Fools Rush In

Posted: July 1, 2014 in Culture, Economics, Education, Literacy
Tags: ,

Several highly publicized inventories of OECD Skills Outlook 2013 hit the media last fall and then promptly fell off the radar. They stayed on my radar, waiting for the propitious time to sort my thinking and develop a blog post. (I’m always late to the party.) The full report is 466 pp., including blank pages, extensive front- and back-matter, and a writing style that positively discourages reading except to pluck quotes or statistics, as I do below. Such reports (e.g., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also released in Fall 2013, which I also blogged about here) take considerable effort to compile, but they always leave me wondering whether any of them are actionable or worth going to such lengths to assess, compile, and report. Even the executive summaries expend more effort saying what the reports are rather than offering a cogent conclusion and/or recommendation. This style may well be a requirement of advanced bureaucracy.

Skills assessed by the OECD Skills Outlook are described here:

The Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), was designed to provide insights into the availability of some of these key skills in society and how they are used at work and at home. The first survey of its kind, it directly measures proficiency in several information-processing skills — namely literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments.

Information-processing skills are clearly in demand in First World economies, though more and more functions are being automated, leading to a deskilling trend since 2000. Whether such skills are in demand in Second and Third World economies is an open question, as manual labor is still the backbone of such societies, but labor markets and societies change continuously, so demands also change. A sizable gulf exists between different types of labor, and the addition of the home environment rightly or wrongly presumes that the way we all live now is or should be computer- and technology-driven. Thus, interaction with governmental and business entities now takes place online and and requires modern accoutrements, namely, a computer, an Internet connection, and an online presence, none of which existed only 30 years ago (and may no longer exist in 30 years). So much for our refusal to be mere numbers in some grand, demographics database driven by Big Data and monitored by Big Brother.

The PIAAC Survey takes as implicit that information-processing skills now utilized (presumably by white collar individuals, who are being gradually pushed into blue collar situations, e.g., college-educated baristas) will be mostly the same as those in the future, which is an assumption I don’t especially share. Further, the mad rush toward ever-increasing efficiency, productivity, and growth misses the point of wisdom gained from a less-wired existence, such as the value of slowness.

How the U.S. stacks up against other advanced economies is the subject of hand-wringing in this summary of the PIAAC Survey, which contains graphs and stats I purposely omit. Whether by design (subtle nod to some grand conspiracy) or simply the result of shifting values, the U.S. has lost considerable ground when measured against educational standards and achievements abroad, leading to an influx into the U.S. of foreign high-tech workers to fill positions left vacant by, well, vacant U.S. citizens. Why fools rush in to board our sinking ship is a good question, but I guess the rest of the world isn’t any too insulated from American follies, so why not?

If one deals with intelligence as pure abstraction (as shown in the comic below), there should be no worry that skills and understanding are diminishing among educated Americans, or as I sometimes argue, that Americans develop narrow functional skills and expertise minus the ability to form a contextualized, nuanced understanding of modern dilemmas or even a orientating philosophy beyond making money.

This is especially egregious among marketers, press agents, politicians, media pundits, and other would-be shapers of public opinion who apparently believe that influencing manipulating perception is the same as creating a new reality. Arguments that assert perception is reality I dismiss out of hand.

So what response is demanded by the PIAAC Survey? I lack confidence to assert that I know better than the next, but my suspicion is that deepening reliance on information processing and hollowing out the minds of Americans (by overspecialization or underdevelopment) do not represent very useful antidotes to waves of disruption due to break across the land in the foreseeable future. Our upward trajectory is about to stall and fall, and the needs of society that emerge quickly thereafter will be of a fundamentally different sort from those we now have. Products of our sordid media and educational environments are wholly unprepared to deal with them.

  1. Clem says:

    Nice ref to Brian’s latest offering at Wingedelm. And if the whole world were content to take a more measured approach to life then we might be far better off. I’m not persuaded the whole world is headed in such a direction.

    I agree there are quite a few reports and summaries and other publications from BIG groups – all with agendas of one sort or the other. There are usually a few chewy nuggets in these (if you have the patients to find them), but I have to agree they seem to come up short on meaty conclusions. And I haven’t written anything of the sort – its easier to sit back and hurl stones at those who do. But this latter is my present point. If we are so smart, why don’t we write up such a report?? Well – could it be its bloody difficult? True, no international group with the strings to a purse of gold has knocked on my door asking for such a report… so I just keep piling up a stock of stones and toss ’em as I see fit.

    As I’ve expressed here earlier I’ve not subscribed to the same level of doom and gloom. I might agree our upward trajectory is not sustainable. I’d be more likely to predict our oncoming trajectory to resemble an asymptotic approach to some limit, or if worse then we could reach some maximum and then find ourselves retreating from the max… indeed in some instances you can make a case we’re already retreating from some highpoints. But precipitous fall? Nose dive into oblivion? Just can’t get there.

