Full Thoughts On Prof. Michael Sandel’s Meritocracy Discourse: Part 2

In the first part of this essay I expressed my support for Prof. Sandel’s views with some qualifications on what I believe are the most important factors in the polarised societies many developed nations are now experiencing. Specifically my view is that this polarity is due to the inequality itself more so than distrust of those with credentials more highly valued by society or by ‘the market’ in our current form of extreme capitalism.

I also said that I felt somewhat disappointed that Prof. Sandel did not devote more pages to sharing his views on how societies can achieve greater solidarity or cohesion. I undertook to share my own views in this second part focusing on the global community at the macro level and on education and family at the micro.

Firstly I must admit that for some time I had planned to write on all three topics separately. In fact, “Investment Theme: Education revolution” is the only Investment Theme that I have failed to complete (that section has been ‘half-written’ since early 2020 – it took a back seat to my writing on COVID-19), and around the same time I wrote notes for another post with a running title of “On the Benefits of Full-time Home Parenting” and another with a running title “Quality Globalisation”. So these are issues on which I have long pondered and formed robust views. While in this essay I link these topics to show how they are inter-related and will be especially important in the Great Reset era, I will also ‘break out’ these sections and post them separately in additional posts to make them more accessible to readers who may be interested in those specific topics.

As I stated in “Morals and Merit: WEF Davos Agenda panel with Prof. Michael Sandel” I found Prof. Sandel’s emphasis on the dignity of work to be worthwhile but diminished somewhat by the rapid advancement of technological innovation which is changing many important linkages within society:

the changes that humanity has reached with the fourth industrial revolution is going to affect our relationship with work as artificial intelligence and automated equipment increasingly carries out necessary functions for societies. I discussed this in detail in “Theme 6: More Time For Personal Fulfillment” on my Investment Themes page.

This enormous change is and will continue to necessitate a major adjustment in society in how we contribute and what are our perceptions of those contributions. After reading Rutger Bregman’s “Utopia For Realists” I immediately became a supporter of the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI) and I believe it must be central to affording a dignified life for all.

I am a little concerned, however, that the attachment of those on the left of politics with the dignity of work meme may cause them to misunderstand these profound changes. Humanity does not need more work for work’s sake out of anxiety that people will not cope with the change. Nor does humanity need to work to justify and maintain political structures based upon them – I do believe in the value of collective representation of workers, but these organisations must meet the needs of society not the reverse. Societies need to embrace the concept of participation including personal reflection and development, as well as other altruistic activities. My experience is that this inflexibility creates a bias against and rejection of UBI by many on the left which I find disappointing as it could be an integral aspect of inclusion in a dignified society.

It is critical that the work that people conduct is worthwhile so that they feel that they are contributing to society, and it is important that income derived from work is fair relative to all other functions performed in society. At the same time, it is important that there is not a proliferation of low value or even pointless tasks – what Davic Graeber described as ‘Bullshit Jobs’ – as some warped view of a social contract between business and society arbitered by the political class who refuses to lead and thus hopes to retain, at least perceptions of, the status quo. 

In my Investment Theme No. 6: ‘More time for personal fulfillment’ I expanded on these views saying that I believed that we will soon embark on a staged decrease in standard work hours. Since writing that piece the COVID-19 pandemic heralding the Great Reset era has accelerated the trends that I discussed. 

Reduced working hours is an idea that has been around since at least the Great Depression, and it is attracting renewed attention with Bregman’s ‘utopian realism’ and perhaps that will increase in the Great Reset through the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. The debate has taken hold throughout Europe, and the Spanish Government has agreed to trial a four day, 32 hour work week without reduced pay. 

I want to be clear that nothing above suggests that huge swathes of employees are currently lazing off – or in Australian vernacular, ‘bludging’ – but I do believe that many doubt that they are adding real value in the tasks which occupy significant amounts of time and even effort. Much of that is due to redundancy as their tasks are not really necessary because they are a part of a process that has become the ends and not the means to an ends, or are duplicated elsewhere within large organisations.^

Another factor, and being a fan of the reality television show “Survivor”, and having gradually realised through life how much of the competitors’ behaviours mirror real life no matter how much they protest they do not behave as such ‘normally’, is that with a lot of human capital and capacity at their direction many ambitious and self-interested managers will direct staff tasks in a manner which advances their own career rather than necessarily adding value to the organisation (much like the questions that I raised in Part 1 of this essay about how much politicians and their staff any longer add value to nations if they have relinquished their role as leaders and decision-makers). Certainly performance indicators might encourage alignment with executive goals, but if those goals are short-term and aimed at superficial factors (with large financial incentives) then that will be the case cascading right down through the organisation. Moreover, if the entire system is built on self-interest and greed, from the political and business elite down, is it really any wonder that most tasks are performed within that framework rather than working towards a broader objective or even a ‘greater good’ bigger than one self?

If working hours for individuals were reduced I believe there would be a number of consequences: even after spare capacity of human capital is absorbed, i.e. unemployed and underemployed people are brought into the workforce, aggregate hours would be reduced, resources would be more critically aligned with organisational outcomes as value creation is prioritised (as the ultimate arbiter of management performance), worker productivity would thus increase, and employee satisfaction would increase benefiting society even before we consider the positive uses of that extra time for people and society. 

This transition would lead to a drift in perceptions of identity for many in society, with that I agree.

However, that is not as great a concern at a society level as many individual readers might infer, or even fear if they transfer their own anxieties, because it has been a folly and unhelpful to humanity to wrap too much of our identity in the role that we play in society from which we earn our income. That trend in itself is a consequence of credentialism. 

The truth is that our potential to contribute to humanity is infinite and the various ways in which we do that need to be more deeply respected and imbedded in our individual and collective identities. In fact, some of these other contributions to humanity are impeded when focus is disproportionately placed on the income-earning role. Hereon I discuss three important roles, being a contributive global citizen, being an educated and informed citizen, and parenting and connectedness within the ‘village’.

A Global Village Based On ‘Quality Globalisation’

Solidarity at the national level is preferable to having polarised societies, indeed, but the true challenges to a sustainable and thriving humanity depend on cohesion of the global community. That reality is increasingly understood in the battle against the climate crisis and it has been reinforced through the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially in our understanding that we all remain vulnerable while others do due to emergent variants.

A topic which I have long planned to write on is to introduce the concept of ‘Quality Globalisation’ as opposed to the quantity form that has prevailed up until now. This concept came to me over a year ago when watching Raghuram Rajan, former Governor of the Bank of India and before that Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund, on Bloomberg lamenting the pulling back from globalisation by businesses which he was concerned would accelerate in the pandemic. He felt that it was an expression of isolationism and therefore a mistake for the world.

Even though I am extremely pro globalisation in the sense that I desire a cohesive global humanity, I do not agree that ‘globalisation’ need be based only, or even mainly, on shared economic interests. In fact, I can see pitfalls to that conceptualisation – the Australian/Chinese trade tensions, is just one example.

‘Quality Globalisation’ must have its foundations at the human level, at a general level of respect and love for humanity.

The real overriding issue must always be what is good for the people, not what is good for the economy. I believe in free trade because generally it is good for people. However, I have a problem with laissez faire free trade where, even if economic data might suggest it is good for ‘the economy’, benefits mostly accrue to the wealthy owners of capital while some people are hurt by the trade, and while the poor in the low-income country, who should benefit most, only capture a small portion of benefits which permits a lifestyle only slightly above a subsistence existence thus remaining vulnerable to market dysfunction and/or natural phenomena.

Let’s take the textile industry as an example, where production was shifted offshore from developed nations to developing nations because production there was much cheaper. The owners of capital, the shareholders of large retailers, benefited by increased profits which flowed through in dividends and capital gains. The low-skilled workers lost and their continual feeling of being forgotten has been a hallmark of the emergence of ‘Trumpism’. So low-skilled workers lost a great deal while consumers, excluding those who were low-skilled factory workers, in net terms gained a little by clothing cost increases remaining subdued.

