“In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.”
That is a quote by Albert Einstein from the book, “The World is Flat,” by Thomas Friedman. (By the way, library cards are still free.) As I wrote in a previous column, in the book he discusses how computers, the internet, the information age, and the changing political landscape is affecting the whole world. While the emphasis is on how China and India are emerging as global economic forces, he deals with how all these changes are affecting everyone worldwide, including us in the United States.
Friedman is a writer for “The New York Times,” who specializes in economics and foreign affairs. He is far more liberal than I am. While taking that into consideration, I realize that he knows his stuff. While I may not agree with some of his recommendations and conclusions, I know his work is well researched and thoughtfully written. When he says the world is changing, and changing fast, he backs it up with facts.
So, how will all these changes affect me? (Isn’t that what it all eventually comes down to?) How should we react and what should we do? First, we need to realize that it affecting us and will affect us even more in the future.
The work done on computers in many offices locally can be done on computers in India, or elsewhere, and transmitted back here. It can be done immediately and cheaply, thanks to satellite, fiberoptics, and less expensive foreign labor. It can be more efficient and cost saving, but it also can take someone’s job locally. The example he gave was that major CPA firms are outsourcing the preparation of returns to businesses in India. The workers in India are taking information gathered by the CPA, and are keying in and preparing the returns, then transmitting them back to the CPA.
Also, in the book, Friedman writes, “China does not just want to get rich. It wants to get powerful. China doesn’t just want to learn how to make GM (General Motors) cars. It wants to be GM and put GM out of business. Anyone who doubts that should spend time with young Chinese.”
Let’s substitute a local major meat processor or a major livestock producer for GM. Now it’s not General Motors in Michigan, it is you-know-who here that the Chinese might be wanting to be and put out of business. Now can you see how it can affect us and our local economy? In the past, the worry was about an old Chinese communist politician. Now we need to be concerned about a young Chinese capitalist industrialist.
Then what should we do? First, we need to accept it as a reality. The changes are real and are lasting. The way things used to be are the way things used to be. It’s not that way anymore, and it’s not going back. The 20th Century was the United States century. We were the country that came out strong after World War II. For most of the century, half of the population of the world were held back due to communist ideology. While we still have advantages, the rest of the world sees our prosperity and they are working hard, fast and smart to achieve it.
Second, we need to get serious. This needs to be done corporately as a nation. So much that happens in Washington (and, sadly, in other places) lately appears to be nothing but political grandstanding, with politicians playing to their base for votes. A vision for America in the 21st Century in this new global reality is needed.
But, more importantly, we need to get serious as individuals. What about my job or business? Will it be there five years from now? What can I do to make sure it is? Or is there a new path I need to take? And what about our kids? Are we preparing them for the competition that they will face as adults?
Sounds depressing, doesn’t it? But go back to the Einstein quote, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Those billion emerging potential job-takers are also a billion potential consumers of your product. The outsourcing work they do may free you to be more creative in your job. And there are many, many jobs out there that can’t be outsourced, moved to another country, or replaced by a machine or computer. It just may not be the job you were used to.
We’ll just have to be creative and look forward. And Americans have always been good at that. Sadly, there will be many Americans who will not look forward, but look back to a more comfortable, more secure time. And many will refuse to look at all. Ironically, this will open up even more opportunities for those who will.