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How to Thrive in Today's Fast-Changing World

A chat with Thomas Friedman, author of 'Thank You for Being Late'

By Richard Harris

Those of us in middle age have felt the pace of our lives speed up as we've gotten older. But it wasn't until I recently recorded my mother during her 94th birthday celebration that I appreciated just how concentrated the pace of change has been for someone in her 10th decade. "Everything changed so fast. But it was recently, not when I was young," Mom said. "Everything from computers to printers to iPads. All that technology happened very fast, too much at once."

Thomas Friedman
Thomas Friedman  |  Credit: Ralph Alswang

Those words echoed a book I just read by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman: Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. Technology is just one of three accelerations Friedman says we're experiencing (the others: globalization and climate change).

He and I talked this week in his Washington, D.C. office about the forces reshaping the world — especially the workplace — and what people in their 50s and 60s can do about them. Highlights:

Next Avenue: You pose a question in your book: Are things just getting too damned fast? I know how my 94-year-old mother would answer it. How about you?

Thomas Friedman: Yes, they are. We're living through a change in the pace of change.

Eric "Astro" Teller [CEO of the Google X R&D lab and grandson of hydrogen bomb designer Edward Teller] says the cycle of a fundamentally new technology to be introduced, scaled and replaced is now roughly five to seven years. And it's moving to three to five years.

If you think of new technology as moving up in steps — mainframes to desktop to laptop to handheld — with each one of those steps, you get a set of technologies, they diffuse, they scale and they give birth to the next one. The new capabilities keep coming. We can store more stuff, we can compute more stuff faster and we can send it down pipes faster.

When you put it all together, it's staggering what's going on in the change of the pace of change.

To demonstrate the frenetic pace of technology you’ve lived through, you describe the Adler manual typewriter you started on as a journalist in London and how over time, the tools of your craft kept changing at a faster and faster clip. Would you have ever expected the Adler to be listed on eBay as a "rare vintage antique"?

When I looked up the history of the typewriter, it said the typewriter was the main writing device for a hundred years from 1880 to 1980. And I started my journalism career in 1978. So I was at the very tail end of the typewriter era.

Then I worked on a big word processor, an IBM desktop, a Tandy PC, different PCs, then a Dell, laptops and then iPhones.  We had a writing device that lasted a hundred years and now we're in pretty rapid changes in a decade. You're recording this on your phone, not a tape recorder. You can see how fast it's moving.

Thank You For Being Late

You quote a Congressman from Minnesota who said that over the last 50 years, if you were an average worker, you needed "a plan to fail." When and why did that change?

Two things happened. When you think of the average worker in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, what was the golden era of productivity, there was so much blue-collar labor because of America's industrial explosion after the war and because everyone else was still flat on their back because of the war. And you had a lot of white-collar work. My uncle worked at a bank as a loan officer in Minneapolis with just a high school degree. And that's why you needed ‘a plan to fail’ to get out of the way of that updraft.

Then during the ‘80s, ‘90s and early aughts, globalization began to kick in and the pace of technology started to kick in.

And the combination of the two posed a challenge for a lot of these workers. But we took care of them with home mortgages, so they were able to ride up the value of their home. And we had a big credit expansion; people could charge things much more efficiently on their VISA card.

And then 2007 hit. You had a leap up to a new platform — automation and software — that really started to rapidly devour white-collar and blue-collar lower-skilled work. And then the next year, the great recession ate people's mortgages.

There was a group of people whose home and job were fundamentally threatened at the same time, the two things that were keeping them in the middle class. I think there were a lot of Trump voters caught in that pincer movement. It explains the level of anger and the sense that the game was rigged.

You cite AT&T as among the most innovative in preparing its workers for the future.

There's a new social contract at AT&T. It's very simple. You can be a lifelong worker at AT&T now, but only if you're a lifelong learner. That's the only way. You have to invent, reinvent and renew your job.

When I graduated from college, I got to find a job. My daughters really had to invent a job. They’ll have to advance, retool and reinvent themselves so many more times than I did originally.

So much more is on you. The government can help you with a safety net, but it can't make you go to school.

How does AT&T incentivize employees to become lifelong learners?


Their deal is you need to take the degrees AT&T has designed with Udacity [an online university] in order to upgrade your skills and acquire the skills you'll need for the AT&T of the future, which is now much more of a technology company and less about climbing up telephone poles. If you do that, they'll give you first crack when new jobs open. They won't go outside.

AT&T's deal is we'll give you the courses, we'll even pay you tuition — up to $8,000 a year and $30,000 over your lifetime at the company — but you have to take the courses on your own time.

If you're ready to do the learning, they're ready to do the hiring. But if you're not, they have a nice severance package. You're not going to work there any longer.

That kind of social contract is coming to the rest of the country. And so you have to have more grit, persistence and self-motivation. A lot of people don't have that.

Lifelong learning is great advice for someone just starting out. What about the boomers? Is there a way for them to leverage their experience and re-orient themselves for these seismic shifts in the workplace?

I always think there is. At a talk last night in Washington, a woman came to the microphone who started a global trade company called Linkages. She said: ‘I am the epitome of what you call diverse, adaptive, inclusive, entrepreneurial and resilient.’ She looked close to my age, 63. She sure wasn't a millennial.

The great thing about this system is it’s open. If you want to start a company like she did, no one is going to stand over you and urge you. You've got to take ownership yourself. This really is an age of ownership. Where ownership exists, good things happen.

People are self-propelled. I can't coast here at The New York Times. I'm running as fast as I always did.

What advice can you share with younger boomers in their 50s and older boomers closer to retirement?

When you're at an intersection like this one of rapid accelerations, there are only two ways to survive. You have to be really open, so you get the signals first. And you want your skills to always be moving ahead.  Be open and be moving up. Do those two things and good things will happen.

Your friend's quote, 'When you press the pause button on a machine, it stops, but when you press the pause button on human beings, they start,' is a call to get off our devices and take time to reflect, rethink and reimagine. But with a culture tethered to devices, isn't that easier said than done?

I can only speak for myself. I'm not sitting there watching Twitter. I'm not on Facebook. If you're speaking to me through Facebook or Twitter, I'm not listening. So let's start there.

I'm a fairly disconnected person who operates in a kind of old-fashioned way and I do that deliberately because drinking from this digital fire hose is too much for me. I'm just not interested in hearing what everyone is saying about each other or for that matter, about me.

If you write me a paper letter, I'll answer it. Other than that, I’m trying to slow down and get across that it's all the stuff that is old and slow that you cannot download — that's the stuff that matters most.

The subtitle of the book is ‘An optimist's guide to thriving in the age of accelerations.’ Given these huge forces, all occurring simultaneously, how easy is it to be an optimist?

There are troubled communities such as the south side of Chicago, but there are also many thriving ones. And I prefer to focus on those and try to understand why they're thriving.

And then what is it we can scale? That's really why I went back to Minnesota [where he grew up]. There's enormous innovation there and that's the message I wanted to convey: that if you look at the country from the bottom up, you can be very optimistic and very inspired.

Richard Harris is a freelance writer, consultant to the nonprofit iCivics, former producer of NPR's "All Things Considered" and former senior producer of "ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel." Follow him on Twitter @redsox54.  Read More
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