Clint Eastwood’s line hit me like a fist. Twenty three million (million!) unemployed people. That isn’t just a statistic. It’s families, moms, dads, young graduates hoping for a future, all either un- or under-employed. Objective numbers can put a human face to the data, and hit with a force that percentages can’t.
Why did I react that way? I was comparing that number to something real. There are 35 million people — men, women and children — in the total population of Canada.
As this was sinking in, it triggered a memory. I was in a barbershop that could have jumped straight out of the Art of Manliness website, with old-world charm, cigars for sale, and I think they even had the hot towels for shaving. While there, I struck up a conversation.
I was treated to a fascinating life story. Remember the “Boat People” that fled Vietnam after the war? He was one of them. While he was still a child, he found his way to Canada, with (I think) his parents, where he grew up and went to school. He studied technology, and worked for a major firm. When the Dot-Com crash came, our city was reeling; a lot of people were out of work. He was one of them. But, rather than sit around collecting a payout, printing resumes and hoping to be the guy that beats the odds, he did something else.
Sizing up the job market, the glut of labor and limited prospects in his field, he made a practical decision. He took ownership of his success and changed careers. He learned to cut hair, and he opened a shop. Rather than complain to the government, sulk, or pitch a fit, he took his bearings and charted a new course.
Guess what? He’s happy! Turns out, he likes cutting hair in his own shop more than working his old job. He’s good at it, too. What makes his story different from others is how he reacted to circumstance. He did not define himself by his training, and thus, restrict his options.
His story has been repeated countless times all over North America: Immigrant with big dreams works hard, makes something of himself, and becomes a successful business owner.
So, what accounts for the difference in behaviour between immigrants and the native-born? Why are locals looking for jobs while the newcomers are looking for business ventures? We live in the same country, are faced with similar situations and yet react so very differently to them.
Many success stories started out with nothing, and had neither the wealth nor contacts that you supposedly need to succeed. (Are you hearing this OWS?)
It must be a difference in attitudes and expectations. Immigrants find Free Market opportunities that didn’t even exist back home. We tell them “anyone who works hard can ‘make it’, it’s the American Dream.” And guess what? They take that promise seriously, work long hours, make sacrifices, and do exactly that!
How do we measure success? Is it really just income, possessions, lifestyle, job title, power or influence?
Remember the barber that worked for himself and preferred cutting hair? He almost certainly took a pay cut, yet, he’s happier now. Maybe we should figure out what we really mean by success before we exhaust ourselves chasing it.
Differences in defining success could be a partial explanation. But that alone won’t account for repeated examples of hard-working, risk-taking, entrepreneurial immigrants building successful businesses from coast to coast.
This looks like a cultural issue. What makes us blind to opportunity, risk-averse, dependent rather than independent; and choosing job security over uncertain self-employment? Why is success met with envy and suspicion? Why denigrate it with phrases like “1%”, “greedy”, “Corporate Fatcats” etc.?
Instead of (just) blaming the benevolent-government narrative for our dependency, let’s consider a major influence on our thinking – Education.
In our formative years, we spend nearly full-time hours in the classroom. Our minds are shaped with ideas and values. But what is school being used to accomplish? Is it treating education as a way to open the mind with a sense of wonder, and connecting ideas from different disciplines together with higher critical thinking? No, but it was once.
Now, school is basically workforce preparation. The further you progress, the more job-specific your training. But if nobody is hiring for your position, specialization can be a liability, not a strength.
What are the trade-offs? What are we leaving out to emphasize job skills? Are we taught to seek innovative solutions for problems, or canned answers? How about decision making, risk evaluation, or negotiation? Learning lessons from failure? Sales techniques or even basic accounting principles?
Sure, it’s hard to add this to the primary curriculum of recycling, organic gardening, “Timmy’s Gender-Confused Daddies”, and “Why Old White Guys are Bad” — there’s just so much to cover. But should we really be giving diplomas to students who can’t grasp compound interest?
How might life for any of those 23 Million have looked with some self-employment-focused training? What if they were taught to embrace and pursue the American Dream? If it “must” be wasted, might that Bailout money have been better spent on small-business start-up loans? What if the US business tax rate wasn’t the highest among G-7 nations?
Twenty-three million Americans? Way too many “left behind”; time to do more than “hope” for change.
Image courtesy of Robert Lawton