employee, but this option increased dramatically in the last 50 years. Cleaning and maintenance functions, Information Technology (IT) departments, even managing workers became targets for contracting. Companies would go back and forth between contracting and hiring. I’m on the Board of a non-profit that is going back to hiring it’s cleaning and maintenance staff, another non-profit I know has a mixed model – a hired manager who contracts for workers.
The decision to hire or contract is a complex one, based on multiple factors. One approach is not better or worse than the other, but the options are a reality in today’s environment. And the difference is not clearly defined. Consider a law or accounting firm or the mental health center I founded and ran. These companies might hire full-time employees, but the income is based on attracting clients often for short-term engagements. Lawyers and accountants love retainers, a guaranteed amount paid to the firm to reserve time in case of need, but these firms need “rainmakers,” those staff members who bring in the contracts. Even the mental health clinic I founded and ran in the 1970’s required a great deal of relationship selling to keep the flow of clients coming in.
The upside of gigification is the ability to be your own boss. But that is a double-edged sword. Marketing, selling, financial management (billing, benefits, purchasing, etc.) and more all require the time of the owner. Many people have adjusted and appreciate this life style. Others, like myself have moved back and forth between employment and contracting. There is another option, entrepreneurship, a topic for future posts.
Whether you are an employee or contractor, I suggest you see yourself as the CEO of the company of YOU. Start by defining the kind of life you want to live in this stage of your life and then look at how you can generate the income and benefits to successfully achieve that life style.
Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century: Lifelong Learning
Lifelong learning has always been with us. Through high school, we learn the basics. We get career training which could be experiential, trade school, community college, and on up. Some professions require continuing education, often tied to meetings or trips to resort location. People spend recreational time learning about hobbies; hunting, fishing, quilting, and knitting to name a few. Many of us study spirituality, philosophy, and history for our own edification. Current events or (dare I say) “news” is a form of learning, especially now.
The difference today is that we must commit time to learn new bodies of knowledge in three areas: technology, our current careers, and potential new careers. This recent article in the New York Times does a great job of listing the policy implications and changes required by technology improvements and career evolution:
All of these changes were evident thirty year ago and more, yet few if any of the changes suggested in the article occurred. As the impact of technology and career evolution increasingly change our reality, there are three areas of learning that require a planned commitment: Technology, Career Enhancement, and Career Change.
Technology. The technology seems to change daily as our cars parallel park themselves, refrigerators can send you pictures of their insides so you know what to buy when you go to the store, and we can ask almost any question and get an answer, seemingly from out of nowhere (Alexa….play Uptown Funk).
In a previous post, adopting technology was compared to the shopping process: define the need; research the options; acquire, adapt, install; then comes learning how to use it. I am certain I do not use 90% of the features available on my smartphone. It would make sense for me to spend a few minutes each day learning what the phone can do and decide if it could use it. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but I used the alarm clock function for the first time, just a few days ago. It was incredibly easy to use.
Career Enhancement. Some professions require continuing education to maintain status. In today’s world, this is like updates to your software. In the movie Hidden Figures, Dorothy Vaughan spent untold hours learning a whole new language, Fortran, so she could keep her job that now morphed to programming computers from doing the computations “by hand.” Think about the auto mechanic who now has a computerized engine and drive train to deal with, no more just changing oil and spark plugs; or a lawyer who decides to offer mediation services in addition to litigation; or the surgeon who now has the technology to repair the heart of a fetus still in the womb. More and more, professions require learning whole new bodies of knowledge in order to stay in the profession.
Career Change. Saddle makers, linotypists, bank tellers, auto workers and many more have seen their jobs disappear. Others have decided they want a change for a variety of reasons. Reading the writing on the wall about a job or career is difficult these days, but I find my friend’s daily question really helpful – “do I want to get out of bed to do what I have to do today?” If not, it’s time to make time to learn a new body of knowledge. This learning might require an extended time commitment to get a new degree or a certificate from a trade school or program.
So, what does this all mean? Here are some suggestions to consider as you plan your lifelong learning program.
Set aside time to understand and be able to use the technology you already have. You might find you already own helpful items.
Think about the activities you do not like to do and see if there is an app or machine that can make it easier or better. If you hate shopping or going to the supermarket, shop for staples on line and have them delivered or use the pick-up service many supermarkets are now offering. Do the same at work.
Once a month, walk around an electronics or office supply store and see what’s new. If you go when it’s not too busy, the sales people might enjoy explaining the latest innovations to you. I still can’t get over the $300 3-D printer. With the appropriate scanner, it can turn drawings into 3-D objects.
Check out the offerings at community colleges. One friend took photography classes for recreation and decided to make it his business. You might find a skill that is more interesting than what you are doing now and can test out your interest before making the big leap.
Read the latest news from professions and industries other than yours. See what’s going on in the broader economy. There may be a tool, app, or process that you can use to make your life better.
Let me know what additional ideas you have to support your commitment to lifelong learning and let me know if you would like my help developing your plan.