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HOME >Globalization: the Battle of Yesterday

Despondent or elated – with very little in between, we find ourselves marching together on the same path the Englishmen took five months ago: protect ourselves – defined as nations – from globalization.


It seems that much is unknown on this path. Only to some extent this is true. Yes, today, predicting the market price for tomorrow or for next month is more of a clever exercise based on nothing than maybe it was last week. However, looking below the clouds, attempting to “ever desireless” discern substance from manifestations, to use a classic Taoist framework, reveals a coherent picture.


One reality is that globalization cannot be stopped with a vote; it cannot be stopped anymore with tariffs or border fences. Globalization of 2016 is not the globalization of the 90’s, a process of integration of people and businesses critically driven by international trade and investment, facilitated by information technology and by wage differentials between developed and developing countries. Globalization today, and more so tomorrow, is driven by technology; it does not necessarily involve the physical integration of people nor the trade of tangible goods.  Unlike the 90’s, jobs and even entire occupations disappear by means of technological obsolescence and automation. Enacting border fences and tariffs is as useful as locking a thick front door to protect from the Internet.


The fact that globalization cannot be stopped is a minor reality though. The irony of the path we find ourselves on is that fighting globalization to preserve jobs means fighting the battle of yesterday.


The substance that marks the current era is the transition from slow technological change to rapid technological change.


The pace of technological change has always been increasing. The Paleolithic period lasted 2.5 million years while the Neolithic only 3000. It took the industrializing UK 150 years to become the world economic leader. However, at every point in human history, this pace was slow relative to the duration of an active life. In the not so distant past, humans had the same occupation for generations. At every point in the past, the majority of people had the option to keep the same occupation for the duration of their active life. Adaptation to the new was delivered through the new generations. Life expectancy has kept increasing through the ages, but technological change has always been slow on a human life scale.


This relationship has changed in the current decade. Change is already too fast to be delivered by the following generation. Technological steady states last less than an active lifetime. Having spent my first full career – decades ago – doing scientific research exactly in the areas that are currently the enablers of technological change, I profoundly understand a truth that professionals in the technology realm know well: we passed the computational threshold allowing the pace of technological change to become explosive.


As such, baby boomers are the last generation for whom a second career is a choice, not a necessity. They are the last generation for which professional life on cruise control is an option.


The pace of change is so fast that most millennials may experience at least three careers, likely neither of the last two having existed at all at the beginning of their professional life. From what I can observe of my 22-year old son, they are prepared, and looking forward to it. They have the right mindset: they see how, as some opportunities disappear, others are born.


As we can also observe, my generation, Gen X, as well as the younger tail of baby boomers, are not prepared. My generation is caught by this change in the middle of the professional life, with a mindset akin to that of its parents. Changing geographies for the same profession, the internal American immigration pattern that has worked so well for baby boomers, will not work anymore, no matter how good one is. It has happened in the past. The best telegrapher had to find something else to do well. But now it will happen to most.


For this generation there are two political paths. One is technological protectionism. We have seen insulated instances, like the Uber case. We will see more as automated cars take the road. Robots or automated manufacturing could be penalized or outlawed. Companies that produce new technologies could be taxed more, etc.


The second path is one of dynamism and entrepreneurship. At the individual level this path relies on three substantial break-ups with the past: a mindset of transformation, adaptation to new ways of doing business, and lifelong learning. The factory line worker transitioning into an Uber driver transitioning into a drone operator should become a stereotype. Will this be the case?

The answer depends a lot on our political choices. But one of the parts of our society least adapted to this change is politics. We are trying hard to fit this new and not well understood economic paradigm in rigid doctrines with familiar labels. As a result, our political system has become more like an Airbnb for political ideas.


The matter is pressing because, going forward, the pace of technological change will affect both low skill and high skill professions; dying occupations – as well as novel type of opportunities, will only become more, not less.  In these circumstances, fighting yesterday’s battles only ensures that next time no one will need to hire Cambridge Analytica to pull a Brexit or a Trump against the odds; they will be the odds. This draw to familiar ideas and the hope that old solutions will bring back that option of occupational linearity that past generations experienced will only leave us, non-millenials, the bulk of today’s society, even more unprepared for the future innings of our active life.

On the path we are now, we are aiming to operate our drones with reins and spurs.


Sorina Zahan

Nov 10, 2016

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