Bangladesh is one country that has developed a strong textile industry in recent decades as retailers sourced fabric and finished garments from low cost countries. Every once and while we learn of another tragedy in a textile factory which for a moment focuses attention on the reality that these cheap prices for clothing are obtained by paying poor people low wages and having them work frequently in unsafe conditions. 

The end result has been that the poor in Bangladesh did not gain very much for the loss suffered by the low-skilled factory workers in the developed nation, while the already wealthy gained significantly.

Moreover, if the industry exited the country to either an even lower cost country or back to a developed country (mostly through sophisticated automated industrial production which involves few low-skilled jobs), those jobs will dry up leaving the workers little better off than before. This has been witnessed in real-time through the pandemic where retailers cancelled orders with their Bangladeshi suppliers and many female workers resorted to prostitution to earn an income for their families.

Similar observations have been made in different countries across different industries with the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic proving that the model of industrial globalisation has not allowed  the poor in low-income nations and migrant workers to increase their economic resilience

What needs to happen for globalisation to be ‘worthwhile’ – or of sufficient ‘quality’ – to humanity is that the benefits of production in developing countries be spread to the most vulnerable, in the form of higher wages and better safety standards. This might involve higher costs to consumers, and it should involve less profits flowing to the wealthy owners of capital.

In the developed country, there needs to be greater social spending to spread across the whole of society the costs from the loss of the industry. This ultimately will take the form of a UBI, but before then may be in the form of reactive industry-specific payments to affected workers and programs to support reskilling.

If that occurs then it will definitely be a significant step towards ‘Quality Globalisation’.

There is another aspect, however, that needs to be addressed, and it relates to the quality of the goods produced.

In my post “Coming Soon: ‘Product Miles’ like Food Miles” I highlighted the sheer waste inherent within the move towards a throw away society where ‘westerners’ have become ‘addicted’ to a cycle of continually replacing low quality cheap goods.

Since writing that post the European Union has moved to introduce a border carbon adjustment tax as a pricing mechanism to reflect the environmental consequences of trade in that product, just as I had predicted in my earlier post, which will come into effect in 2023. 

This is only the start of this necessary adjustment and it is a critical step in the progress towards ‘Quality Globalisation’ where only quality goods with working lives inline with the amount of resources gone into producing and ultimately disposing of them will be economic to trade over significant distances and across national borders.

The concept of ‘Quality Globalisation’ goes even further, however; it encompasses a mindset as much as a trade policy regulatory framework for environmental sustainability. It is about bureaucracy and everyone in society identifying closely with the global community – a genuine ‘Global Village’. 

In reality, this is not a new concept as the great four-term US President Franklin D. Roosevelt spelled out the lessons of the period of his presidency in his Fourth Inauguration speech:

We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger. We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community. 

I have previously argued for the insertion of a Rooseveltian clause in the legal constitution and/or instruments of all nations, presumably as a requirement to sit under the auspices of the United Nations, which is essentially based on these luminous words of FDR. 

It would recognise and focus attention on the fact that to discharge an oath to address the concerns and/or interests of any subgroup of people – whether that subgroup is based on geography (national or regional), or common interests or beliefs – the most basic premise is that caring equally for all members of the human community is the best way to advance the interests of any and all subgroups of people.

The obvious question is this: given a long history of being manipulated into parochialism, including nationalism or religious beliefs, by powerful interests, how do we change the mindset of people so that they identify with a global humanity above these human-defined subgroups?

In “Racial Prejudice And Bias: A matter of degrees” I said that openness to the world is not dependent on the possession of a passport or any particular credentials, but on the possession of an open heart.

Furthermore, without an open heart a mind can never be truly open, because only by loving all people can we be open to the full potential of humanity.

Thus most of this work must be aimed at opening the heart of more in society to connection with human diversity.

Even with superficial thought two things become immediately apparent to me – there are very many ways that openness to other cultures can be cultivated (literally the only limit is one’s imagination), and it must start with children.

In “Racism and Political Correctness” I highlighted how Australia’s education system presently is falling short on teaching about diversity values in my experience, and that it is vital to engage radicalism in schools to decrease societal disturbance including from terrorism.

The ease with which we can communicate real-time around the world, proven in the pandemic, shows that this technology can be opened up to create personal connections for students around the world. Even language barriers are declining continually with translating technology developing rapidly. It should be possible right now, for instance, to co-teach classes across national borders which would allow for working groups of children to work with children in other nations and even across time zones. This is happening now in business, and there is no reason why it cannot happen in our education system.

This type of thinking to create genuine emotional intelligence surely is at least as critical to contemporary childhood and early adulthood educational and emotional development as any other cognitive skill.

A new anecdote on racism and prejudice is pertinent here. In “Racial Prejudice And Bias: A matter of degrees” some of the anecdotes were from a friend who moved to Australia in recent years to take up a high-level managerial role in the resources industry. Thankfully he was well prepared by conversations we have had on the truths about living in Australian society and working from the perspective of being from a minority culture. More recently he relayed that he had a new middle-aged woman commence work under him – his direct report recruited this person – and on her first day, after introducing himself to her, she objected directly to him about his name and asked “where are all the Johns and Jacks?” Seeking to be open-minded to her intentions, and trying to be courteous, he suggested that with a little time she would become comfortable with the different name. Trying to express empathy and relatability he also relayed how he had difficulty on his arrival with names that were unfamiliar to him, at which point another colleague abruptly and indignantly asked “oh yeah, which ones were those?”.

For a long time we have talked about a ‘Global Village’, and, although many of us know its existence to be not only true but vital to humanity’s existence, linked financial interests from global commerce and international travel by the relatively wealthy has not served to embed this reality in humanity’s broad consciousness. Barriers from the diversity of cultures and languages remain even though the technology now exists in much of the world to break these down. What is required is collective determination to do so.

I believe that the series “The Me You Can’t See” by Prince Harry and Oprah, available to stream on Apple TV, is a brilliant example of a ‘Global Village’ approach to addressing an issue of universal importance. Even the format of the final episode, group discussion over Zoom, now ubiquitous as a consequence of the pandemic, emphasises the shared global experience. Moreover, mental health is both an issue for the global community to address as well as an issue that will be improved by growing connectedness within that ‘Global Village’. This series should be a model for future programs.

If humanity came together in a project to embed the concept of the ‘Global Village’ in the consciousness of people across the globe with all of the passion and creativity that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic entailed, even with a small fraction of the money spent on addressing that crisis, the impact would be enormous and enduring. The result would be a genuine ‘Quality Globalisation’ where a cohesive humanity stood in solidarity ready to address the climate crisis that we already know will challenge us for the remainder of this century along with the other crises we are certain to confront.

We need to harness the benefits of our modern technology and communications to create that ‘Global Village’ mindset starting in schools and spreading everywhere throughout societies. Universities, which have long been at the vanguard of this mindset, will continue to be critical in this development but will need to step up their pace of adaptation to maintain their significance.

The Education Revolution

In “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the common good” Prof. Michael Sandel, with his experience over four decades as a Harvard University lecturer, provides significant detail on his observation of the growth in competition for positions at universities perceived as being for the elite. He also discusses the consequences of those changes on students and families, including the costs to their mental health as the pressure to succeed has increased, first in being accepted into the university, then in attaining good marks in a highly competitive environment, and finally in their career. Prof. Sandel highlights that increasingly over his tenure acceptance to an elite ‘school’ has been viewed as a pathway to an ‘elite’ career, and all of the trappings that go with it in a culture which places a high value on credentialism (i.e. the lifestyle of the ‘elite’), but that it comes at a significant cost even to those who ‘succeed’ through that system. 

Moreover, because there is a perception that so much is to be gained from that career pathway, most young people (and their families) vying for placement attempt to use whatever advantage they have to put themselves at an advantage in the selection process to those elite schools. Most of these advantages involve generational advantage, including wealth, and some even use those resources to cheat the tough selection process. 

