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Thomas Friedman's "How to Get a Job," and the Art of Satire

I only just now got around to reading a Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times that has received a lot of (mostly negative) attention back in May. The piece, titled "How to Get a Job," is written in the typically forthright and optimistic/naïve style I've come to associate with Friedman. One has to assume that there's no irony involved, that he means what he says, and that everything here is in earnest. In the column, he interviews a couple of young recruiters and concludes: the world doesn't care what you know, only what you can do; resumes don't really matter; job seekers don't have the right skills and employers are hunting for unicorns—i.e., a "perfect fit," which may not in fact exist. He concludes with this observation:

People get rejected for jobs for two main reasons, said Sharef. One, "you're not showing the employer how you will help them add value," and, two, "you don't know what you want, and it comes through because you have not learned the skills that are needed." The most successful job candidates, she added, are "inventors and solution-finders," who are relentlessly "entrepreneurial" because they understand that many employers today don't care about your résumé, degree or how you got your knowledge, but only what you can do and what you can continuously reinvent yourself to do.

Despite what his critics say, Friedman's column does teach us something. Perhaps the best way of illuminating what that something is, however, is by turning to the wonderful but incredibly difficult art of satire. If I were a satirist of the top order—someone like George Saunders for example, or Ian Frazier in his early works—my inclination would be to write a column like Friedman's: same title, same avuncular thrust, same pragmatic tone, same jaw-dropping sense of naïveté. Instead of giving advice to today's job-seeker, though, I would address it to an imaginary audience of workers in an industrial city of the nineteenth century: Manchester around 1820, for example, or Lowell in 1840. Find yourself out of a job? No worries: simply convey your willingness to work sixteen hours seven days a week "adding value" in a textile mill. Only ten years old and hungry? Convert that hunger into an appetite for work! And so on.

We look back on the "dark Satanic mills" of the nineteenth century with fear and pity. We realize that the men, women, and children of that time had few choices. And yet the same market forces are at play in our world. Workers are laid off, people's homes are foreclosed, families disintegrate. The solutions that Friedman offers? Advertise your capacity to add value! Be entrepreneurial! Everything is about the individual, everything represents a competitive struggle to beat another worker to a job, and no one pays attention to structure. Such satire might not seem fair, but it emphasizes a brutally obvious fact: We need attention to economic forces and political solutions. We don't need more individualized advice on "how to get ahead" any more than an imaginary nineteenth-century millworker does.

About the Author

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



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This lengthy blog post by Walter Russell Mead may be of interest.  It is from the same May timeframe, so it may have prompted Friedman's article (not being a subscriber to the NY Times, I have very limited access to free content, so I haven't looked at the Friedman piece).  It touches on some of the same themes that Robert highlights in this post, but in an optimistic way: as the economy shifts away from the old industrial model, the possibility enlarges for human fulfillment through work.  To be sure, this sort of gee-whiz futurizing is itself ripe for satire, but I do think Mead is thought-provoking on this topic..

Robert, your satire is on target. But the market forces have changed. The owners of the dark mills needed vast numbers of workers. Compared to the farm, the factory offered an unhealthy, restricted, brutish existence, but it provided work a man or child could do until Death relieved him. Today's great entreperneurs don't need armies of laborers. A few Indian computer geeks on special visas and a janitorial force, the latter soon to be replaced by robots, and a start-up is ready to go.

In the long "recovery" factory jobs reached a peak earlier this year. They are sliding. Many white-collar office jobs that went away at the start of the Depression are probably never coming back. The growth industry is health care, and with the government getting into that, subsidies will keep suburban lawns cut a bit longer. But on recent hospital visits I have encountered robots rolling here and there, waiting for elevators, and even saying "thank you." The career prospects of nurses are cooling down already.

Teaching and law enforcement are still human-body heavy, but we are experimenting right now to see how much stupidity and crime we can put up with in return for lower taxes.

Thanks for this post, and Jim, thanks for your link to Water Russell Mead's article.

I'll link to a far more depressing, and perhaps even more thought-provoking recent article by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones magazine.  Drum argues that "Moore's Law"---that computing power doubles approximately every 18 months---suggests that virtually all human work that involves the brain will be replaced by cheaper and better machines (i.e., robots), just as the great mass of human work involving muscles has been replaced over the past 250 years by industrial technology.

Regardless of what the future holds, I find Friedman's column infuriatingly smug---if only because he takes employers at their word when, in the real world, that's not how employment (or unemployment) works.

