FRIEDMAN: ‘Work hard, play by the rules’ obsolete

Keywords Forefront / Opinion

Thomas L. FriedmanI just arrived in Shanghai, but I’m thinking about Estonia and wondering about something Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been saying.

Wired magazine reported recently that public schools in Estonia are establishing a program for teaching first-graders—and kids in all other grades—how to do computer programming.

The news from Estonia prompted The Guardian newspaper of London to publish an online poll asking its readers: “Children aged 7 to 16 are being given the opportunity to learn how to code in schools in Estonia. Should U.K. school children be taught programming as part of their school day?”

It’s fascinating to read about all this while visiting Shanghai, whose public school system in 2010 beat the rest of the world in math, science and reading in the global PISA exam of 15-year-olds. Will the Chinese respond by teaching programming to preschoolers?

All of this made me think Obama should stop using the phrase—first minted by Clinton in 1992—that if you just “work hard and play by the rules” you should expect that the American system will deliver you a decent life and a chance for your children to have a better one. That mantra is out of date.

The truth is, if you want a decent job that will lead to a decent life today you have to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, obtain at least some form of postsecondary education, make sure that you’re engaged in lifelong learning and play by the rules.

When Clinton first employed his phrase in 1992, the Internet was just emerging, virtually no one had e-mail and the Cold War was ending. In other words, we were still living in a world of walls which were just starting to come down. It was a world before NAFTA and the full merger of globalization and the information technology revolution, a world in which unions and blue-collar manufacturing were still relatively strong, and where America could still write a lot of the rules that people played by.

That world is gone. It is now a more open system. Technology and globalization are wiping out lower-skilled jobs faster, while steadily raising the skill level required for new jobs. More than ever, lifelong learning is the key to getting into, and staying in, the middle class.

Van Ton-Quinlivan, the vice chancellor for work force and economic development at the California Community Colleges System, explained to me the four basic skill sets today.

The first are people who are “ready now.” That’s people with exactly the right skills an employer is looking for at the right time. If those people are not available, the employer will go the “shortest distance to find them,” she said, and today that could be anywhere in the world.

Companies who can’t find “ready now” will look for “ready soon,” people who, with limited training and on-the-job experience, can fit right in. If they can’t find those, some will hire “work ready.” These are people with two or four years of postsecondary education who can be trained.

Last are the growing legions of the “far from ready,” people who dropped out or have only a high school diploma. Their prospects for a decent job are small, even if they are ready to “work hard and play by the rules.”

Which is why if we ever get another stimulus, it has to focus, in part, on getting more people more education.

That’s why I prefer the new mantra floated by Clinton at the Democratic convention, (which Obama has tried to fund): “We have to prepare more Americans for the new jobs that are being created in a world fueled by new technology. That’s why investments in our people”—in more community colleges, Pell grants and vocational-training classes— “are more important than ever.”•

• Friedman is a New York Times columnist. Send comments on this column to [email protected].

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