Monday, April 21, 2014

Is Average Over? And What To Do About It?

The claim: The age of average is over. Tyler Cowen says this, so does Tom Friedman, Andrew McAfee and others. All those middle class jobs, Administrators, Receptionists, Secretaries, Accountants, are going, and will be gone in the future. 47% of all of today's professions, mostly the refuge of the average among us, will disappear. The only jobs left will be those which require extra-ordinary capability and professional skill of some kind. 

In short, middle class is doomed. The economists have a solution - a sort of a negative income tax, or tax credit as it is known in Britain - to provide for them. All those who complain about dole must take note: We are heading for an universal dole of some kind. Though this does not sound very promising, this is at least better than those practised in some developing countries, where, if you missed the bus, you are left to fend for yourself. Welcome back Welfare State, though this shows we are running out of ideas.

In a way, 'average' is the bedrock of our society and culture. The politicians want to represent the average Joe. The average person drives our economies, quite literally as cab driving is a solid middle class profession (and one that is likely to disappear). The average person keeps the chunk of the economy going, by buying the stuff we array in the shops. Culturally, the average makes our mass culture possible, by flocking in everywhere from football grounds to the pop shows. The death of average is indeed bad news for everything!

 
It is time, therefore, to think who is average and how do they become one. To be sure, this 'end of average' does not necessarily present a zero-sum situation. The 'average' is not those who are behind the top 1%, or 10%, or 15%, the average are those who aim for the middle, for those professions and jobs that are going to go. This, we may accept, is less determined by the natural distribution of intelligence in a population, but rather, this is socially constructed, made possible by the way we organise our education and our work.

Tom Friedman as always, makes a powerful, if slightly overstated, case for this: The way to beat the average is to (a) strive like an immigrant, (b) connect with work like an artisan and (c) bring out your 'extra'. Now, indeed, that's more a matter of attitude, values and commitment than of talent! This is useful advice, but this may need to be accompanied by how we think of success, smarts and performance. It is not that this change is needed to accommodate those who can't catch up on the traditional scales, it is rather because once machines take over the jobs where we devoted maximum energy so far, we shall need other smarts to progress. The day computers completely take over the analysts' jobs, the awkward interpersonal skills that most analysts survived with may need to change: To build the new human-machine partnerships, a new sense of ability will need to be discovered.

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