Three metaphors


The First Metaphor: Brownian Motion

The year was 1827. As he looked through the eyepiece of his microscope, Robert Brown, a Scottish botanist, was intrigued by the random movement in water of the granules he found in the live pollen grains he was studying. His first thought was that these granules were analogues of sperm and capable of moving independently.

Subsequent experiments using particles from dead pollen and inanimate matter convinced him otherwise. Sixty-one years later Léon Gouy, a French experimentalist, concluded that the movement was caused by random impacts with the molecules of the water itself. The phenomenon came to be known as Brownian motion or Brownian movement.

The styrofoam “pollen particle” in this YouTube video is a metaphor for how we’re being buffeted by the rest of the world. Unlike the pollen, we have the wherewithal to respond to that buffeting. It’s called information, deep analysis and risk management. Our motivation should be the quality and ingenuity of the countries that are now our competitors, because that’s where the buffeting is originating. And it’s given rise to two other sources of buffeting: the attitudes and practices of our employers.

The Second Metaphor: A Fable

A farmer had fallen on hard times. Weakening markets for what he grew compounded by crop failures had forced him to search for ways to save money. On this particular day, he hit on the idea of reducing the ration of oats he fed his horse. He reasoned that if he cut back on that ration a little at a time each day, his horse wouldn’t notice. So he began his grand experiment. The results were encouraging. The horse ate less and less but still managed to pull the farmer’s wagon. The last day of the experiment dawned like the days before it, with one difference: on that day, the horse consumed no oats. And as the farmer hitched it to his wagon, his horse collapsed and died.

Employers have found a way to emulate that farmer by “hiring” students as interns at no salary, and experienced workers on fixed term contracts without benefits. Whatever bill of goods they’re selling to both groups—and let’s not forget that some are our children and friends—is succeeding because at this moment, employers have them, and some of us, over a barrel. If you feel compelled to accept such a one-sided relationship, please consider the following:

Rent, tuition, car payments, food, clothing, medical bills, transportation, heating—to name but a few—don’t go away just because someone got the better of someone else in a lop-sided, winner-takes-all negotiation.

Looking back over 1900 meetings with people who lost their job and an income 10 minutes before I walked into the room, I see a cull of employees 45 years of age and older. One such company boasted that none of the employees on its payroll was older than 55. Of those, fewer than 19 (that’s 1%) were in a position to retire comfortably, if at all. The rest faced the prospect of competing for work against younger, cheaper and better-educated, if less experienced, candidates.

Not accepting payment for services rendered is tantamount to paying an employer to hire you. The money they don’t spend on you they’ll almost certainly spend on something or someone else.

Length of service used to be a measure of the quality of an employee and of how much the employee had contributed. We’re seeing the last of people with 30 years service. Soon, there won’t be any left, and that measure won’t matter. Six months exposure to the work habits of an employee may be better than none, but it doesn’t lend itself to a detailed reference.

The Third Metaphor: Building a Foundation on Shifting Ground

No builder may erect a building until they’ve been granted a construction permit. One of the prerequisites is that they demonstrate that the soil under the building will support it. The logic is so self-evident that few people question it. The fact that it works doesn’t hurt either.

Much of what today’s young people believe is owing to them comes from the afterglow following the end of World War II. It’s a lot like the cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang. North America was first off the mark when it came to catering to pent up consumer demand because its factories escaped the war unscathed and the conversion to a peacetime economy took virtually no time at all. But the rest of the world recovered and North America, for all of its creative genius and energy, discovered it had competitors. It still does, and there are more of them. That’s where much of the buffeting I referred to in the First Metaphor is coming from.

The current generation and the one before it still believe that the old rules of career foundation building apply because that’s what many of their parents believed. The stability rules still apply. How to achieve that stability is different now because the ground under which those foundations are being built is changing. Call it by whatever name you will, building career and lifestyle foundations is more dependent on a deep understanding of what those foundations will rest on than it has ever been and it will be that way for the foreseeable future.

The Moral of the Story

The French poet Paul Valéry said, “The future isn’t what it used to be.” Yogi Berra is supposed to have said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” And then there’s Gerald Ford’s, “Things are more like they are now than they ever have been.”

No matter how you slice it, the future is just going to keep coming at us. We can’t stop it, but we can prepare to make the best of it. And that’s why PDD is here.

PS: Just when you thought all your ducks were in a row, Joshua Cooper Ramo wrote Globalism Goes Backward in the latest FORTUNE. This is a must read.

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