Thomas Friedman believes the world is flat.
At least, this is the metaphor “The New York Times” foreign affairs columnists applies to the state of instantaneous business connections made possible by advanced technology. Friedman said this impactful connectivity specifically impacts young generations emerging in the work force.
Friedman spoke on connectivity and other issues facing America at Wilkes’ eigth annual Outstanding Leaders Forum on Nov. 16. The three-time Pulitzer prize winner presented at the F.M. Kirby Center on what he considered America’s biggest challenges, and how to overcome them.
Friedman laid out many of the problems discussed in his latest book, “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World We Invented and How We Can Come Back.” He decided to co-write the book with Michael Mandelbaum after they noticed how their discussions on the world always shifted to America.
“We really concluded that it is really America’s state, future, vigor and vitality: that really is the biggest foreign policy issue in the world,” Friedman said.
Friedman described America as a tent pole that holds up and stabilizes the rest of the world. This impact that America has on the world led to Friedman’s concern of what would happen if the tent pole were to budge or break.
Friedman also addressed the idea that America’s future is used up, which evolved from observations of a sense of resignation in Americans toward America’s best days.
“Do we believe that about America? Not on your life,” Friedman said. “But we do have to buckle up and get our act together to make sure that we do have that future, with the ability to pass on the American dream.”
Despite the grim scenarios that Friedman and Mandelbaum analyze, Freidman considers them to be not pessimists, but more of “frustrated optimists.” He expressed his view that there is still hope for America.
“Whenever we tell people the title of our book, “That used to be us,” their first question is, “does it have a happy ending?” Friedman said. “We tell everybody it does, but we just don’t know yet whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. That’s going to depend on us.”
One problematic area that Friedman feels America must overcome is the issue of connectivity that gives employers global access to employees. Friedman said this revolution has developed in the last seven or eight years.
“The world really went from connected, to hyperconnected,” Friedman said. “No one announced it, but it’s actually the biggest thing happening in the world today, and it’s affecting every school, every student, every teacher, and every employer and every workplace.”
In this “flat” playing field, American youth are placed as direct competitors with international talent.
In order to keep up with a rising global curve, Friedman emphasizes the quality of creativity in young graduates seeking employment.
“In this world, everyone is going to have to find their extra, their unique value composition that justifies why they should be hired,” Friedman said.
After speaking to numerous employers, Friedman identified what they are looking for in new employees.
“What they all actually looking for are people that not only do their job, but invent, reinvent and re-engineer their job as they work,” Friedman said.
He urged aspiring workers to think like an immigrant, an artisan and a waitress at Perkins Family Restaurant and Bakery. He said it is important to install an immigrant’s hunger of new opportunities, the entrepreneurship of a waitress striving to be profitable despite limited resources and control and the pride that artisans have in carving their initials into their dedicated work.
“Whatever work you do, do it in a way that at the end of the day you always want to carve your initials,” Friedman said. “Do it in a way that you’re always bringing something extra.”
Jay Sidhu, member of the Wilkes board of trustees and founder of the Jay S. Sidhu School of Business and Leadership, praised Friedman’s ability to comment on issues in a way that allows his audience to be aware of the problems as well as possible solutions.
“He is sought for his knowledge and understanding, especially of common sense leadership issues, of foreign affairs, the role and effect of globalizations, about terrorism, about climate change, and about all the issues we are facing in this world today,” Sidhu said.
Friedman warned that if the issues facing America, such as with hyperconnectivity, are not resolved, America faces a decline that would be a “greater threat to our national security than anything Al-Qaeda does.”
“We see a country with enormous potential, falling into the worst sort of decline,” Friedman said, “ slow decline.”