WARNING: Long blah blah springboarding from Tom's comment above re teaching, and only tangentially related to the original post: 

My college is pushing for more online and hybrid courses that would pave the way for fewer teachers. The idea is that in many disciplines, teachers could do video lectures on line that could be used over and over (no need to keep the instructor on once the school has extracted what's in his head to a digital file), and behind-the-scenes drudges would administer standardized tests graded via computer and to staff tutorial centers for those who need "face time" assistance. Sure, they'd have to hire an SME to update the videos every so often, but the savings would be tremendous! (What they're not looking at is that the high level of adjunctification in areas like the humanities has already reduced the number of experts in the field, and where they'll get the talking heads for their videos will be interesting. Eventual stultification of content is my prediction.)

Composition has always been a labor-intensive job because of essay grading, but we now have an incredibly expensive grading software for composition that is designed to develop a "library" of standardized comments that teachers (or perhaps a computer program down the road) can use to generate an individualized evaluative/prescriptive collection of comments for the student, a la:

Unity is substandard because content frequently/occasionally diverts from thesis statement.

Conclusion does not leave the reader with a final impression, but merely restates the main points of the essay.

Poor grasp of surface features include runons/fragments/subject-verb agreement errors/misuse of apostrophes.

Certain instructors are bucking this trend by refusing to contribute to the "library" of comments, using the software only to enter the final grade and continuing to annotate papers by hand or in digital form. They believe that the system will be used to justify increased class size (why, these papers practically grad themselves!) and reduce the quality of instruction. However, the software is on to them and automatically generates messages demanding more compliance.

You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Jean, Thanks for the war reporting, and it wasn't blah-blah. And let me help you get the arc of your post back to the original post. Tom Friedman is a star at a newspaper that is content with small profit margins. In those ways he differs from most of his fellow ink-stained wretches, who are finding that their skills are not as valued as the webmeister's and are being dispensed with. Eventually, there will be no reporting for the talking heads to take off from, but who is thinking of that now?

It is the well-bunkered columnists like Friedman (who is far, far from the worst, although he is growing more naive the longer he lives in the world of thought) and the tenured professors and the think tank "fellows" who nimbly conclude what their funders want who are leading the conversation on the conditions of working America. With predictable results. As Robert Geroux pointed out.

Hundreds of eminently skilled journalists (and some columnists among them) have been summarily "let go" over the past ten years. I wonder how they've taken Friedman's advice... Not cheerfully, I would imagine.

Think of how many jobs were replaced by this new technology:

Technology is increasing exponentially.  The population is growing by leaps and bounds.  Meaningful, good-paying jobs seem to be decreasing in number and availability.

Massively subsidized birth control programs may well be upon us (particularly in the industralized portions of the world) sooner rather than later.

Though I am no globalization fan - I love Wendell Berry - I think we are piling on Friedman in a somewhat unfair way. Friedman is sometimes definitely smugly cosmopolitan. But he's also aiming at a target that others have also highlighted, which is that our job market today strongly privileges a certain set of skills and aptitudes, and that for people with these skills and aptitudes, there are strong employment opportunities. And Friedman is very concerned that the American educational system and cultural system are doing a poor job inculcating these skills and attitudes. In one sense, this is no different from farm kids going off to school to learn industrial trades, rather than staying home and learning how to do things by hand. By all means, there is a radical case to be made in favor of the craft-labor world. But apart from this case, Friedman is simply suggesting that we need certain skills and aptitudes - creativity, strong and complex grasps of science and engineering - in fact, a whole lot of complex and difficult mental skills that in fact require a considerable degree of temperance and fortitude to acquire. At my liberal arts college, we say over and over again that the liberal arts core is exactly what is teaching the creativity part - and the science is the science. And it is pretty clear to me in a 15-week class that some kids have "gotten it" - and they are in fact going to be successful in their career - and some kids have not, and think that they are basically going through a credentialing mouse maze and will just "get a job somewhere" when they graduate. It does not help when, in the above comments, we mix employment spheres. The problems for professionals - that is, journalists and college professors (and doctors and lawyers, too) - are different from the larger labor market problems that Friedman is addressing. Obviiously, some of the same forces - specifically, technology and relentless profit maximization - are at work. But Tom Blackburn is right; the comparison with "satanic mills" is off. Friedman is not pushing for some kind of labor exploitation. He's saying that, to a large extent, employers are interested in employees who work hard and creatively, who are versatile, and who have a sense of mission for what they are doing. These are exactly the qualities that tend to distinguish my best students, and they are undoubtedly qualities that we all look for when we do job searches. We get 100 applicants for a tenure-track job, just like employers get tons of resumes. They look to hire a person who is creative, versatile, and self-driven. I just don't see the "16-hours-in-the-mill" comparison.

