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Why Your Mind-Set Won’t Save Your Career

Some think long-term career success is all a matter of “self-motivation.” It’s a little more complicated than that.

Why Your Mind-Set Won’t Save Your Career
[Illustration: CSA Images/Printstock Collection/Getty Images]

“The notion that we can go to college for four years and then spend that knowledge for the next 30 is over,” Thomas Friedman announced in yesterday’s New York Times. “If you want to be a lifelong employee anywhere today, you have to be a lifelong learner.” He’s right on both counts. The returns students can expect from their bachelor’s degrees have been shrinking, and every worker out there needs to constantly pick up new skills in order to compete in the workforce long-term.

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Then Friedman writes, “And that means: More is now on you. And that means self-motivation to learn and keep learning becomes the most important life skill.” (His patronizing italics.) The gist of the column, whose insurance-brochure headline is “Owning Your Own Future,” is that too few young professionals are ready to do that.

But there’s no crisis in “self-motivation.” There is, however, a shortage of resources and opportunities—disproportionately facing women, people of color, young people, and people without advanced degrees, among others—to learn enough marketable skills fast enough to get paid fairly for them. And Friedman’s brand of libertarian scolding isn’t helping.

It might be easy to imagine that every college student in the U.S. is a beneficiary of the kind of privilege that puts them vastly out of touch with everyone else in the country who’s trying to earn a living on a high school diploma or less. But go stand in the middle of a college quad or on the floor of a struggling manufacturing plant and declare that “having an agile learning mind-set will be the new skill set of the 21st century” (Friedman’s quoting an “education-to-work expert” here), and see what kind of response you get. I’ll bet they’d be identically unkind.

He’s right to assert that the workplace is rapidly changing, perhaps even more rapidly than in generations past. He’s also right that staying set in your ways won’t keep you competitive, and that you can’t secure a career’s worth of training in four years of college. Nor is it news to actual mechanics that “if you’re getting a degree in auto mechanics at a community college today, it’s not to be a ‘grease monkey.’ It’s to be a repairman for a computer with wheels.”

Young people entering the workforce have understood this kind of thing for years. Decades before the first Tesla was a twinkle in Elon Musk’s eye, parents were haughtily informing their teenage kids that they’d hold many different jobs over the course of their careers, some of which hadn’t been invented yet. This has long earned eye rolls—not out of disbelief, but out of sheer obviousness.

Informing the American workforce that “More is now on you” isn’t just unhelpful, it’s also grossly unfair. Plenty of employers don’t need or want workers to learn so many new skills that they outgrow their roles, and many others don’t offer the time or resources for additional job training—let alone raises and promotions to those who find their own ways to “skill up.” It isn’t individuals who’ve failed to keep up with the times. (“Some are up for that, some not,” Friedman sniffs.) It’s the government and employers that have yet to adapt to the realities of the modern workplace.

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Had they done so, the pay gaps by both race and gender would be footnotes in history (both are alive and well), employment discrimination wouldn’t exist (companies are still struggling with diversity as Trump rolls back protections), real wages wouldn’t be stagnating (as they have for four decades), automation would be making room for all kinds of new and exciting skills-training opportunities (that’s possible but barely happening), American millennials wouldn’t be unemployed at three times the overall rate (which they are), and no one would be talking seriously about the need for a universal basic income (like Musk is).

This month, the class of 2017 is graduating into a much healthier job market than their peers did in the depths of the financial crisis a decade ago. But as Fast Company‘s Lydia Dishman points out, “2007’s economy is a pretty low bar.” Despite their gobs of student loan debt and the fact that they’ll be competing for work with a cohort of which the majority is underemployed, gen-Z job seekers remain amazingly optimistic about their career prospects.

So does Friedman, more or less. With just a little more willingness to learn, and maybe an assist from Khan Academy, he suggests that the next generation of employees—college grads and otherwise—won’t just wind up with happy, prosperous careers. They’ll also stop electing proto-authoritarians and start voting for “leaders who inspire and equip their citizens to be strong people who can own their own futures.”

Gen-Z, you’ll have to get back to Friedman on that one. You’re about to discover just how far your “agile learning mind-set” and the sheer force of optimism will take you. Good luck out there.

About the author

Rich Bellis is Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.

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