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Big Questions, Little Answers

I spent a day last week in San Francisco with the New York Time’s Thomas Friedman and hundreds of his closest personal...

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I spent a day last week in San Francisco with the New York Time’s Thomas Friedman and hundreds of his closest personal show-biz friends discussing “Work 2.0”. As I’ve been processing the conference here back on Cape Code my mind has been reeling with the many macro and micro technological, societal, economic, and personal thermals and downdrafts that were looked at from six ways to Sunday by professional and civilian pontificators of all stripes and varieties.

Mr F, if you’re reading this, you and your NYT chums put on a hell of a show.

But. You knew there was a but coming didn’t you. What the day showed up was the paucity of answers that the chattering classes have to the questions that were tossed out like hand grenades throughout the day by speakers and audience alike.

What value does a liberal arts education have nowadays? How can my kid get a job at Google? What should schools and colleges be teaching? How should they teach it? What will be the high value jobs of the future? How can a recently riffed middle aged person sustain their life “style” in an Uber world? How can I, an average Joe, survive (let alone thrive) in a Flat world where average is over?

So many great questions. Profound questions. The right questions. The questions which as you rightly pointed out Mr F the country needs to be addressing and isn’t. The questions that we here at the Center for the Future of Work chew on 24/7.

But in eight hours or so of navel gazing, confessional, Cri de Coeur, and Shamwow style infomercial, I didn’t really hear anything that resembled an answer to any of these (and the many more) questions on all of our tongues.

Platitude after platitude was offered up by the great minds motivated to break bread with Mr F (and hopefully get some of his crumbs), often with a conviction that was thrilling and sort of sweet;

“Life long education (I think I heard the made up word edupreneurial) is the answer”

“How we do things is more important than technical capabilities”

“3D printing will rescue America”

“We should copy the education system they have in Finland”

“We need young kids to learn how to code”

That’s a small selection of some of the best thoughts that the best minds in the supposedly best city in the supposedly best country in the world have to offer.

As you said at the start of the day Mr F, “Houston, we have a problem”.

Life long education? As was pointed out 50% of kids don’t graduate high school; 70% of kids in college don’t graduate; of the kids that do graduate 14% think that college was “worth it”.

The how doesn’t really matter when you’re flipping burgers for minimum wage. After graduating college.

3D printing will improve GE’s net margin (through strategic use of them in Shanghai and Manilla) not manufacturer a million middle class jobs in Detroit, Michigan.

The Finish(ing School) education system works in a country of 4 million people where Goldman Sachs does not rule (yet).

“Tell me Principal, should I teach my sixth graders C++ or Ruby on Rails? Before or after I make sure Little Mikey knows what a past participle is?”

To be honest, the day left me profoundly anxious about the state of this great Union.

Because … pause for dramatic sound track music to swell and crescendo … nobody has any answers to these questions at all. Nobody knows what “we” should do. Nobody has a grand unifying theory of how we sustain the incumbents and glorify the disrupters, leverage scale and embrace the artisanal, imagine the cost of the new and remember the benefits of the old, reward talent and work out on the field of play but not allow the winners of the game to be in sole charge of writing (and re-writing) the rules of the game so they (and only they) keep on winning.

Nobody at Mr F’s conference came up with an answer that was half as good as the questions they raised.

Maybe that’s ok; maybe that’s the nature of these types of event. Heaven knows I’ve spent enough of my life listening or talking at these tribal gatherings to have reasonably modest expectations about what’s really the take away from them. (Normally a pretty average tote with some seen-better-times logos on it).

But call me Mr Gullible I went to SF optimistic and hopeful that “Work 2.0” was going to help us shine a light on a future of work that works. And it didn’t. What it did was expose that we are at a deeply troubling period in history when things that used to work don’t work anymore, and where the things that do work work for the few not the many, and where the things that might work are still so immature that their creative power will take years to reverse the destructive tide all around us.

That is the world we live in now. That is the world which is waiting for answers. That is the world which is looking for a post Invisible Hand, post Little Red Book, “Third” idea that can help us be brave in this new world. That can power “Work 2.0”.

I went to SF thinking I might hear that idea, that answer. The wait goes on.

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