Jean's comment is apropos, but also illustrates what seems to me to be a tendency of academics (perhaps because of the security of tenure?): when a change is proposed, the way to resist it is to not comply. This is politically bad, in that faculty need to be a united front and act collectively, and tend to have a terrible time doing this (so sensitive are we to respecting others' opinions). But we also do a poor job of articulating clearly what we do and why we do it. I have no fear that at my alma mater, Carleton, professors will be replaced by computers. Never. That's because Carleton understands and articulates what it is doing as a liberal arts college, and those who run it, participate in it, and attend it know what it is - and see how the faculty-led small classroom is absolutely irreplacable. They are not rejecting technology, but figuring out how to use technology to enhance what they already do. If the school we teach at is run by and/or attended by a large number of people who may pay lip service to "liberal arts" and such, but who are really conducting an expensive professional credentialing service, then... in fact, resistance IS futile, because the battle is already lost. Students who are not interested in college-level learning and an institution that is not interested in holding them to doing college-level learning do not need faculty trained and given the time to facilitate such learning - meaning, time to actually personally teach students, but also time to have a research agenda. It will not take long for people to figure out that it is painfully inefficient to have me, a PhD, earn even a relatively small salary in exchange for teaching three 25-person sections of the same ethics course... if all the institution and the students care about is the credentialing, and I am a nice nod to liberal arts and mission. Either they'll go big lecture, decide I can carry a heavier teaching load, and/or get by with lots more adjuncts. In all these cases, technology merely facilitates the institution's ability to create a context where a simulation of the college education process is maintained.

WARNING: Response to David Clotier re the state of liberal arts with tenuous relevance to post.

David, you reiterate some of my points nicely. My college is no Carleton; it's a private nonprof with roots in voc/tech and business training. It has expanded to giving four-year degrees (including teaching), and views the gen ed requirements in liberal arts largely as a necessary evil to get that accreditation. 

Liberal arts professors in many places need to start making a case for their disciplines beyond the tired-out Renaissance man appeal. Nobody's buying it any more. You have to pull out hard data (and it is out there) that shows that liberal arts majors may hire in at lower levels in an organization, but are often promoted more quickly than those in other disciplines for their ability to make connections, solve problems, and communicate. My dean is constantly urging us to help build these arguments. It's what admin understands. It's what Friedman advises. It's the only thing that's going to maintain the value in these disciplines. 

I don't know if tenure makes one resistant to change because I've never had it; living and dying as adjunct is the lot of many, perhaps most of us, with advanced degrees in the liberal arts. Most of us supplement our teaching with "real world" jobs. In a way, that has helped us help our students make connections between what we're teaching and the work world.

We have embraced classroom technology such as smart boards, electronic grade books, digital office hours, and the like because they have enhanced classroom instruction and reduced the paperwork shuffle. Some innovations, however, look like a way to further marginalize liberal arts. And if our new grading software and the specter of video lectures (one colleague calls it "the brain suck," once they've got your knowledge sucked out on videotape, why should they buy it every term for a live course?), you should see what they're doing to the library.

Thanks, Jean, for the response. Much of what I wrote is more or less a plea for tenured professors, who after all have a not-insignificant degree of institutional power, to get their act together and figure out how best to respond to real-world developments in an effective, coordinated fashion. This is no easy task, and I don't mean to suggest it is. Nor will it "look the same" in all institutional settings. And it has to include direct resistance to certain things - I would cite videotaping of lectures as a key example. But we also have to make the institutional-culture changes necessary. The decline in academic rigor is well-documented and pervasive, and the more our classrooms accept this, the easier it becomes to take what we do and mechanize it. Unfortunately, I fear that there is a whole set of mid-level institutions who right now are able to survive primarily because there is still a demand for "the college experience" - by which I mean four years in a dorm, profs who "know your name" and take classes outside on a picturesque quad on sunny days, prestigious-looking old buildings, and the like. This is a very tenuous position, because it constantly suggests (to administrators) that the advantageous economic trade-off is to cut instructional cost to provide fancy new gym facilities to compete with the mid-level place 60 miles away. In this way, I wish colleges would take Friedman's arguments MORE to heart, because then they would realize that the best thing they can give their students is intellectual creativity and a work ethic. 