There is also the impact of luck, starting with the fortune or misfortune to be born into a privileged or underprivileged home. Prof. Sandel suggests many ‘products’ (graduates) of the system do not nearly appreciate the role luck has played in their privileged position, thus leading them to insist that their success was a result entirely of their own doing in a true meritocratic system. As a consequence these people tend to believe that they earned, and thus deserved, their ‘elite’ lifestyle whilst others who did not succeed deserved their less favourable lifestyles.

Prof. Sandel proposes that a lottery should be held amongst those vying for placement at these elite schools as an acknowledgment that most applicants are capable of succeeding once they are accepted, negating the role that privilege has in giving varying levels of advantage to some over others, and perhaps most critically, to make it explicit that fortune was the greatest factor in acceptance to elite schools.

The greatest impact of such a lottery placement system over the medium to long term was considered to be the lessening in the role of credentialism in status which leads to polarisation within society because the role of ‘dumb luck’ has been made explicit.

I do consider that Prof. Sandel’s suggestion is both worthwhile and brave of him to raise, though the cynic in me leads me to wonder whether he would have done so if he was much closer to the start of his career than the end of it as many, having gained significant advantage from the contemporary situation, no doubt would like to see it perpetuated. Here I also need to admit that my perception is affected by living most of my life in a nation where the stratification of the status of the various universities is not nearly as embedded in the culture as it is in America. In Australia the ‘sandstone universities’ are the most prestigious, certainly, but the university attended is not (yet) nearly as determinant of career ‘success’ as in America, and is almost insignificant after having entered the workforce.

Still it is the nature of a wealthy society to highly prize the very best and scarcest of all things that are valued, whether it be jewels, well-positioned real estate, or fine wine. Within a society with great wealth, competition for highly prized and scarce resources can catapult market prices to rather disproportionate and, perhaps, irrational heights. Having developed a passion for wine after living in France I will use the wine market as a useful and instructive comparison. 

Rare old bottles of great wines do reach the highest prices at auction, but there is a great diversity of prices paid for wines at their release. That, too, is driven by scarcity, of what is known as terroir (the best sites to grow wine grapes) in the few regions that have a long history of producing exceptional wines, and of great years when weather conditions for growing and harvesting grapes were ideal. The wines from the most prestigious wineries, such as Château Cheval Blanc or Château Petrus, in the best years are very difficult to access and sell for as much as $3,000 a bottle even before they are actually bottled (most quality Bordeaux is sold ‘en primeur’ while still aging in barrels). In other words, elites pay a price equivalent to around $600 per glass for a wine that will not be at its best drinking for another 10 to 20 years.

Now I know that I will never have that experience of tasting one of these great wines – leaving aside the reality of the truism that ‘there are no great wines, just great bottles’ reflecting that after the passage of many years there can be great variability in the quality of the wine for very many reasons not least of them the randomness inherent with the cork closure – but that does not concern me greatly because I know that with widespread education in wine making, and readily-available wine critic reviews, I can purchase wines that are perhaps 98-99% as good as these prestigious wines for less than 1% of their price. It is only for image and perception that someone would consider purchasing a bottle from a prestigious winery from a less favourable vintage (year), for say $2,000, when plenty of other better wine from less prestigious wineries is available for much, much less. The only people for whom purchasing these wines makes any sense, in my view, are the elites who do so to stay in good standing with the winery or merchants to maintain their status as preferred customers in great vintages.

For me, however, with my modest means (compared to elites, not the poorest 4 billion human beings), and with a mind for value, i.e. quality relative to price, I will always be happy knowing that I drink very well for the dollars I choose to divert from the resources of our family.

What does that have to do with higher education?

Groupthink in subgroupings and broader society is not always, or perhaps even often, rational and proportionate and people associate many values with brands and symbols which may or may not even be relevant. Billions of dollars are spent annually on advertising in an attempt to influence and speed up that process. A perception of scarcity can transform a prized commodity into a prestigious one. 

The American culture has ascribed a great many attributes to an education from an elite school. The scarcity of places relative to applicants has transformed acceptance to one of them into the equivalent of winning the lottery such has been the prestige associated with these institutions. 

I am unsure, however, how much of that prestige actually relates to the quality of education provided there. While I am certain that, just as in Prof. Sandel, there are very many fine professors, I truly doubt that, as in the wine market, the quality of the education received there is that much better than what is available elsewhere from other good but less prestigious institutions. 

I believe that, like many things in the Great Reset era, and as a consequence of measures to combat, and as a response to, the COVID-19 pandemic, changes that were already in train within the higher education sector have accelerated and will profoundly change the higher education sector throughout the world. Many of those changes will act to reverse the growing trend of elitism in higher education.

Social distancing and general biosecurity (infection) protocols and measures necessitated the acceleration of technological developments in teaching and learning, and especially proved that it can be done effectively remotely through electronic platforms. Of course this opens up the issues of the economy of scale, and allows the reaching of many more students even across intra- and international borders.

Electronic delivery of education allows elite professors to be more accessible to a more diverse range of students for lectures and special events, even if direct personal contact might be provided by early career academics and postgraduate students as has always been the case. This would effectively increase the supply of positions available in desirable institutions or courses. The main reason why this would not be adopted is essentially because those who are advantaged by the contemporary situation would protest against the perceived ‘devaluing’ of their credentials by the reduction in the scarcity value. I suspect that the leaders of these institutions have always understood the value of scarcity to maintaining the perception of prestige for these institutions.

(Of course, this is the same factor – the potential ‘devaluing’ or reduction in prestige of credentials – that lessens the likelihood of Prof. Sandel’s lottery idea being adopted.)

Thus, I imagine that this is one technological development that might not be harnessed as well as it could be to reverse the elitist trend in higher education as a stepping stone into elite lifestyles. There is another technological development, however, that when taken together with social developments that are accelerating in the Great Reset era, will have a profound impact. These social developments revolve around social justice, equality, diversity and inclusion.

As I discussed in “Quotas Are Necessary To Address Workplace Diversity“, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) holds much promise to address the role of unconscious bias in workplace diversity during recruiting. AI could be used to ‘scrub’ identity from job applications to reduce the incidence of bias in early selection processes, and may even be useful right through to the latter stages (through voice altering software and AI technology when interviewing and answering questions). In that essay I highlighted that one of the barriers to using this technology would be the ego of managers preventing them from letting go of some control, of the need to ‘see and hear’ applicants to gauge their suitability. What people are really doing is observing whether they can find commonalities in how the applicant appears, or in how they speak, or in what they say, which makes the powerful selector feel ‘comfortable’ with that other person. The potential for introduction of bias is clearly enormous.

One particularly strong area for potential connection, and thus bias, is around education and specifically institutions attended by interviewers and interviewees. The truth about the competition to enter elite schools, and the value in attending them even with their enormous course fees, is that it is about the potential for establishing vast networks amongst the elite of society more so than obtaining an elite education. 

If workplaces really want to remove biases, while a lottery system for entry to elite schools would work to expose the underlying truth of selection and thus lead to a realistic weighting of such credentials relative to others, in my view preventing the identification of institutions attended from the selection process would go much further towards eliminating biases in selection processes. While I accept that there is bound to be a difference in the standard of education obtained from one of these elite institutions compared with a lowly ranking one in a very large market, primarily by virtue of the privilege bestowed on the elite institutions with multi-generational donations and endowments, this can be adequately allowed for in the selection process by a categorical ranking system between universities (of no more than 3 levels, and in Australia no more than 2 and even that should be debated as to its necessity).

In truth there is absolutely no need to name a specific institution at any time in one’s career, and whenever it is done it is for ego or for the purpose of establishing cultural connection between some, which by definition, excludes and disadvantages others.

Of course, like Prof. Sandel’s lottery idea, widespread adoption of de-identification of educational institutions would be resisted very strongly by the elite, but I expect that this practice will increase as society becomes more committed to removing all forms of bias. 

It is simply incongruous with a bias-less society to have elite higher education institutions, and in this day and age of instantaneous electronic communication and rapid global travel intellects can share the same space and collaborate without being in the same physical space.

