American Dream 2.0: Five Things That Must Change Now

by Ed Hess and Katherine Ludwig

We must stop yearning for yesterday, and start transforming ourselves, our kids, our institutions and our culture.

America has a big problem. Our jobs are going to go away, and collectively, we're acting as if nothing is going to change. Leaders fixate on "bringing back manufacturing jobs." But here's the thing: if we do bring them back, they still won't be done by humans. They'll be robot jobs. That's why the real problem is our mindset. Rather than blaming others for our fortune and trying to resurrect the past, we need to be preparing for a very different kind of future.

We're being pummeled by a double whammy. One, we're chasing the wrong cause of the problem. It's not immigrants or overseas workers who are stealing our jobs; it's technology. The past is gone forever, and the future is happening faster and faster. And it will upset everyone's apple cart.

As a nation, we're simply not talking about the potential loss of 60 to 80 million U.S. jobs that will likely occur, according to highly credible research, in the next 10 to 15 years because of advancing technology. In fact, in some cases our leaders are outright wrong. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, for example, was recently quoted in a CNBC article as saying he wasn't worried about artificial intelligence displacing our jobs "for at least 50 to 100 years."

But artificial intelligence is here now, and over the next 10 years it will automate millions of service and professional jobs. The best research to date says that nearly 50 percent of our jobs will be automated, and that may be just the beginning as technology continues to advance and get smarter.

The second “whammy” is this: the skillset we'll need to compete with the smart robot—emotional intelligence; empathy; the ability to think critically, creatively and innovatively; and to emotionally connect with others so we can effectively collaborate and work in teams—is the antithesis of what we're teaching our kids. In fact, our society has never been more lacking in it.

So what can we do to make sure we'll be able to survive in the future? We believe the solution is Otherness, meaning a focus on "We"—sharing, collaborating, teamwork and so forth—all the things even the smartest of robots cannot do. This is the skillset that will enable us to find work in a high-tech global economy. And it's virtually nonexistent right now.

Excelling in tomorrow's job market will require personal and cultural transformation. Individually and collectively, we must master our egos, practice humility, and rethink our workplaces and institutions. This will be very, very hard work—but it's high time we quit yearning for the past and start figuring out how to preserve the American Dream. I believe the following five things will need to change.

  1. Individuals must work to become and stay employable. Simply put, you must start upgrading your skills today so you can excel at tasks that smart machines won't be able to do well. Those skills involve thinking critically and creatively, diagnosing and solving non-routine problems, and rendering customized personal services that involve emotions to other human beings.

    The jobs of the future will require a fundamental change in the way most of us operate. We tend to be driven by ego and ruled by our emotions. We have to be able to quiet our ego and stop being emotionally defensive so we can conduct experiments like a scientist, think critically, and learn how to effectively collaborate with others and really reflectively listen. This is where the notion of humility comes in.

  2. Parents must stop rewarding the wrong behaviors. It can be very tempting to parent your kids the way you were parented. But now that the world has changed, you need to be very conscious of the messages you are sending. Stop pushing for straight As, encouraging competitiveness and teaching kids they must always have the answers. Instead, role-model a love of learning and data-driven thinking, teach kids how to think critically, how to manage their emotions, how to iteratively learn by trial and error, and how not to be afraid of making mistakes so long as they learn from them. And teach them how to work in teams, rather than going it alone.

    Use the Internet to expose them to new places, to the mystery of science, to making stuff, and to different ways of learning so they can be comfortable figuring out how to proceed in new situations. Teach them to be curious, to learn something new every day, to read every day, to have the courage to try when failure is a possibility. All of these things require that you role-model them; don't just preach them.

  3. Schools must break away from the Industrial Revolution model and educate for the new definition of “smart.” To thrive in the future, employees will need to be willing to make mistakes. Yet our educational system discourages mistakes simply by forcing students to get the answers right in order to get the highest grades. (This also drives competition over cooperation, which is antithetical to the needs of tomorrow's workplace.)

    There are many institutional, political, economic and personal reasons why many of our public schools are stuck in the Industrial Revolution model of educating. They will have to change because they are vital to the creation of opportunity for every child in our society. That is what our country has stood for from its founding. We can't lose that. 
    It will take leadership, more funding for public schools, and a coalition of passionate, concerned politicians, school leaders, teachers and parents to drive the needed change—to transform our public education system to prepare students for the future. Education transformation needs to happen now because technology is advancing very fast. Some schools are doing this today. Every school needs to be doing it.
     
  4. Businesses must transform their cultures. What do organizations need to do differently in terms of culture and leadership? Most will need to make four big transformations:
    • Installing smart technology in every part of their business and training their employees to use it effectively;
    • Creating a humanistic, people-centric work environment (culture and processes) based on three psychological principles: positivity, self-determination theory and psychological safety. This will enable the highest levels of human cognitive and emotional performance in concert with technology.
    • Transforming leaders and managers from directing and commanding people into enablers of human excellence. You can't command and control or direct humans to excel at the higher-order tasks that technology won't be able to do well.
    • Transforming employee training programs into human development programs focused on not only teaching specific job skills, but also teaching workers how to think; how to use data to make decisions; how to quiet their egos; how to be non-emotionally defensive; how to reflectively listen; how to relate and emotionally engage with others in ways that build positive regard and trust; and how to create and work effectively in teams.

  5. American culture must move away from our "survival-of-the-fittest, winner-takes-all" mentality. Currently, we probably have the most individualistic, social Darwinistic, me-me-me-focused culture in the world. We have to come together as a country and shift our national mindset back to when we had the most shared prosperity in our history—specifically, the era after World War II that lasted until the late 1970s.

    We need to understand that for our country to maintain its world position, we must find a way for all our citizens to have a realistic opportunity to build meaningful lives for themselves and their families. We must answer the question: What type of society do we want to be? We will need a new story—an American Dream 2.0. That will require leadership and an inclusive national conversation.

Without thoughtful and meaningful new stories that are humanity-centric, we run the risk of growing income inequality, lack of upward social mobility and opportunity, and, thus, social divisiveness and strife. Maybe we will need to govern ourselves in more regional ways. Maybe we will need to redefine the concept of work and success, taking the best learnings from history.

Clearly we have a lot of work to do. We have to give up our desire for a quick fix and be willing to do that work. Our future depends on it.

This will be especially tough for the United States, with its culture of extreme individualism and survival of the fittest. The current system that pits American vs. American will no longer work. We'll have to replace the “Big Me” with the “Big We” if we're to come together and deal with this new reality objectively. We can do this if we put our hearts and minds to work—we can create the next era of the American Dream. iBi

Ed Hess, Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden Graduate School of Business, and Katherine Ludwig are the authors of Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age. For more information, visit edhltd.com or katherineludwig.com.

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