Entrepreneurism and the politics of hope
I’m an older guy with younger kids so to some extent I live vicariously through my friends, many of whom have children who are now entering the work force and some of those children can’t find jobs. We’re not in a recession, the economy is expanding, new positions are supposedly being added every day, but the sons and daughters of my friends aren’t generally getting those jobs so they are staying in school or going back to school, joining the Peace Corps., whatever. Everyone is rattled by this. Kids don’t want to move home and parents don’t want to have them move home. Student debt continues to increase. Everyone wants to get on with the lives they thought they were promised -- the lives they’d signed up for and earned.
Everything changed. Well everything except our personal perspectives, I suppose, which is why we’re so surprised to be where we are today. And to a large extent something else that didn’t change was the perspective of those people we count on, or think we can count on, to keep us out of trouble as a society.
This came to mind over the weekend when I watched an interview with President Obama by Kara Swisher of Re/Code and formerly with the Wall Street Journal. Obama had come to Silicon Valley for this and that including meeting with some Stanford students and, of course, with Kara Swisher. He’s a very smooth guy. I’d like to interview him someday, but I’m afraid he hasn’t a clue, really, about how technology and society actually work together.
The part of the interview that stood out for me was when President Obama talked about how we all need to learn to code. The video’s embedded above though you have to get about 19 minutes in to reach the tech part. President Obama’s two daughters are into coding, maybe a bit late but still into it, he said, and so should be every other American below a certain age and maybe above that age, too.
It’s computer literacy all over again.
About 20 years ago, for those who remember, we were all very concerned about what was called computer literacy, which was supposed to mean learning how to code. This was shortly after Al Gore had torn from the grasp of Bob Taylor and Bob Kahn the label of having invented the Internet. Personal computers were being sold by the ton thanks to $400 rebates from Microsoft, and just as Gordon Moore and Bob Noyce could only imagine a home computer being used for recipe storage (and so Intel passed on inventing the PC) the policy wonks of the early 1990s thought we all ought to learn to write software because that’s what computers are for, right?.
It didn’t happen of course and thank God for that. Imagine a nation of 350 million hackers.
The Wisdom of Crowds rightly interpreted computer literacy’s concept of learning to code as learning to use a computer. It was simple as that. Along came the Internet and the World Wide Web and we were off on a decade-long burst of improved productivity thanks to the new box on all our desks. Apps got more useful and browsers appeared and, yes, we could build our own web sites but that wasn’t coding, it was just using a menu-based app and creating for awhile 20-something millionaires along with our MySpace pages.
If this time is different, it’s because we’re being scared, rather than enticed, into coding. Malia and Natasha are supposed to be doing this to fight the STEM worker shortage that doesn’t actually exist and to justify immigration reforms, some of which (unlimited H1-Bs) will only hurt our economy. Don’t forget those kids in Finland who learn math better than we do, somehow without continual standardized testing and those German kids, too, who beat our asses while studying for only half a day right up to High School. Let’s all learn to code!
It’s time to be afraid, we’re told. Be very afraid. Every policy these days seems to be based in some way on the politics of fear.
I saw an ad the other day for a local college. Their pitch was "over 95 percent of our students are able to find work within a year of graduation". A YEAR!!! I’m sure many of those graduates didn’t get the jobs they really wanted, either.
Here’s the problem. Smart kids can go to good schools, get a good education, go to college, get degrees and still unable to find work in their community or their chosen field. I have a friend who has two college educated kids who can’t find work. They have started a family retail business to help their kids make a living.
An alarming number of engineering graduates can’t find work. These students have taken all the important STEM classes society says are important. They have strong math and science skills… and they can’t find work.
We’ve been shipping millions of jobs offshore for years -- lots of manufacturing jobs and the engineering and technical jobs needed to support them. We can improve education and double the number of college graduates who have math, science, and engineering degrees -- and most of those will still be unable to find work. While education can be better, sure, the real problem is demand has dried-up.
US workers cost too much, we’re told. Benefit and entitlement costs per employee have gone through the roof. The biggest offender is of course health care. And what big industry is hiring the most people? Healthcare! What happens when the market and economy can no longer bear the cost of healthcare? That will be hit with serious cost cuts too.
Today if you want to steer your kids to a career with good employment -- it would be healthcare. However when they are middle aged they’ll probably have to find new work, too. As more hospitals and medical practices are combined and consolidated there will be an increasing focus on revenue generation. Obviously this is in direct conflict with the market’s need to reduce the cost of healthcare. Something’s gonna give.
The intrinsic problem here is parasites, but what in our present society constitutes a parasite? Tony Soprano -- one of my go-to entrepreneurial role models -- was a parasite in that his success required a healthy host and Tony knew it. You can only steal so much before the host is compromised or even killed. If Tony was going to steal or extort or otherwise illegally take money out of the economy, well he wanted that money to be backed by the full faith and credit of the US government -- by a healthy host. Same for the banking and mortgage crisis of 2008 where the bankers took more and more until the host they were sucking dry -- the American homeowner -- could no longer both pay and survive. Tony Soprano was smarter than the bankers.
As individuals -- and even as a society -- our greatest opportunity lies these days in entrepreneurism, in creating like my friends did a startup -- a family business. We need jobs and startups are where most of the new jobs come from. What used to be freedom from a big employer and a chance to follow your dream is now more of a safety net for the creative unemployed. It’s more important than ever.
And I’m far from the only one to realize this. My PBS project I mentioned a few days ago is Startup America, a TV series that began with my Not in Silicon Valley Startup Tour back in 2010. We’ve been following 32 tech startups for five years and will present some of their stories thanks to WNET, PBS, and Salesforce.com. A lot of these companies fail of course, yet still they are inspiring stories that teach great lessons and give me real hope for the future of our economy and our country. It’s the opposite of fear. It’s the politics of optimism and hope.