Most significantly, employers suggesting that they are in a never-ending competition for the best available ‘talent’, yet doing little about constructing the best teams – which have been shown to be the most diverse and inclusive – exposes the truth behind these ‘elite’ workplace cultures.

The flattening of the ‘prestige hierarchy’ amongst educational institutions and competition via online delivery platforms, however, is not the greatest challenge that all higher education institutions confront at present. The changing nature of work is an even greater challenge to the sector and one which to this point the more established institutions seem less willing or able to address. 

I suspect that we are on the verge of the most significant shake-up to education globally in over a century which I call the ‘Education Revolution’.

Funding education in the extreme capitalist system that has been adopted by much of the world has been a significant issue for most nations over recent decades. In developing nations the lack of resources and the need to be good debtors has stifled the delivery of education to their younger generations. Developed and more wealthy nations have progressively moved to a ‘user pays’ system which in reality has been students borrowing increasing sums to ‘invest’ in their education hoping that their choices pay off financially lest they remain economically vulnerable. Consequently, the increasing pool of student debt is a significant issue in very many developed nations.

In recent times, however, as technological innovation has progressed rapidly, possibly even accelerating, workforces are being transformed, and, I suggest, quicker than educational institutions have or want to evolve.

Teenagers and even pre-teens are now frequently told that they need to prepare for having many different jobs in their lifetime, as has been the trend for the past several decades, but they are also being told that they will need to be more flexible than earlier generations because of the rate of technological change. They are told that many of their future jobs currently do not exist and that they will even change career paths several times in their lives – some even suggest that many will have 4 or 5 different careers. To move into each new career will necessitate some degree of upskilling, and so it is generally agreed the young and future generations will be continually accessing educational resources throughout most of their lives, unlike previous generations who typically studied a single professional post-graduate course if anything.

It appears, however, that the educational system has not even begun to adapt to this future to meet the ongoing needs of their clients.

Our tertiary education system, for instance, is little different to what has been in place for the best part of a century, about the only differences being that in Australia it was made free for a while and now it is not, again. Three and four year undergraduate degrees and multi-year postgraduate qualifications has remained the standard format for tertiary educators. In recent times the universities have become very dependent on high fees being charged to large numbers of students coming from overseas, mainly developing countries, which has afforded the sector some degree of protection from needing to adapt to provide the education that clients from the developed world will require into the future.

Increasingly over the last half century young people have finished secondary school and then gone on to some form of tertiary learning in either a university or the vocational training system. I was recently surprised to learn from a Grattan Institute report that whereas in 1986 – my final year of secondary education – only 14% of males and 11% of females aged 25-34 had university qualifications, while now around 50% of high school graduates enroll in university courses. I remember being shown in Year 12 a graph of the sharp rise in the proportion of school leavers going on to university to that point in time and being made to feel concerned whether I would obtain a sufficiently high tertiary entrance score to gain entry to my chosen Government-funded course. The Grattan institute report suggested that with the advent of full fees, entry requirements are essentially trivial for most courses as virtually all applicants will be offered a place. While course fees will differ depending on the field and institution, a Commonwealth-sponsored place will cost around $9,000 per year to the student which is often deferred as a debt using the Higher Education Loan Plan.

The trend and numbers are similar throughout most developed nations, though the costs may vary significantly between countries.

What is clear already is that if school-leavers are going to have 4 or 5 careers in their lifetime, perhaps the first one lasting 7 years or less, it seems highly inefficient for society, and imprudent for the individual, to have spent half of that time gaining their first post-school qualification, all of that time accruing debt which may, or probably not, even be paid off by the time that career comes to an end. 

This is all the more relevant when one considers how rapidly the structures of professions are changing. In saying that I have in mind an Insight program (on SBS) from several years ago where the skills of 4th year law students close to graduating were pitted against AI software to carry out a task usually assigned to recent graduates. The software completed the task in 20 seconds while the law student was still working on it at the half hour mark! 

If the upskilling required to move to a new career is anything like the course undertaken for their first career – preferably taken on in a part-time capacity whilst working on the original career, because studying full-time again would be entirely prohibitive – well it is not difficult to see the next generation still on the hamster wheel having to sprint to stay still all the while taking on debt which for many will never be repaid.

It is obvious that tertiary education is going to need to undertake a major overhaul to provide the next generations with the skills that are needed in a shorter, more condensed time frame and at less cost relative to incomes. Universities may well struggle to adapt and the internationalisation of education online will open up enormous opportunities. I already know of English people living in Italy teaching English over the internet mostly to young Chinese who pay instantly by the minute so that the tutors are also paid into their accounts immediately once the session ends.

Tertiary education is an area that has remained little changed for a long time but I believe it will be unrecognisable in a few decades. And the current prestigious universities will need to adapt to find their niche in order to survive. Nonetheless, I suspect that even greater proportions of young people will access post-school, tertiary education into the future with a combination of broad social studies and highly focused, concise and intense technical programs.

I suspect that a growing element of education, from early childhood through into tertiary education, will be broad knowledge and skills that revolve around social intelligence and civic society – essentially the characters that humans will always value and which we will ‘always’ have an ‘edge’ over machines at. I noted that Prof. Sandel highlights the historic value of developing this knowledge in workplaces, with substantial reading facilities in most workplaces of the past and group breaks for mentorship and discussion. I suspect, however, with the reduction in hours spent in paid employment that role will never fully return to that environment. The education environment is an ideal place for this type of civic learning within a global village context which will be even more critical to leading quality lives in our future.

In a more equitable world, with a UBI in at least the developed nations, with people spending less of their time engaged in paid employment, with more engagement with society through self improvement via education and/or volunteering, there will also be a significant room for the expansion in the role of families and broader ‘village’ connections in our lives.

Investing in Family and Community Connection

Prof. Sandel makes almost no mention of the importance of family, which is an enormous pity as this is an obviously critical issue in social cohesion and feelings of attachment within society. I must declare upfront that I have strong views on this which may challenge the views of some readers as it is unlike much of what has been written in recent years on the subject. 

If a personal lens of perspective that has been built up over the last half century is applied then readers may reject my views immediately. However, that would be an error because, if the above is correct, and our sense of contribution and belonging within society deprioritises paid employment as I believe it will, then there is plenty of opportunity for the role of family to grow into that space. Nonetheless, some may allow deep guilt for the present or recent past to overshadow the discussion.

We cannot change the past, but if we are honest about it, we are privileged to have an opportunity to impact the future for the better.  

So I would ask the reader to pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and then as you begin to read look to the deeper meaning in my views rather than reacting without reflection. 

Australia’s recent Federal budget focused heavily on female issues as a political response to the pressure the Caucasian middle-aged male dominant conservative Government was under for failing to respond to the outpouring of emotion, especially from women, at high profile gendered violence and sexual harassment stories that were in the media over the preceding 6 months.

One of the main budgetary measures was a $1.7 Billion boost to childcare as well as very significant funding to build skills in industries dominated by women including aged care. A separate budget women’s statement said “Increasing women’s workforce participation is an economic and social imperative”.

Now I am well aware that this is getting into an area that has strong ties to the feminist movement, with very good reasons related to the history of misogyny and prejudice in the workplace, but I really believe we need to pause to ask whether this really is what is best for society or indeed what society wants.

Here I need to separate first the gender element. As a former world-renowned scientist and heterosexual male who retired at 34 years of age to devote myself to my family when our first child was born, I wholeheartedly support programs to achieve equality of opportunity, pay and rights for working women. Anyone even remotely familiar with my writing will know that is not in question. What I am really talking about here is whether it is best for society for parents of pre- and school-aged children to be encouraged to do more paid employment hours and thus spend more hours with the family apart including by outsourcing the raising of their children to childcare organisations.

Leaving aside whether the evidence really exists that parents want to work more hours in paid employment, research needs to be conducted into why it is that some (or many, as the case may be) wish to work more hours and whether they would, in an ideal world, spend fewer hours in paid employment if they felt they had a free or equal choice.

In other words, is there a real desire to work more hours by parents of children, and if there is, is that really what they want for themselves and their families?

