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University Relations

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April 1, 2005
Contact: Roger Martin, KU Center for Research, (785) 864-7239.

Roger Martin commentary: Flexibility required to survive globalization

The book "Future Shock" was written 35 years ago, but author Alvin Toffler has never stopped making bold pronouncements.

Here's a typical Tofflerism: "The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."

That sounds a lot like something William Barnett might say when he starts talking about globalization.

Here's a quote from Barnett, a University of Kansas distinguished professor of macroeconomics:

" The best way to deal with growing globalization is to recognize and act on the increase in uncertainty about the future that it produces. A decision that looked right last year might not look right this year."

For those who, like me, are just starting to understand globalization, here are a few of the core ideas.

In a globalized world, nations and markets and trade are increasingly entwined because of cheap airfare and phone calls and Internet connections. Everybody's baled together by round-the-clock, round-the-world mass media.

When markets are open and when information -- and people -- travel quickly, it doesn't matter whether you're the United States economy, Sony electronics, General Motors, an Iraqi dictator or NBA basketball.

Staying on top gets harder and harder for some, Barnett says. Getting there gets easier and easier for others.
Globalization affects our lives in a thousand ways. The fact that we eat sushi, while they eat Kentucky Fried Chicken is the least of it.

The most traditional social ties are being affected by the dynamics of globalization.

"Even the local barbershop no longer can depend on getting all of its neighborhood business," Barnett says. "Improvement in transportation changed that."

Barnett says that globalization is bound to affect career and education planning. An old-fashioned "career" that lasts a lifetime will be less possible, he says. Flexibility will be as important as skills.

Barnett says, "There will be less time to adjust and more people who unexpectedly lose and who feel they had little warning.

" A lot of what's happening is about opportunity. Fear is the wrong response to opportunity."

Brave words -- but hearing them doesn't make me feel braver. Besides the personal upheavals, won't there also be a lot of environmental fallout?

Surely, I say to Barnett, ads spun around the world by mass media will create mass appetites for consumer goods -- appetites that pollute the planet and deplete its resources.

Surely, Barnett responds, you don't want the poor to remain poor, do you? The open markets of a globalized world are, for example, creating increased income for Mexico's poor, he says.

Barnett says economists think there are checks on our messing up the environment too much. Pricing is a crucial check. That is, when gasoline and pollution are too expensive, we'll switch to other forms of energy.

Besides, he says, the research literature by economists on how governments and other agents might deal with problems like environmental damage is "formidable."

Humans, he says, are "fully capable of producing disaster, but there is no reason to view it as inevitable.

History is full of disasters that occurred. But it is also full of disasters successfully avoided and technological advances that couldn't have been anticipated."

Suddenly, I get a glimmer about my fear in all of this. It derives, in part, from the unknowns related to the emerging globalized world.

I long for security.

When it comes to that, I have a lot to unlearn.


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