reb•e•lu•tion (reb’el lu shen) n. a teenage rebellion against the low expectations of an ungodly culture.

8/26/2005

The World Is Flat (Part 1): Competition On Our Plateau

The world is flat. Do you know what that means? It means that this generation of young Americans is facing challenges and opportunities that were never faced by our parents or our grandparents. Metaphorically, it means that Hispanic Pedro Sanchez can run for high school president against All-American Summer Wheatley, and win, even without Napoleon Dynamite’s amazing dance skills and sweet moon boots. You know why? Because when Thomas L. Friedman titled his book "The World Is Flat." he meant to say that America no longer holds a vice-grip on greatness, and now “lesser” countries that are working harder and faster can and will pass America up, and he was right.

The convergence of technology and events over the past several decades have allowed India and China—as well as many other countries—to become major players in the global supply chain of services and manufacturing. In other words, the playing field is being leveled. There are a few new “big kids” on the block.

Most importantly, as Mr. Friedman puts it, this whole phenomenon has taken place “while we were sleeping.” We might all recognize the “Made in China” label on the cheap toys accompanying McDonald’s Happy Meals, and on that yellow silicone bracelet we’re wearing, but we probably missed it on the consumer electronics, eyeglass frames, auto parts, computer screens, and mobile phones we use daily.

Though many of us have recognized the thinly veiled Indian accent of the young man walking us through our computer glitch, not many of us know that this Microsoft employee is actually working from a cubicle in Bangalore, India. As a matter of fact, there’s a good chance that if you were to dial the customer service number for a product from Dell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Nike, Wal-Mart, Texas Instruments, etc. etc. etc. you would end up talking to someone working the swing shift on the other side of the world and keeping awake with a good strong cup of Chai tea. (On a side note Chai tea actually makes me feel sleepy, but I’m sure the experienced swing-shift operators in India make it work somehow.)

You see technology has multiplied the possibilities for international collaboration. Call center operators and assembly line workers can be hired, paid, and put to work wherever it is cheapest and most efficient to do so. Doctors can scan handwritten medical reports, diagnoses, and prescriptions at night before heading home and receive them back the next morning as transferable digital files, carefully transcribed by workers in India, and peer reviewed; most likely from doctors in India or Australia who operate in the opposite day/night time zone.

This means that China, India, Australia, etc. are gaining the ability to do work that they wouldn’t have been able to do 10 years ago! Why the change? Technology. Fiber optic cables run to the far corners of the earth, carrying anything that can be digitized (and you’d be surprised by how much that is), as countries that were far behind us just a few years ago, pick themselves up by feeding on the scraps from our table. They do our manufacturing, they man our call centers, and they wait their turn.

For now many of them seem to accept the old order; namely, that the United States paves the way and then everyone else follows. But others seem ill content to remain inferior. As one Chinese businessman put it, “First we were scared of the wolf, then we wanted to dance with the wolf, and now we want to be the wolf.”

Unfortunately, the average American is only just becoming aware of the significance of these developments, while my generation—which has the most to gain or lose from all that takes place—is either completely ignorant or completely apathetic.

Nevertheless, these countries have been pushing themselves to compete with the US and have now been granted the technology to stand on our plateau. The question is, “are we ready for them?”

Continue Series with Part Two: America's Career Choice Gap