If it is not really what they would prefer but it is a response to other issues, such as the long-running housing affordability crisis or growth in precarious employment conditions, then the real underlying issues that are affecting women and families are not being addressed by facilitating their working of more hours in paid employment.

I do not doubt that the issues here are deeply ingrained in our societies. I have developed an impression over the years through my reading and discussions with other parents that many women carry guilt that being part of a parenting couple they feel unable to devote more time and energy to children. The women carry the guilt because they apply the gender stereotype that it is mainly their fault as that is primarily their role.

I obviously do not agree with that, at all, not least because I consider myself as good a parent as any other father or mother. I do not believe that females are better equipped to be primary caregivers, and I take offence to any suggestion of that when I see it.

I wonder, however, whether many ‘traditional nuclear family’ mothers of young children work because they feel that there is no chance that the decisions over the division of labour with their husband will be based on pragmatism and fairness but instead will be done automatically along gender stereotypical lines.

Thus I wonder whether, if those decisions in all families were based on genuine pragmatism and fairness, because society had progressed to that point, whether families would really seek to increase the cumulative number of hours worked by parents.

The Australian Federal Government along with other Governments around the world say that a major reason for these reforms is to improve productivity in the economy. Many of these programs aim to ensure that more of the income from those extra hours of paid work are retained by the family instead of being lost through regressive taxation or reduced Government assistance, or in additional costs such as childcare.

Critically, these barely scratch the surface on what are the full costs of those extra working hours. They are simply dollar values on a financial balance sheet as if it is purely transactional. But the consideration includes intangibles which are likely more significant.

Decisions to outsource child raising tasks are not just about the affordability of childcare. The first decision is how much, if at all, we wish to outsource the raising of our children to others. Now some families are fortunate to be close with extended family who are pleased to take on that childminding role, and often those arrangements will provide a richer environment for the children because of the obviously deeper and ongoing emotional connection with their family carers. However, it can come at a cost especially to elderly grandparents who can feel used and experience a reduction in their perceptions of personal freedom in their latter years.

In my experience most parents who decide to place a higher priority on family than on career and earning income have stories of extremes in the other direction, and often share observations of large numbers of parents dropping children at opening hours and collecting them at closing from childcare.

At a party just a few years ago I met a couple who had a three year old girl who had been in daycare from the minimum age of 6 weeks. They were a typical ‘high-flying’, upwardly mobile couple who were a lot of fun in a social setting. The mother was animated in her discussions about childcare where she dropped her daughter at opening and collected her at closing time every weekday. The problem she was having was that her daughter was surprisingly energetic when collecting her which was a disappointment to the couple because they wanted to simply feed the little darling and put her to bed. The mother had an argument with the daycare staff saying that her daughter should not be allowed to sleep after lunch along with the other children. The staff said that their little girl was so tired after lunch and they felt bad for keeping her from sleeping while all of the other children did. The mother angrily told them it was only due to ‘peer pressure’ that she wanted to sleep and that she should not be allowed to sleep under any circumstances!

That is a true story from the mother directly. However, discussions with childcare workers over the years have confirmed for me that this situation is not uncommon, that working parents are so fatigued on coming home from work that, after collecting children from childcare, they simply wish to feed and bathe their little ones and put them straight to bed. If that is what occurs for 5 out of 7 days of the week then surely it is not a controversial statement but reality that for these children this is not what would be generally considered a rich or nourishing home life.

Now I am pleased that we live in a country where it is a personal choice on how we deal with very many issues. I would not like to live in a society where people were not free to make the choices that this couple was making, but that does not mean that I want to see Government policy encourage more of these behaviours from people. Moreover, I think that any empathetic human being would immediately realise that there are hidden costs in that situation which will emerge in the years ahead.

Our own family view is that there has never been a period of more rapid change for humanity, so active and thoughtful parenting has never been of greater value to the psychological, emotional and learning development of our children. The more quality time we parents give our children, the better equipped they will be to deal with challenges of their time and thus the more likely they are to lead impactful and satisfying lives.

In this day and age where most things are analysed on a spreadsheet, where a CEO of a supermarket chain explains discounting as “investing in price”, I will explain our own views as such:

Any time spent giving energy directly to family rather than earning income is an investment in families and especially the next generation, and we prefer to invest in our sons above anything else.

Many contemporary parents have responded to this trend by encouraging the participation of their children in many extracurricular activities, possibly as a subconscious need to prove that their children are not missing out on opportunities as a result of their own hectic lifestyles, but also as a benefit of the extra income as many of these activities are very expensive. It also serves as an introduction to the competitive, ‘winner takes all’ society which their parents are striving to succeed in.

Even here, though, I have come to question the benefits to the children of being so active in post-curricular activities and whether benefits are outweighed by costs. When I was a child in the 70s and early 80s I was a good sportsman, but like most Australian kids I played one sport per season – football (in my case rugby league) in Winter and cricket in Summer. Even though each year I played in the representative teams, at most I trained 3 times a week, but most often twice weekly. Critically, however, training times were always centred around family life and children’s schedules; in primary school that meant that our coach (Mr. Fry) would finish work early to train our team at 3pm immediately after school, and even in high school I never finished training later than 6 pm. It was understood that children needed to get home by dark, eat, enjoy a little family time and relaxation together, and then get to bed early for a good night’s sleep. 

I suggest, also, that many employers also recognised the contribution their employees were making in their communities by coaching children, and so leaving early for such reasons was respected not frowned upon.

In my experience with my own sons, even from the age of 9, team or group training times are decided around adult (work) schedules and rarely finished before 7 pm. That is the preference of most parents, not just the coaches. It was not before late primary school (at around 11 years of age) that our sons’ routine weeknight bedtime was pushed back from 7.30 to 8pm, so group sports have always presented a challenge to our children-centric family lifestyle. 

My observation of recent decades is that in most nations technology and culture has resulted in a continual encroachment of employee’s work life into their broader lives – or a ‘crowding out’ of their personal lives. It is not difficult to understand the benefits of this to employers who are benefitting from even more committed employees who define themselves more and more by that role, along with more and more work hours which are not paid for. In some ways I have a unique view of that in that I was a young professional at the edge of technological innovation as the internet first became ubiquitous in universities (I had a professional website on FW Crayfish Diseases in 1995, and later a blog on the RE house price bubble), then in workplaces, and then in homes.

I recall in those latter years of the previous century employees feeling the significant pressure that continual electronic communication brought with it. But then I retired from the workforce as a young man, and I have observed how these issues have progressed amongst friends and across broader society with some objectivity. Those pressures have continued to grow, but most now do not know or remember how it was before email and smartphones. The consequent culture change shows up in many forms in many workplaces.  

Several personal experiences are relevant here. Some years back I attended several Christmas parties where the Country lead for this multinational took considerable time to acknowledge partners present in the knowledge that time their employees spent away from their homes represented a sacrifice for families and personal relationships. She gave heartfelt thanks to the partners as representatives of the broader family. However, in recent years cost cutting and creeping culture change led to the Christmas party being only open to employees, in effect dropping the aspect of the party which acknowledged the broader, richer lives of employees and thanking employees with partners for those personal sacrifices. Instead the evening Christmas party became yet more time that employees spent away from families or partners to be seen to be ‘team players’ for their employer. I found this to be a significantly retrograde development. Of course if cost-cutting really is critical there are many inclusive ways of thanking staff and their partners or families.

When actions or behaviours that have been associated with a certain aspect of workplace culture are changed, then the culture has changed. 

The second experience relates to how increasing stress from modern workplaces had been continually consuming more of the energy of adults thereby encroaching on home life by leaving them, the leaders of their families, with less energy to devote to family. My wife’s workplace and/or work area has been through almost continual review for the past 5 years which has involved three major and prolonged structural reviews, two of which required her to reapply for her job. The most recent review, during a once in 100 year pandemic, was perhaps understandable. But what seems little appreciated is that the continual change in these organisations leaves their employees stressed and drained so that when genuine crises occur, as they will from time to time, they are already low on drawable reserves of resilience.

