Revenge of the drowning citizensThis year will go down in history books as the year when large voter blocs within advanced economies revolted against globalization. For about 20 years, I have suggested that globalization is like a tide of potentially tsunami-sized proportions reeking havoc as well as creating opportunities. I have regularly argued that we cannot stop this tide of history. It is up to each of us to learn how to swim, if not surf, at the peril of drowning in this global change.
But what I naively underestimated was the reaction of the drowning masses, as exhibited in the UK’s Brexit decision and American support for both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. There are also many disparate (and desperate) similar movements around the world. But what they all seem to have in common is anxiety about a less certain future and anger at an intolerable status quo.
Among the common culprits for these sentiments is the Internet. The world has become both eagerly and involuntarily networked. Increasingly, we are instantly aware of news and conditions around the world. Everyone knows how everyone else lives.
But this plethora of information drives people into choosing their preferred information channels. While one would hope people would try to sample a variety of news sources, each inherently carrying its own agenda, most people don’t have the time nor inclination to do so.
Rather, people naturally tend to stick to information sources that pander to their outlooks and prejudices. Furthermore, even responsible news providers find themselves under incredible time pressure and competition to get the news out, often at the risk of moving faster and shallower rather than slower and deeper. As a result, politicians and other opinion leaders cynically use these short news cycles consisting of sound byte-sized reports to build and sustain power bases.
One of the most common complaints we hear about is free trade. Past and proposed free trade deals, inevitably controversial, are increasingly viewed as evil. Today, the cry is for fair trade rather than free trade, suggesting trade deal negotiators have consistently been negotiating for multinational corporations while shafting working and middle-class citizens.
There is more than a little truth to such allegations. At the same time, there is begrudging acknowledgement that these deals have created the rise of middle classes in so-called developing economies, while ignoring economists’ findings that international trade is an overall economic good for most parties.
So it comes down to “Britain first,” “America first” and “[Your Country here] first.” Few people readily label their opinions as being mercantilist or protectionist. But when pushed, many people reluctantly accept they are advocating such, rationalizing reactive measures as needed for self-protection.
In some ways this thinking is not new. There is just a greater urgency and broader appeal. In various developed markets, millions and millions of voters are scared and angry. They recognize that wealth distribution is radically out of order. They see unwelcome changes in their societies, such as the acceptance of new behaviors, confusion from new technology, increasing visibility of people who do not resemble themselves, etc.
Governments have largely failed to fully address the needs of people drowning in change. There has been inadequate new skills training available except for the minority who can afford college. Traditional trades and crafts are rapidly becoming obsolete. Only a few countries offer some form of temporary welfare where workers can protect their families’ needs while acquiring new skills.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was an HR manager in a California manufacturing plant, I could see the change coming. Educated immigrant blue-collar workers were taking their first steps into America while our plant had too many native-born workers with high school diplomas who never really learned how to learn. I saw an economic and political time bomb being set. Now we are experiencing the explosions.
We are quite right to blame many people in government and the private sector for this situation. But there are no quick solutions — no matter what any politician or demigod may tell us. Governments need to offer more retraining. Families need to better focus their children on how to think creatively.
Individuals need to try to better understand the world beyond their favored, limited news sources to better anticipate and prepare for our rapidly changing future. What clearly is a mistake is placing one’s hopes and fortunes in those people who offer to mysteriously turn back the clock. Sorry, that is not going to happen. Time moves in just one direction.
Many people have good cause to be frustrated and angry about where we are. But the base emotion that is rapidly spreading is fear. Too many of the world’s ills are based on fear, including racism, xenophobia, terror and war — just to name a few. As citizens, we need to work together to develop long-term solutions and not to expect quick fixes. Real change is incremental, requiring hard work and patience.
Too often, well-meaning people have banded behind charismatic leaders on the left or the right, only to deeply regret their choices years later.
Today, more than ever, such temptations are great. The open question is whether enough people can rise above their emotions and think clearly about the long-term future, when change is happening at Internet speed.
*The author is a long-term resident of Korea and author of two books on doing business, including “Doing Business in Korea: An Expanded Guide.”