The World is Flat

Book Review by Marilyn Maze

Review of Friedman, Thomas L. (2005). The World is Flat. A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York.

Have you experienced the flattening of the world? When I had a computer virus recently, I called an 800 number and spoke to a technical support person in India one day, in the Philippines the next day, and in El Salvador the next day. According to the author, Mr. Friedman, when you use the drive-through service at some McDonald's restaurants, you may be speaking to an order-taker in a different state who enters your food order and sends it, along with your picture, to the restaurant where your food is prepared and handed to you. This inter-state order-taking service reduces mistakes, thus making it more cost-effective than the traditional in-house process.

Friedman explains the history of the changes, describing ten 'flatteners."

Surprisingly, his first flattener is the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This flattener caused governments around the world to begin to lower their walls and collaborate. Another flattener was Internet Browsers, which allowed ordinary people to use the Internet to share and research information, for free. Sharing and collaboration took a big step forward. Yet another flattener was the Y2K problem, which required so many programmers that outsourcing to other countries was the only option. Telephone cables laid down in anticipation of the dot.com boom were used to connect U.S. companies to workers in other countries, and outsourcing greatly increased. His book outlines seven additional flatteners that career counselors should consider.

What does a flat world mean to our clients and the career development profession?

  • It does not mean that jobs will become scarce, but it does mean that many jobs will require different skills, and some types of jobs will disappear. The example provided by Friedman is a graphic artist who, ten years ago, provided high-end art to advertising firms. Now, the graphic artist has found that his customers want their finished art in computer format, and many lower-priced artists in other countries are happy to fill the need. The graphic artist now supplies concepts. His customers scan the concept drawings into a computer and someone else turns them into finished artwork. The artist also began doing morphs, and now has a specialty in this art form. The lesson for career counselors is that our clients need to be constantly learning new skills and looking for a niche that will make them unique. Reproductions have lost value, but original ideas have increased in value. When we notice that tasks we previously did are being given to lower wage workers, we need to look for the parts of the work that need face-to-face time or have high value-added, and develop skills in those areas.
  • Both clients and career counselors need to continuously adapt to and adopt new technologies. As new technology changes our lives, we need to be constantly looking for ways our work could be done more effectively using new technologies. Using our own profession as an example, many career counselors have embraced the use of websites. Today, a good website is as important as a good brochure. In addition to a marketing tool, a website can be a vehicle for conveying information to our clients, 24/7. Other technologies commonly used by career counselors include computerized career information systems and distance counseling via email and video conferencing. While it may be difficult today to anticipate how career counseling can make better use of technology, I am confident that each year we will see new technologies integrated into our work. Our field is relatively isolated from the changes brought on by the flattening of the world. For many of our clients, the rate of change is mind-numbing.
  • The distance between the incomes of knowledge workers and unskilled workers will continue to widen. For our clients with few skills, the implications of the flat world are grim. As we all know, service industries can absorb them, but at much reduced wage levels.
  • According to Friedman, we need to encourage youth to choose science and work hard. Friedman points out that the U.S. maintains its technological advantage by importing engineers and scientists. Now that people in other countries can find rewarding jobs without leaving home, the U.S. may lose its edge. The work ethic in the US is also far weaker than in many other countries. Friedman recommends encouraging our youth to choose science and work harder, and he encourages all of us to demand excellence in our educational systems. Our children will increasingly be competing with the Chinese, Indian, and Asian children, and we need to be sure American children have the education and character to succeed. "This is not a test. This is a crisis." (p. 306)
  • "The transition to a flat world is going to stress many people" (p. 296). Career counselors cannot stop the pace of change, but we can help people deal with the stress. I believe it is essential for us to understand the changes in order to be helpful to those who are impacted by them. We also need to provide good advice to clients facing transitions caused by these forces. Reading The World is Flat is a good way to start.

Many of Friedman's ideas are controversial. If we do accept them, how does that impact our work with clients? If we don't accept them, what impact might that have? How does the changing world of work impact both our roles as counselors and our clients' roles as workers?

Marilyn Maze, Ph.D., is a Principal Research Associate for ACT, Inc., and one of the developers of DISCOVER, a computerized career guidance program that includes extensive information about occupations, majors, schools, and other aspects of career planning. She also conducts research using ACT's extensive data related to career choices of youth and adults. Contact: 410-584-8000 or maze@act.org.

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