It's been ages since I taught, but at that time the evidence was that if a students does not discuss a subject that he/she will not retain it.  Makes sense to me.  However, there was also evidence that for cut and dried stuff like math and the hard sciences, that some of the more mechanical ways of instruction can work well if there are instructors available to the students who have problems with the material, and that includes most students at some time.


So what are the differences between the arts and the sciences and why are the arts so terribly valuable in business? Back to the ole necessary/contingent distinction, among other things. 

The scopes of math and the sciences are each limited to one sort of thing.  For instance, physics is only about the quantifiable, zoology is only about organisms

The method of the math and the sciences is primarily reasoning.  The empirical sciences include description and observation of cause-and-effect, but reasoning is what yields the necessity of the sciences, and the necessity yields their ability to predict outcomes.  Yes, new ideas in the sciences are derived by some sort of intuition.  However, science is primarily  about classifying, observing cause-and-effect, and drawing conclusions, and making predictions,  All  are about  simplification of some sort.  (OK, so engineering is an excepion -- it invents new, complex stuff, but the stuff it invents is also predictable in its operaitons.)

The scope of the arts, on the other hand, is everything.  They include description, classifying, observation of cause-and-effect and reasoning.  But the arts are *also* about inter-relationships among ALL sorts of things.  So they're complex by nature.  Further, unlike the sciences, the arts are largely *unpredictable* though what they produce is valuable..  

In other words, the arts are about *life* --  about the complex, the contingent, and the  unpredictable.  Science doesn't touch the contingent and unpredictable.  So if we want business persons who can handle what is complex and unpredictable, we need people who are trained in the arts as well as in all that lovely but confined technological stuff.

Not to mention that historically many of the most important basic ideas have come from the philosophers.  Not to mention that literature and history help students to see some of the most important complex structures they will encounter in their own lives (e.g., family, church, government, the military).  The best lit shows the kids (and the adults who are lucky enough go back to school) that  the complexity of life can be manageable in a great variety of ways.

And all this doesn't even touch on the *value* of all these things.  Philosophy is what you want for that.



Ann, I think what you've said is important about the value of the humanities. (I enjoy teaching my analysis assignment; it's the first time many students have had a chance to discuss ideas and themes, and they come up with some great insights in discussions.)

Looking back to Robert Geroux's point, it's all well and good to train up these students to be perceptive employees with the right skill set and work ethic. But when the structure of the workplace is dysfunctional, education is almost moot. 

It's interesting to find myself with a high school senior this year. And more than a little challenging. I can give him ideas about education. But the work world is so different than it was 40+ years ago when I was his age. Fewer permanent full-time jobs, more contracting, more job changes. HIs idea is to get an associate's degree and begin with what he calls a "starter career" and go from there as he learns more about where the work is and what experience/work experience will be helpful. Given that the average college graduate leaves school with a diploma and $20K in debt, I'm not sure this isn't a good strategy.

Jean --

My heart goes out to all these kids.  I'm a depression baby and grew up in similar circumstances, but with FDR and the New Deal the country had decided to helpthe poor, not just let them fend for themselves, i.e., starve.  The depression continued, but at least there was a sort of communal hope.  After WW II the GI Bill sent millions of men to college who had not  grown up even hoping to go to college much less expecting to.  The war had put the country deep into debt, but educating the veterans made possible the great economic boom of the 50's, the greatest ever.  Without the GI Bill the 50's paradise would never have happened. 

So what are the Republicans saying now?  Cut support to college education supposedly for the sake of the economy.  Nonsense.  More advanced educations are precisely what the economy needs.  For insntance, there are now computer science jobs going begging,  So the young are growing cynical, while all the conservatives are conserving are their own portfolios.

I once heard at a conference (about 5 years ago) that a study had recently been done asking business leaders worldwide what they looked for in the ideal employee.  The results boiled down to three attributes:  someone who can speak well, write well, and analyze problems/situations; "we'll teach them the rest."

Having worked in government administration for 20 years, this is my experience, too.  And that is why the arts are important.  Sciences are great, but I've met many technically-minded people who weren't very good communicators or had difficulty working with others.