There has been little respite, also, because even annual leave on the first two occasions was impacted when my wife had to ring in from family holidays in Italy to find out whether she still had a job (the second of those occasions was during the filming of our House Hunters International episode). Because of the inherent anxiety involved in these processes, it effectively took much of the benefit of the family holiday away from her and it impacted the whole family. My dear wife, at the same time, has also had to battle the issues that I raised in “Racial Prejudice And Bias: A matter of degrees“. These issues have impacted my wife and our family deeply and in ways that I will never be able to discuss openly.%

All of these issues are inline with the continual ‘crowding out’ of employee’s personal lives by employers. However, now in the Great Reset era, portended by the COVID-19 pandemic, introspection by many has seen these dynamics questioned and challenged.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the start of the Great Reset era has brought about a reframing of work-life balance especially for families. During lockdowns, with professional parents mostly working from home, there was a noticeable increase in family togetherness while exercising or picnicking in parks and in general strolls around the neighbourhood as in the Italian passion, the passeggiata.

At the time I commented to my wife that, as long as our measures manage to protect most Australian families from experiencing personal loss, then I would not be surprised if this period were very fondly remembered by very many children as a period of genuine connection within their families; a time when they received the most attention ever from their parents.

In the fullness of time I believe it will be recognised as the catalyst for a ‘reset’ in family connection, a major aspect of the Great Reset.

The changes brought on by measures to combat COVID-19 were profound for the work-home life balance. The working from home phenomenon out of the COVID-19 pandemic reversed the work encroachment on personal and family life in a rather counter-intuitive manner, all the more remarkable when consideration is given to the recent trend of increasingly fluid and de-personalised workspaces through, for example, ‘hot desking’ (and even ‘hot officing’ pioneered by WeWork). On the one hand working from home might be seen as the ultimate in encroachment of work life into home life, but it has almost certainly worked in the opposite direction. Through working from home, and especially video conferencing, everybody has seen a glimpse into the lives of everybody else. At first, I suspect, many felt a little more vulnerable for this alone, but the collective experience has allowed everybody to experience that vulnerability together. The experience is best summed up by the glimpses into personal lives in zoom meetings by just seeing personal spaces in the background, and in having children or pets come into the background or into the foreground.

Overall it has been an overwhelmingly positive development as it has served as a continual reminder to everybody that all work colleagues – whether peers, subordinates or superiors – are people with lives that extend well beyond their roles as employees, which in many ways has been critical in feeling connected with others and with humanity through this very challenging period.

Observing commentary through Bloomberg’s various channels already suggests to me that employees are expressing changed values and goals which will become typical in the Great Reset era. Employees are pushing back on what has been this continual encroachment into their lives by employers and this will demand a significant culture change.

This culture change must be driven from top-level leadership, certainly, but mid to high level managers, responsible for perhaps 30 to 100 employees via direct reports, must be the focus for implementation. What will be required is a mindset that says that the employer understands that while an important source of belonging and contribution in society is gained from being actively engaged in worthwhile paid employment, it is only one facet of an individual’s identity and contribution to society. This will require acknowledgment by middle management that most workplaces are not actually involved in saving the world from catastrophe – after all we have already learned through the pandemic that those people are the nurses, supermarket staff and vaccine developers – even if that middle management may be trying to create some sort of sense of that to have a committed workforce that is ultimately being used to elevate their own careers.

There is no doubt, also, that business interests adversely affected by these disruptive changes from the COVID-19 pandemic are arguing that professional workers must be made to return to cities. It is curious that these city-based businesses somehow consider themselves more worthy of saving from disruption than the blacksmith, corner shop, or indeed the video cassette rental store. Whether they can convince their ‘corporate friends’ to force workers to once again sacrifice family time and relationships in the name of creating a vibrant city centre for commercial activity will be interesting to observe over the next while.

Personally I find it a difficult argument to make, and I suspect that through these experiences many parents have realised the benefits to them and their children, and thus the family unit, of far more engagement in the raising of their children with less outsourcing to child-minders. In fact, many may have begun to realise what our family has learned through our experiences that there are very many underappreciated benefits to having one full-time parent in the family, and to sacrificing income from working more hours in paid employment to ‘invest in family’.

Increasingly psychologists are referring to the concept of ‘psychological bandwidth’ meaning the capacity of individuals to deal with complex and/or multiple issues. It has obvious application in workplaces in assessing individual performance, but the reality is that nobody can know exactly how much ‘data’ is being processed by any individual because nobody can ever fully understand all of the issues that individuals are confronting in their work and personal lives. There are many issues that even that person is unaware of that is consuming their ‘bandwidth’, especially if they are someone with low self-awareness or emotional intelligence, or when there are issues that are not widely acknowledged in the workplace (such as issues around prejudice and bias).

The concept also is embedded in the way Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger explain their business and investing success, recognisable to those who intuitively understand the concept, when they say that they have maintained very relaxed work habits throughout their careers with plenty of time for reading and contemplation. They often joke that most would be surprised by how they work and many might even consider them ‘lazy’. Obviously this is an acknowledgment that it is human to have a limited ‘psychological bandwidth’. Successful and effective people know it is critical to not overload their ‘bandwidth’, either consciously or unconsciously. This is essentially the truth* underlying my post “Workplace Flexibility Success” that the smart aspect is the most important of the hard and smart work ethos, and that managers that rely on ‘presenteeism’ (or ‘bums on seats’) to judge their workers are admitting that they are poor managers. As Buffett and Munger continually stress, surprisingly few excellent ideas are necessary to make significant impacts. However, most people lack the self-confidence that they will come up with quality ideas, and, I suspect, fear that managers will be unreceptive and unable to recognise their merit when they are presented with them, so the majority engage themselves in the game of ‘presenteeism’ and attempting to appear busy churning out lots of data rather than searching for those ‘golden ideas’.

To understand that this concept relates to all of us, even the rare geniuses amongst humanity, look no further than this brilliant piece to learn of the mundane issues which occupied Machiavelli and about the court case that so occupied Michelangelo that he never held a chisel for four years!

Understanding this concept early in my life has been one of my great advantages, through my scientific career and in the ways that I run our family household as I describe below.

The use of the concept that I identify most with is in discussions of inequality where analysts highlight that underprivileged people are consuming so much of their ‘bandwidth’ for day to day survival that it is extremely challenging to make logical decisions that have the potential to improve their circumstances over the medium to long term. These researchers point out that this often results in privileged people looking down upon under-privileged people for making poor choices, adding to the concepts around credentialism that Prof. Sandel discussed and which I dealt with above.

I identify with this concept of ‘psychological bandwidth’ because of my upbringing. Instead of referring to it as ‘bandwidth’, however, I have always referred to the concept as one of ’emotional energy’.

I discussed this even in the earliest pages published here at MacroEdgo including my discussion on my ‘Investment History‘ page when discussing the decision to delay buying a home, and under several themes on my ‘Investment Themes‘ page where I made mention of the challenges my family and I confronted in my childhood (which I have now expanded upon most completely in “How Farmers Lose Their Perspective“).

In my concept I see that we all have a ‘bank’ of emotional energy that we draw on to carry out our day to day lives and to respond to the issues that we confront. Obviously in modern parlance it is directly related to our resilience in that this ‘bank’ of energy is what we draw on to be resilient and recover from adversity. If we are unfortunate to face prolonged stress in our lives and/or extreme trauma or a series of traumatic events then our ‘bank’ of emotional energy becomes depleted and we struggle to recover. In my case I had a breakdown when my ‘bank’ had been totally depleted and when I became overwhelmed by anxiety.

Families with close connections obviously have a collective ‘bank’ of emotional energy from all of the individuals in their family – that is where we draw from to support each other when things become difficult for one, some, or all of those in the group – essentially the strength of our ‘support network’. I learned all of this when I was a teenager, when my family’s collective ‘bank’ of emotional energy had been depleted by our fight to keep the farm, and I knew that I could not dip into that as I struggled with normal teenager development. I had to suppress my emotions and I sort to generate some of my own emotional energy for the family by becoming especially close to my father working with him to help make his dream come true. It came at great cost to me, emotionally, and ultimately the family fractured primarily as a matter of individual survival as the pressure was very prolonged and traumatic events occurred.

