In an op-ed early this month in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, the author of The World Is Flat, sees the biggest threat to America is Americans themselves, particularly you and me, who are apparently disgruntled and disillusioned, because we have failed to achieve the American dream. This dream is predicated on “doing better” than our parents.
Only we can ensure that the American dream — the core promise we’ve made to ourselves that each generation will do better than its parents — is not fulfilled, because we fail to adapt in this age of rapidly accelerating changes in technology, markets, climates, the workplace and education. — Thomas Friedman
Friedman doesn’t care to explain what does “do better” is supposed to mean. But I assume that the children must surpass their parents in economic terms. If your parents are dishwashers, you achieve the American dream by becoming an engineer. If your parents are engineers, you become a boss. But according to Friedman, achieving this dream is more difficult now because the rise of information technology and global competition are demanding workers learn new skills. But not any new skills. They must be wanted by the labor market.
In today’s digital information age, “you have multiple changes in the nature of work within a generation,” McGowan says. This dramatically increases the need for lifelong learning. “The old model was that you learned once in order to work, and now we must work in order to learn continuously,” she contends. So we’re going from a model of “learn, work, retire” to a model of “learn, work, learn, work, learn, work.”
So, to do better than your parents in this epoch, he proposes that you work forever behind the veneer of “lifelong learning”. Like an infinite programming loop, this vile proposal envisions a continuous cycle of “learn, work, learn, work, learn, work” with no retirement, no exit condition. As someone who has worked for almost 8 years for a large tech company, this terrifying dystopian vision of the future gives me the shudders. We should not be forced to work until we die. So, the new American dream is to work forever with no retirement.
It is understood that you are forced to work because that is the only way to stay alive and achieve a good life. This doesn’t mean you necessarily like the job that you have. Work is a means to a good life. However, Friedman sees work as life itself. His proposal of “learn, work, learn, work, learn, work” is sadistic and it’s no different than treating you like Sisyphus, whose punishment is to push a boulder up a hill but only to have it roll back down when he reaches the top. The modern software engineer is already like Sisyphus. Every year there seems to be a new framework or programming language to master. Not everyone wants to be a tech worker, despite the job opportunities and good wages.
The American dream should be more than earning more money than your parents. Many young people still study humanities and social sciences and the arts because they want their life to be meaningful and not become a corporate slave or code monkey. Many join the US military not because of the monetary benefits, but because they want to do useful things. Friedman proposes endless meaningless work as a solution to our discontent, but bullshit work is what we are rebelling against.
It is not accurate to describe Friedman a corporate spokesperson. In ancient states ruled by a religious class, to appease the gods, to bring rain, for example, powerful priests of this class with their elaborate costumes would announce that a human sacrifice would be needed. In the 21st century America, Friedman assumes a powerful role in speaking for the ruling class and performs a similar ritual. First, his opinions are widely distributed. Through the New York Times, his op-eds are read by millions of Americans. Furthermore, his books are distributed across the globe. Second, he is dressed up with adornments like the Pulitzer Prizes given out by the ruling class. These accolades, the modern version of colorful peacock feathers and shiny metal objects, are to deceive us into believing that Friedman possesses a special power that we as mere mortal lack. He asks us to sacrifice retirement and sanity, so to keep the economy churning and sustain the illusion of the American dream.
Friedman and the neoliberal vision of the future is not an American dream, but an American nightmare. Like in an episode of Black Mirror, in this nightmare your memory of working is erased, so you can be retrained to work without feeling fatigue and despondent. You will work like you haven’t worked before. You would be working forever without realizing it.