Jeremy, a 20-year-old junior at Adelphi University, opened the second presidential debate with a question that was not fully answered by either candidate: “What can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?“
Gov. Mitt Romney talked about a vague 12 million job promise. President Obama pointed to Clinton-era economic growth.
In the course of the subsequent debate, both candidates took shots at China. There was more of the same in the final debate.
What Jeremy and others really needed to hear, however, was this: that future U.S. jobs will depend on skills; that many future jobs will be tied to the remarkable growth of China and India; that American students must be prepared to compete with 135 million — yes, million — Chinese and Indian students who will graduate from college over the next decade; and that these future Chinese and Indian competitors are highly motivated, entrepreneurial and ambitious, with a work ethic like nothing you’ve seen in your life.
Government can’t guarantee that Jeremy will have the skills and drive to compete. Only he can do this.
According to our best estimates, China and India combined will be spending some $10 trillion per year by 2020 — more than three times what they spent in 2010. Due to rising incomes and longer life expectancies, Chinese children born in 2009 will probably consume approximately 38 times more than their grandparents during their lives; Indian babies will consume 13 times more than their forbears. China’s upper-income bracket will nearly quadruple, from 24 million to 91 million households; its middle class will grow from 109 million to 202 million households. India’s upper-income bracket will increase from about nine million to 32 million households and its middle class from 63 million to 117 million households.
Seize the opportunity
Jeremy and other Americans shouldn’t fear their success. They need to participate in it.
As hundreds of millions of new middle-class consumers enter the global marketplace, demand will increase for higher-quality, safer, sustainable food; recyclable packaging; affordable health care; occupational training; elite education for the masses; safe water; and all manner of new technologies that help solve the day-to-day problems of living in the modern world.
This is a huge opportunity, but it will not be inherited by the lazy, uneducated, fearful or weak.
To the next generation, our leaders should say: You live in a world being radically reshaped by global forces that you cannot see and that were virtually unknown to your parents.
These forces are epic in scale. They will shape your career prospects and fortunes. For the first time, your competitors for a job or your most important customers may be in other parts of the world, speaking different languages.
Don’t envy them. The ambitious kids of China, India and other emerging markets live in cutthroat and uncertain environments, lacking many things, even clean air and fresh water, we take for granted. Tens of thousands of them would happily change places with you.
And don’t begrudge their success. Just as mechanization freed our ancestors from life on the farm, the rise of China and India is creating new opportunities for all of us.
My advice to Jeremy and his classmates is this: Go live in China or India; learn Mandarin or Hindi; spend a semester or year in Beijing or Kolkata.
Also consider how important it is to choose the right college major. America’s biggest need moving forward will be for biomedical engineers, network analysts, financial examiners, medical scientists, physicians’ assistants, biochemists, and computer software engineers.
Your future revolves around a set of personal choices. Education, ambition, hard work, entrepreneurial energy, collaboration, and innovation are the values that will dominate your world. Those who take too much for granted, fail to invest in technology, and idle away their time on Twitter and Facebook are putting their futures at risk.
Jeremy, the choice is yours. You need to get the right credentials. Earn a degree with tangible value. Then take your drive and energy to the market and refuse to fall into the malaise of affluence.
Don’t ask a presidential candidate for guarantees. Make your own guarantee.
Michael J. Silverstein is a senior partner of The Boston Consulting Group.