Jean, encourage your son not to stop at the Associate's Degree.  Stopping after the AA can hinder job opportunities.  If he is not interested in a STEM discipline or a career that requires some sort of licensure, he might consider some business-type degree, accounting, etc.  Once he gets going in college, internships, summer work opportunities, etc will show him a lot of career possibilities.  (And government is a great job choice, too!) 

Michelle, I think the paradigm is changing for students and their parents. College is where 18 and 19 year old boys (and some girls) go to drink beer and extend their adolescence and dependence. My classes are full of knuckleheads who act like they're 13, and fully a third of them fail my class. They don't belong in college now ... perhaps not ever. I've been at a big state university, a smaller university, a community college, and a four-year private. It's that way across the board. Has been for 30 years.

If I had my way, every male high school graduate would be forced to work a dead-end job at a pizza or burger joint in an unattractive uniform for two years or until such time as he saw college as a privilege to escape from grease and poverty instead of an opportunity to party hearty. 

I think it's true that businesses want communicators--that notion has been floating around for decades--but when I look at what our business leader advisory board says it needs and how writing educationists have designed our curriculum, there's a huge disconnect. However frustrating that is, it's WAY above my paygrade as an adjunct drudge to think about, much less fix. 

Jean and Michelle-- The further comments here are spot on. It is absolutely true that over and over you hear from employers that the main things they are looking for - as Freidman says - are good basic skills, a good work ethic, and a degree of intiative and creativity. And it is also true that a troublingly large proportion of college students (prepoderantly but not exclusively male) view college as a kind of combo of credentialing and partying, where courses are a kind of clever obstacle course to be negotiated as efficiently as possible so as to leave maximum time for the real "joys of college." While elite schools have their share of party animals, they also have a combination of (a) a pre-selection of smarter students coming in, and (b) enough academic rigor, produced both by direct demands in the classroom and by a general campus ethos, which then tends to constrain the partying enough that some real education is had, and (unsurprisingly) employers come calling, even for humanities majors. Ironically, and as parents know from even earlier on in the educational process nowadays, colleges thereby become pre-screening ranking systems for employers of all sorts. This is just what Robert criticizes Friedman for promoting - but it's hard to know how STRUCTURALLY you change this, because it's simply rational for employers to look for ways to identify the best possible candidates for jobs, many of which are now jobs which require the versatile, "enterpreneurial" skills Friedman is promoting. STRUCTURALLY, the issue is that the overall labor market is increasingly dividing between high-skill knowledge workers (even in manufacturing, where running complex machinery requires excellent math skills and complex problem-solving) and low-skill, low-pay jobs that are increasingly "service" jobs - and for which, there is a large "reserve army of labor." What we might call medium-skill jobs are fewer and fewer- automation on all fronts turns them either into high-skill or low-skill jobs, and (insofar as many jobs that might be termed medium-skill are about making and servicing things) globalization moves this process along even faster. This Atlantic article is fantastic in displaying how the process works:


"…and a degree of initiative and creativity…"

David C. --

We know a lot about the thinking skills necessary for doing science (defining, classifying, drawing conclusions, predicting what necessarily will happen), but very little about what creativity is and how to foster it.   Indeed creative intuitions seem to be largely unconscious.  The psychologists do tell us that openness to new things (new ideas, new kinds of things, new ways of doing things, new solutions) is a trait of creative people.  But beyond that the psychologists don't know much about  it, and they seem to be focused on creativity in problem-solving (finding a correct or usable answer to a particular question) but that is not the same thing as artistic creativity.  

At any rate, we don't know how to teach it, if, indeed, it is teachable at all.  Sigh.  

However, the educational system might preserve and encourage creativity by not squelching non-conformity -- or, rather, by not squelching certain kinds of nonconformity.  And there's the rub -- which sorts of non-conformity are allowable and which aren't?  High school teachers desperately need to know the answer to that one.

There was a study done years ago (can't remember the reference) comparing the creativity of boys in the New York City Jesuit high school (a highly structured school) with kids in an extremely unstructured, do-your-own-thing high school.  The Jesuit boys proved as creative as the others.  Maybe this just proves what Stravinsky said about composing music:  "There must be rules.  It doesn't matter what the rules are, but there must be rules".  Or maybe there are some deep rules that must be followed? Hmm.

(I also wonder just how creative the people who go into psychology are.  Maybe they're biased towards too many rules, too much regularity and they don't ask the needed quesitons.  Think J. B. Watson and his rigid stimulus-response explanation for everything.  I dunno.) 

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