This is the main reason why I understood the importance of families not living under acute or chronic stress, and that was my primary objective in my earlier blogging activities on the Australian housing bubble – getting Australian families to stop and think before committing to prolonged economic vulnerability to own a home through extreme debt loads just because others are doing it.

My wife and I always, from our earliest family planning, intended that one of us would allow our careers to take a backseat in order to devote most of our energy to our family. As circumstances turned out, the only logical choice was for that to be me, and nobody is more pleased with the situation than me. Psychologically I started out in a challenging position, seeing as I had first to recover from a breakdown from being burned out trying to continue my career as a research scientist, but through a long process of introspection and healing, with and without professionals, I was able to fully recover.

I now see my most important function within our family, in the primary caregiver role, to be the backup energy source for everybody, the big ‘bank’ of emotional energy that is not burdened with many day to day stresses (from work, or school, or social issues) that can be tapped into to provide the support to whoever is struggling at the time, or even the whole family if there is a major issue we must confront together. I do not say that I never get down myself, because I do sometimes – e.g. I have found it an isolating experience to be a male full-time parent – but those moments where my emotional energy is run-down are rare these days. Most of my emotional energy goes to supporting my children, and especially my wife over recent years with those issues that I mentioned above. In truth, the stress that she has had to endure in recent years has been so great that I have feared that I would not be able to provide enough support for her, and there were times when I really feared for the consequences to her and our family. When I think of that I am afraid to even consider what would have been the implications if I was not able to support her to the degree I have over that time, especially if I was still stressed trying to maintain my career.

Having a full-time parent nowadays is considered by some to be an unaffordable ‘luxury’ for a family, but in reality very many Australian families could make the same decision if they were prepared to sacrifice income, and more specifically, the things that their income is spent on buying (e.g. by delaying buying a home and living more modestly). I cannot help but think it is an enormous advantage to emotionally supporting and raising well-grounded children, and to providing a happy and healthy family home life.

Much is made of the contemporary opportunities for two-income families in comparison to 50 years ago, but I actually see the situation as the opposite. Management of family and home in our time is so much more complicated than it was back then, and I have no doubt that the stress from that combined with the stress from two careers in a family home are a large part of the growing levels of anxiety within society and in our children. As just one example, staying on top of all school communication – the many letters from schools and forms to be completed in this increasingly litigious society, emails from teachers, yearly introductions and parent-teacher meetings, involvement in other school activities including volunteering in numerous ways – surely consumes multiples of the time and energy that they did decades earlier. The same goes for sporting activities and the myriad other extra-curricular activities.

It goes much further, however, in a world where increasingly Governments have shifted important functions onto individuals and families. The amount of time and energy taken to sort out insurances for health, house and contents, cars, lives, incomes, against trauma or other mishaps, and to review them periodically to ensure that insurers are not taking advantage of apathy, are enormous nowadays.

Then there is the largest administrative task of all – money management so that the resources of the family can provide for the hopes and aspirations of all in the family, including for a comfortable and secure retirement. This has been the trend with the shift from defined benefit to defined contribution retirement savings programs, and the consequent shifting of risk, thus responsibility, onto individual workers.

In addition to all of that for parents is the standard day to day roles of keeping everybody well fed with healthy food living in a healthy environment that is clean and stimulating. Here I must admit that my wife does need to do some housework as I am more interested in outdoor activities to maintain and improve the amenity of our home, but that is essentially the mirror opposite of the distribution of tasks in the ‘traditional’ nuclear family of the 1960s with the mum at home. 

Unlike the 1960’s, however, there are probably around 500% more gadgets and devices around our (significantly larger) houses and (smaller) yards that must be maintained by someone.

The truth for most modern two-income families is that childcare is only the beginning of the outsourcing of vital tasks that many or even most families engage in. Increasingly in the Great Reset I believe that families will question whether they are actually better off for the two incomes and will better analyse the pros and cons of each outsourced task. 

Families that are capable of making pragmatic decisions based on the broad range of relevant issues, not on outdated stereotypes of gender roles, are likely to reduce their combined hours worked in paid employment. I also believe that even primary or sole income earners will also decrease the amount of time spent in income producing work, if not necessarily by choice then by societal acceptance of reduced working hours with a UBI or other additional Government payments.

These changes will be enormously beneficial to creating healthy connections within families and throughout communities which will lead to more cohesive societies.

My wife and I will forever be proud that the decisions that we made allowed me to contribute to our community deeply. Through volunteering at our children’s primary school I can say in total honesty that I played a role in teaching every child in both of our sons’ year levels to read and to swim because nowadays no child is allowed in a school pool without adult volunteers, and those volunteers have been in increasingly short supply. Moreover I was able to help on excursions and in other fundraising activities.

Irrespective of whether a parent or not, all of these volunteering activities contribute to cohesive societies by creating deep connection and belonging.

Concluding Remarks

As a child in the 1970’s I was transfixed by “The Jetsons”, a cartoon television show of a futuristic nuclear family with two school-age children living in a raised city in the 2060’s. I think every child of my era could see the enormous benefits of robotic assistants to do all of the chores around the house and even dressing the family. No more cleaning our rooms! Just drop cloths wherever and the robots immediately dispatched them to washing! What’s not to love!

In his flying car the father, George, jetted off to work for 1 hour, twice a week. Originally made in the 1960’s, for relatability in that era, the mother, Jane, was a housewife who was actively engaged by her full-time parenting role and by consumerism along with several community-related volunteer roles. Even with this high degree of automation within their lives, the parents, and especially the ‘highly-strung’ George, is stressed by the demands of keeping all of the gadgetry working effectively. Sadly there seemed to be few robotic services to fix the domestic robots!

The writers of the show are often praised for their futuristic foresight. Reflecting back on the concept of the show, even now I can marvel at its interesting and continually relevant premise. I cannot deny that I still get excited at the idea of automation making redundant our involvement in all of those mundane but vital chores. I believe it is that same thrill that many who have bought any number of automated smart machines, like robotic vacuums and mops, or pool cleaners, have experienced.

Yet, when we transfer that to industrial or commercial environments, the degree to which many in society has tied their identity to what they do for paid employment creates a reluctance to have an open mind to the benefits of automation. Moreover, the idea that many, or even most, of us do not have a choice in this progress likely creates anxiety in many. I imagine that the idea of a two hour work week would scare many adults who watched the “The Jetsons” as a child, and while I agree that would be extreme even in the future I can foresee, it is a very great pity that our contemporary societies struggle to imagine a time when we spend much less of our time engaged by paid employment.

In “The Jetsons” the underlying premise is that humans are driven to automate as much as possible to maximise the amount of leisure time available to us, or at least maximise the amount of time that is entirely at the individual’s discretion as to what they do. Now that we are getting a glimpse of how that might look for us, given that the recent experience has been to increasingly move in the opposite direction, within cultures where it has become typical and even applauded to develop a ‘side hustle’, or even a few of them, the idea of having extra ‘down-time’ is to many ‘lazy’, and to some almost ‘amoral’. (Again, Prof. Sandel draws some linkages on the history of this attitude in “The Tyranny of Merit” as does Rutger Bregman in “Utopia For Realists”.)

(Note that in no way do trivialise the existence of poverty and the ‘working poor’ in developed nations, and it is one of the major reasons why I believe a UBI is necessary, in fact overdue.)

I believe that we all need to find that open-minded child in all of us that watched “The Jetsons” in wonder and remember how then we had little problem in keeping ourselves actively engaged in pass-times connecting with ourselves, through reading and multitudes of other activities, or connecting with our family, friends, neighbours and broader community through gameplay, sports or by helping with something important to others.

For me I think it is entirely a reasonable premise that society should seek to develop automation# to such a level that more of our time is at our discretion knowing that the goodness at the core of humanity will result in it leading to greater connection within societies and broader humanity, and thus creating that much needed social cohesion.

