The Dehumanized Condition

Capture Quartz

I saw this Quartz article—More and more Indian IT engineers are under-skilled, unwanted, and unemployed— earlier today and although it involves a bunch of people I’ll probably never meet, in a country I’ll probably never visit, this piece bothered me on a fundamental level. It reminded me of something that I learned decades ago about an inevitable consequence of economic evolution, a consequence that renders large groups of people irrelevant, invisible, and forgotten.

I first entered college, sometime after the earth cooled, as a student of economics. That changed quickly enough, but not before I had completed several seriously enlightening courses in that discipline. At least some of what I learned from my esteemed professors, for better or worse, has stuck with me to this day. The above-linked article reminded me of this. Let me explain.

Economic evolution/revolution has always opened doors for some and slammed them shut for others. Consider the transitions from agriculture to industry, from industry to service, from service to information, and from information to (smart) automation. That last transition is still unfolding. In fact plenty of people either don’t know about it yet or are in denial—but that’s a topic for another time. My point is this: with every turn of the wheel, opportunities have opened and opportunities have closed. Each and every time, while traditionally understood job opportunities shrunk, new and exciting job opportunities expanded, albeit not always at the same rate. Maybe never at the same rate.

What happens when the only job role you’ve ever known becomes obsolete? On a purely academic level, the answer is simple: people must be retrained.

But even the citizens of academia will readily admit that not everyone can be retrained and funneled into the revised economy. Why? For openers, there will likely be fewer new jobs created than old ones eliminated. Second, who is going to pay for all this retraining? Finally, consider also that some individuals may be too close to retirement to start over—but not close enough to be able to retire.

If you haven’t already done so, please take a few minutes to read the article to which I referred earlier. Check out the prediction that “3.9 million employees of Indian IT services companies would become ‘irrelevant’ within the next four years” due to automation. And don’t overlook the prediction that 65% of the displaced workforce cannot be retrained.

That seems like an awful lot of people to disregard as irrelevant. Irrelevant! We aren’t talking about an obsolete screw that will no longer be used to manufacture a product. We aren’t talking about a line of code in a software program that is no longer needed. These are people! Human beings! When they disappear on paper, when they drop from the statistics, when they are no longer visible in the economic model, what do you imagine happens to them?

I am reminded of a 1993 movie called Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas. There is a scene in which Douglas’ character encounters a man protesting in front of a bank, raving about having become “not economically viable.” During this scene, the raving man is arrested and taken away by law enforcement officers. What is often lost on the audience is the fact that the man carted off by police is dressed identically to the anti-hero of this story.

Of course it doesn’t take an economic revolution to cause this condition. We see the same thing happen on a smaller scale whenever an economic downturn occurs. Or smaller yet when a specific industry falters. Or smaller yet, when this or that company is forced to “downsize” in order to remain viable.

This happens every day. I have witnessed it firsthand, on varying scales, for decades. As an educated man, I am capable of understanding and explaining the whole cause-and-effect episode. As a wordsmith, I can spin things toward a specific desired outcome.

Just remember one thing. No matter how we slice, dice, or spin a given situation, these are human beings we are talking about. Okay?

How would you like to be called irrelevant? I thought so.

I know this post has been a bit of a departure from the things about which I usually write. With that in mind, if you are still reading, thanks all the more for hanging with me.

 

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Tell Me About It: A Path to Deeper Understanding

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I must admit I feel a little silly talking about this learning and development trick that I discovered in high school, yet I feel compelled to share this with you because I just put it to good use again yesterday, while at my corporate workplace—and I’m in my fifties now. This is one of those things that’s so simple, it should be obvious. And it is… after you’ve experienced the effect firsthand. Are you curious?

I promise you, I couldn’t make this complicated if I tried: If you want to test, or perhaps enhance, your own understanding of a given thing, try explaining it to somebody else. Not to yourself, not in your head, but out loud. Explain it to another human being, to that person’s satisfaction. Conversely, if you want to help a family member, friend, or associate work through the same process, encourage them to explain it to you. You might be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

26840099163_20e3b24667_oLet me tell you how it worked in high school. I had this chemistry class scheduled immediately after my lunch period. It so happens that a buddy of mine had the same class and the same lunch period as me. Every time we had a chemistry quiz or test scheduled, I would walk into the cafeteria and find this poor guy sitting with his nose buried in his chemistry textbook, sweating bullets. He would sit there, turning the same pages over and over and looking as if he were about to go before a firing squad. I could get acid indigestion just watching him. So I woul reach out.

“What’s wrong, Louie?”27447604615_96b24d9fe4_o

“This chemistry shit, I just don’t get it.”

“What part don’t you understand?”

“Well, how about this…”

I assure you I wasn’t baiting my friend, but he always took that question as a challenge to show me the hard parts of any given chapter of that chemistry book. Louie would ask me about various theories, rules, and equations. I didn’t always know the answer, either, but I would look at what he was pointing at in the book, give the matter a little thought, think about how to explain it in terms I knew Louie would understand, and then explain it to him, exactly that way.

Louie would smile and nod. Then he’d turn the page and shoot back, “But what about this?” I would repeat the same process, over and again, until Louie was satisfied or until the bell rang, signaling everyone to get moving again.

Dubuque16That’s how I learned chemistry. I spent my entire lunch period explaining the most difficult parts of every chapter to my friend—without missing a bite, I might add—and then proceeded to ace every chemistry quiz and test that followed.

Did Louie benefit from our sessions? I hope so, but he would likely have been better off had he been the one doing all that talking.

Me? I thought I was just good at chemistry. Now I know better. Oh, had I known then what I know now! Right?

15310647_10210755513104843_1588930595_nYesterday I had finished developing a proposal for a potential new customer and while everything looked fine to me, I know that at times I can be my own worst proofreader. So I asked an associate to review my work. But rather than just email the documents and hope for the best, I opened them on a large display and asked my colleague to let me walk him through my steps.

In this particular case, the same process, more or less, yielded a different benefit. Neither of us was learning new concepts, yet by explaining the details of my work aloud to someone not directly involved, I was able to perceive my own work with the added dimension of unfamiliar eyes. And in the process, I saw things that I would not otherwise have seen.

“And this is where we define the duration of services. but I think there may be a better way to sync this up with Exhibit A…”

Synergy! Would my associates have seen that opportunity on their own? No more likely than I would have been, had I reviewed my own work in silence.

boy-and-girl-behind-boy-and-girl_1849861231_o I can recall times long ago, when my own kids would be struggling with a subject in school. Sometimes it would help to let them talk in detail about the subject or the issue. They are adults now, as am I, and there are times when each of us may still benefit from the same approach.

This may be a rather wild analogy, but I was once told that in the Catholic rite of exorcism, a point is reached at which the exorcism may not proceed until the demon’s name is known. Then again, if you have ever been faced with the task of correcting an error hidden deep within a string of algebraic equations, or of finding that subtle flaw within many pages of a service agreement, perhaps the analogy isn’t so far-fetched after all.

Whether teaching ones self a new concept, perfecting ones approach to a potential new customer, or overcoming a stumbling block to better understanding, sometimes the key is to talk it out. Or to put his in ancient terms, if you can name it, you can conquer it.