    You said in closing:
    “and the needs of society that emerge quickly thereafter will be of a fundamentally different sort from those we now have”

    I agree with this. And I’ll also go so far as to accept that there will be very many of our young who will not be prepared – at a moment’s notice. But if there are real and substantive challenges to survival, there will also be those prepared to rise to the challenges. There will be winners among the losers. Eventually the winners will write the history of the time. Far on the other side of any calamity there will be readers of said history who will not have lived through the ‘real and substantive challenges’ and will merely have the word of the winners to go on. Whether in their own time they will choose to learn, to prepare, and if necessary rise to their own challenges – we can’t know for sure. But I’m guessing at least some will. They will win, and the cycle will keep repeating.

    So, it sucks to be a loser. But if you consider that you get to define happiness for yourself then you should be able to find a balance where you can be happy, win, lose, or draw.

    • Brutus says:

      Why not write up an honest report with actual conclusions and recommendations? It is done all the time in the field of science (and sometimes in journalism), but once political spin is added, the conclusions are channeled toward business-friendly and politically expedient fantasy.

      As to winners and losers, we can continue to disagree about just how dire our situation will inevitably become, but I don’t see any winners emerging from the fray and perhaps no survivors, either. I just added to my blogroll Health by Dr. House, which has a useful summary of the factors lined up against human survival. Many are known but waved away by techno-optimists, others are sneaking up on us. What I expect will be the final straw amounts to booby-traps we set for ourselves in the form of 400+ nuclear plants, which all require continuous supply of personnel, funds, and energy to avoid meltdown. An honest evaluation doesn’t lead to a happy conclusion.

      • Clem says:

        We’re not too far apart on this topic of reports… I’d love to see honesty and sincerity given more respect and much more application. It frequently comes back to where the gold is coming from. And it pains me to sound so cynical. Where I get even more despondent is when I come across things where the authors have gone to pains to avoid bias and to produce something of merit but still fall into old traps or muddled thinking. This cloud needs more silver. Above I allude to most reports having a few chewy nuggets. So long as I can learn something (and as I have quite a bit to learn – this is often a possibility) I figure the report has some value.

        I expect you’re right – our respective measurements of direness aren’t likely to line up overnight. And by being disagreeable I don’t want to imply that your measures are without merit. They certainly are. To me all the doom and gloom just provides the motivated among us an entry point to do something to make matters better. If this were Eden it would be wonderful, but I suspect someone would still find something to complain about. And it certainly isn’t Eden, so your list of factors lined up against human survival is a good thing. A list that one can take as a starting point. Now lets start bickering about priorities and which factors to start with.

        BTW, thanks for the mention of Dr House’s blog. It’s entertaining to see someone put a 22 year time limit on Homo sapiens with an 80% probability. I’m wondering where the window is to place bets.

  2. When you permanently exclude 20-25% of people under 25 from the workforce (as we are doing now), you’re building a society that’s no longer focused on the traditional concept of employment. If these so-called experts were being honest about what’s really happening in the industrialized world, they would be writing survival manuals – and teaching people how to survive without formal employment.

    • Clem says:

      Low labor market participation by our young folk is a serious issue. And I will also stipulate that underemployment is nearly as serious (re Brutus’ line: college-educated baristas…). And if I’m inclined to author invitations to a pity party I could fashion a list that points at do-nothing politicians who spend more time imagining their next sound bite than dreaming up a way to find some common ground… to finance folk who scheme new ways to rip off their fellow man… to the neighborhood yokel who will cut you off in traffic and then salute you with the longest finger on his hand. There are plenty of ugly things around us – and a great many of them the result of bad human behavior. If you only want to see the cloud, you’ll be miserable.

      But I want to quibble with things. For instance – you say “permanently exclude”. This forecasts an absolute. I can’t come up with any historical precedent – do you have one to offer? The issue is serious enough without the word ‘permanently’. As for a traditional concept of employment – what exactly does that look like? I grew up in an America where labor force participation by women was VERY small. I’m not saying women didn’t work – they worked hard… but most worked in the home and as part of a family living on one wage. That hasn’t been a reality for quite some time (40+ years?) – but it did happen for a while.

      I do very much like your closing thought though – teaching survival skills to those without formal employment. And one survival skill I’d like to place on the syllabus – how to hunt for the silver lining.

  3. Brian says:

    Thanks for the nod, never been “pinged” before, kind of nice (thanks Brutus). I appreciate your even approach to this topic. And it may be that most of my reading material puts me more in the doom and gloom camp. And no doubt some of us cherry pick the information that confirms our own bias (to borrow from Chris’s blog). But as a layperson it seems to me that more and more the scientists are lining up to say that humanity and much of the life is in real peril from climate change. Add to that our extraction of all the low hanging fruit in mineral resources and fossil fuels and I find little to be optimistic. And I’m a naturally sunny kind of guy.

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