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Thursday, September 8, 2016

Selected Readings on How to Make It in the Modern Economy

We have it in our power to master a new economic era and thrive in the age of networks.

Not long ago I read a column by Lindsey Novak titled “Forced Into Adulthood.” It captured in palpable detail what it’s like to become an adult in less than auspicious circumstances and to set about the business of creating a life for oneself.

At first glance, I noticed the advice format and nearly scrolled away, but the story drew me in. A recent college graduate, in light of his success, is reminded of losing both his parents, presumably not long before he went off to college in Chicago. At the time, he moved in with the family of a close friend. Now his decision to return to New York and pursue a career in advertising has damaged his relationship with her. He also bemoans the fact that his friend’s father had promised to introduce him to advertising execs, which would have paved the way for his transition.

“We have all the habits of a new age. The Phones. The Emails. The ADD clicking of our keyboards…Now we need to develop the instincts.”

What’s compelling is that in her response, Novak never takes a cloying feel-your-pain tone with the writer. Instead, she directs him on a path toward tapping the abundant resources Americans have at their disposal (education, technology, informal brain trusts)—those that can become easily obscured as life happens. Part of her advice was for him to email friends in New York to announce his return but to not ask anyone for help. Then she told him to, “Routinely connect with advertising professionals through LinkedIn and with friends on Facebook, and create an online portfolio of ads” to show his skill set to potential employers.

Novak’s advice not only highlights the power of networks but also attempts to move the writer away from feelings of what psychologists call learned helplessness.

Developing the Network Instinct

Amid talk about economic realignment, service sector growth, a third industrial revolution, and the thriving gig economy, sound advice for millennials should not only include pursuing a viable career but also grasping something fundamental about our evolving economy: the more attuned to its nuances people are, the more empowered they are to make advantageous choices.

In Josh Ramo’s book, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks, he talks about the need to understand the ways connection is changing things—the economy being a case in point. Ramo describes the seventh sense as a learnable instinct that recognizes both the challenges that the age of networks poses to the economy and job seekers and the creative possibilities that are being opened up by these networks.

As Ramo sees it, there is a gap between professionals in the arena of manufacturing and the experts in technology. Those in logistics and retail understand production and how the economy functions while the Silicon Valley ilk understands networks and connectivity and wants to explore new technological possibilities.

Somewhere between the two you find the individual who has to survive, who has to navigate both terrains to make a living. Fortunately, according to Ramo, “We have all the habits of a new age. The Phones. The Emails. The ADD clicking of our keyboards… Now we need to develop the instincts.”

Despite political promises to bring back outmoded jobs, it’s a reality now that people, especially millennials, will need to acquire certain tech skills and develop their seventh sense instincts to find a profitable place within the division of labor.

A Sense of Capability

Making it in this economy is really about renewing a sense of capability. And I don’t mean this as some kind of philosophical mantra. I’m thinking of something more practical and down to earth. A year ago, I heard Malcolm Gladwell make a similar point at a Phi Theta Kappa conference, one that he expands on in David and Goliath. He talked about the importance of people in communities that struggle with a host of socioeconomic challenges capitalizing on their human potential.

Americans have it in their power to see themselves as capable of mastering a new economic era on their own terms.

Gladwell was calling on everyone to rethink the importance of capitalizing on their talents, however minimal, and on their effort in the midst of adversity. The fascinating thing about it is that this kind of mentality is becoming a new normal, and it falls perfectly in line with the principles of individualism that built America.

Our continued success requires that each of us finds ways to improve ourselves and thereby our social and economic realities.

The Power of Individual Perseverance

Just as democracy dictates that regular people have the most important role to play in politics, it’s the same with other facets of society. In an open and free society, no one is shut out of a promising career, but it should be obvious too that businesses are not going to beat down doors to pursue prospective employees.

This is one reason why Novak’s advice comes in stark contrast to the illogic that’s in vogue today. She didn’t recommend bureaucracy to the college grad or government assistance. Instead, she recommended individual perseverance, which is the master key to opportunity in America.

Perhaps no book captures the idea that no one is expendable in the American project better than John Hope Bryant’s How the Poor Can Save Capitalism. Right off the bat, he essentially lays the prospect of restoring the economy to vibrancy at the feet of those who live in poverty. Bryant believes that, given the right tools and guidance, those on the margins in our communities have the capacity to help create the jobs of the future.

Americans have it in their power to see themselves as capable of mastering a new economic era on their own terms and away from the arbitrary reach of increased taxation and other politically-inspired burdens. Perhaps we could move away from clamoring for costly federal programs that take more and do less.

It may just take a reminder about the dubious tension and thrill of entering adulthood to get people to reimagine what they are capable of.

  • John L. Glenn is an Assistant Professor of English at Atlanta Metropolitan State College, and his writings have appeared in The Federalist, The Birmingham News, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Library Journal, and elsewhere.