Much of the discourse on meritocracy, by myself, by Prof. Sandel, and by others, also revolves around identity and connection, from hiring managers seeking to identify with and connect with applicants they employ, at the same time introducing a myriad of biases, right through to identity and connections within families and community.

Importantly, a reduction in working hours for employees will never negate the need to eliminate biases as the foundation of capitalism will always be the market efficiently awarding the benefits for hard and smart work relatively. The active guidance and oversight of markets by democratic institutions is vital to ensure proportionality of those benefits, this being the aspect of the system which has faltered in recent decades in our extreme form of capitalism. The conditions of that work, however, will continue to evolve, as it always has, as technology and societal views evolve and adapt.

I accept that for humans ‘what we do’ has always been important in our identities, so much so that many family names are derived from societal roles of some distant relative. Over the last 50 years, however, as the contemporary extreme form of capitalism emerged, our identities became more and more bound up in what we do for paid employment. Perhaps that is in part a consequence of living in larger communities where smaller proportions of people in our communities interact with us in those roles, so people seek to indicate their status and means, thus identifying themselves superficially as ‘successful’, with clothing, vehicles and houses which often leads acquaintances to enquire as to what it is that they do ‘for a living’.

With the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, however, that increasing role in identity played by ‘what we do’ (for paid employment) is being confronted as roles are increasingly challenged by technological progress and/or entirely displaced or lost.

An abrupt change in ‘what we do’ in our society, through retrenchment or forced retirement, often leads to serious impact to individual identity. I understand this as well as anybody because it was an important factor in my breakdown. I also learned about the significant impacts on retired men in their 60’s and 70’s through my involvement with a men’s club where many described feelings of ‘loss’ and ‘irrelevance’ after retirement.

The typical full-time worker in a developed nation, under present conditions, is compelled to work for around 8hrs, 5 days a week. Even when those conditions are met, i.e. without any additional encroachment on home-life, and allowing for 8hrs of sleep each night, paid employment consumes half of the time spent awake for 5/7 of every week (excepting time on personal or other leave). Moreover, a significant amount of the remaining 8hrs of time spent awake, perhaps a quarter of it or more, is consumed in preparing for and travelling to and from work. In most developed nations workers expect to work in paid employment for around 50 years with the retirement age at 65+ years, and the retirement age has been retreating of late.

Given that full-time workers, even without additional encroachment of work-life into personal-life, devote so much of their ‘quality energy’ of their entire lives to the roles they play in paid employment, it is hardly surprising that they desire to be highly engaged in that work, and to be fairly rewarded for it (monetarily and in other forms of recognition), and to feel a sense of inclusion and ‘belonging’ from it in the workplace, such that the degree to which that occurs affects how they perceive themselves and how they perceive others perceive them, thus impacting on their ‘identity’.

Over recent decades, as paid employment has occupied increasingly more time and energy, workers’ identities became even more conflated with their roles as employees, and increasingly managers and organisations came to see their employees more narrowly as just workers rather than people with broader and richer lives within their communities. That trend was hastened and exacerbated by the encroachment of modern communication which made workers contactable 24/7.

Measures to contain the pandemic have reversed that trend, and in the Great Reset era people are reflecting on how things had been before COVID-19 and are now pondering whether they wish to permanently change their work-life balance or even turn it on its head be making a more significant change such as changing careers or quitting all together.

In many ways, Governments introducing structural reforms to facilitate people to work more hours in paid employment are addressing the issues of the previous era. 

The issues in the new era are about how we introduce better balance into lives so that people can lead richer and more satisfying lifestyles which will ultimately achieve greater cohesion and more compassionate societies with greater connection.

This is playing out in all sorts of ways which will require adaptation by businesses. For instance surveys show that while international travel is one of the most missed activities through the pandemic, it is all about personal travel and surveys suggest business travel will not come back the way it was before. This is yet another case of personal fulfillment and family activity and togetherness being prioritised above professional/work activity on several levels.

In Part 1 of this essay I highlighted that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic societies in developed nations were in a ‘funk’ with many feeling ‘rudderless’, meandering without direction.

In my “The Great Reset” essay published 30 March 2020 I said:

If this battle against COVID-19 proves nothings else it shows that all our fates on this beautiful planet are inextricably linked. The only sustainable way forward for humanity is united and time and effort spent moving in the other direction is an utter waste and dangerous to us all

In another post shortly afterwards I expanded on my views around the new era:

The Great Reset” provides us all with an opportunity to dream of a world that we want for ourselves and the people we love most, and ponder how we can realistically bring that to fruition, not instantaneously but with enduring commitment and innovation. Goodness knows humanity has proven to itself, once again, even still in the early stages of this pandemic, that human ingenuity and endeavour is without limits.

Then in July 2020 in “How Society Will Change If A COVID-19 Vaccine Is Elusive” I stated that the Great Reset era had commenced and it was irreversible, concluding that:

High quality, effective leadership will nurture it so that the best outcomes are realised to the benefit of humanity. Scoundrels will try to harness it to bend society to a more warped and less inclusive version. We all must show leadership and engage with the process to achieve the best outcome for ourselves and those we love, and those who succeed us. And we should all prepare to be flexible and supple in thought to make the best decisions that we can with the information that we have as we emerge from the shock of our altered existence and as our future comes into clearer focus.

The evidence is increasingly emerging that a new era did indeed dawn, and it will be marked by individuals asserting their preferences and acting upon them. While in nations ravaged by COVID-19 the significance of certain social distancing and infection control measures will stay forever etched in the neural synapses of many for the remainder of their lives, such as the 6 feet/1.5 metre gap to others, and general hygiene including the wearing of masks especially when even slightly unwell, the forced disconnection with extended family and society, and the extraordinary opportunity for reconnection within same-household family groups, has reminded all of the importance of that connection in feelings of belonging and satisfaction with life.

This, in and of itself, will create more cohesive societies that naturally seek to work towards the ‘common good’ with the potential to create a virtuous cycle of increasing solidarity and connection.

I believe that this virtuous cycle will expand and revolve around the following three critical, intertwined pillars: the importance of the ‘global village’ and humanitarianism, the changing roles of employment and education, and connection with community and family.

I have always had a deep and optimistic love for humanity, and that has never been stronger than it is today. I do believe that the ‘common good’ is making a revival, and I am certain that will please Prof. Sandel as much as it does me. It will still take, however, good people to stand up and be counted and lead, but from where I am sitting right now, here in the Great Reset era, there appear to be many prepared to do just that!


^I also wish to be clear that this does not necessarily relate to every sector as redundancy or over-capacity is necessarily built into some critical services in society to handle surge demand, which when it comes to nurses were stretched beyond limits during the pandemic, and other sectors have a long history of under-employment and exploitation, for instance academic teaching, unrelated to ’empire-building’ by middle managers.

%Giving credit where it is due, however, her employer has been very conscious of employee welfare and preferences through the pandemic, and for my wife, this extended period of working from home has been especially welcome and timely given the underlying issues remain largely unaddressed.

*I realise that I may be criticised for under referencing in my essays, but they are meant to be just that – essays – and not research pieces. In my background as a research scientist I tended to be extremely thorough with sourcing, often overly so (admittedly I was a collector of resources and back in those days nothing was more thrilling than receiving in the post a big hoard of reprints), so this is a liberating benefit of no longer being a professional. I do try to limit my assumptive statements to those which are reasonably self evident, but I recognise that those who wish to disagree will always maintain their blinkered- (blindered-) view and find fault no matter how well sourced my writing. Pragmatically, though, everybody now knows that just about anybody can track down at least one source these days maintaining virtually any position, for instance as whacky as 5G networks spreading coronavirus. I have also noted that the sources in my essays – through hyperlinks – are only very rarely accessed. While I recognise that experts in the various fields that I cover would source their research pieces and articles more thoroughly, and should, I consider that the level of sourcing I carry out for my mostly big-picture essays is entirely acceptable.

#This should not be interpreted that I have a laissez faire attitude to AI development and adoption as I agree that we must have very stringent oversight to ensure safety for humanity.

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021

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