[Economic Essay Contest] Thriving economy starts with freedom to fail

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By Kirsty Goodman –  The  Korea Times

“It is not the most intelligent who will succeed in the future, it will be those who are the most adaptable.” I am paraphrasing, of course, the famous (often misattributed) words of Leon C. Megginson, himself paraphrasing from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Today his words have even more relevance as technological developments are causing societies to adapt faster than our institutions can keep up. All around the world, countries are facing increasing unemployment as new technologies reduce certain types of jobs while introducing new ones that go unfulfilled because of a skills shortage.

To create more decent jobs, we must first decide what a “decent job” is. Unfortunately, as Yuval Noah Harari also points out in his widely successful “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” with the world changing at such a rapid pace, it will be difficult to fully anticipate the skillset needed for the jobs of the future. By the time it takes to re-train a new generation, the skills we were investing in originally may very well be redundant.

To cope with this uncertainty requires a certain amount of foresight and innovation. Governments will have to be strategic about where to invest their resources, and well-informed to do so. This can only happen by pooling together a diverse set of perspectives; multi-sector, multi-level collaboration, involving both the public and private sector, and civil society, to report on trends and anticipate future needs.

Only by having a fully inclusive participatory process will we be able to identify the most pressing problems and propose more effective solutions ― thereby creating “decent” jobs that are open to all.

Surviving in such a dynamic environment requires innovative, “out-of-the-box” type thinking. Yet, paradoxically, despite having unprecedented access to information, we are living in a world that often does not afford us the time to fully embrace our creativity.

We are currently trapped in an economy that runs on attention. Every sector demands quantity at the sake of quality. Journalists have to churn out articles faster than they ever did and are constrained to “clickbait” headlines; scholars too, have to churn out journal articles at such a rate that it is difficult for them to get approval for the kinds of breakthrough studies funded in the past.

This stifled creativity may be particularly problematic for Korea, which was ranked 21st in the OECD in the 2018 Global Entrepreneurship Index and fell below average in the OECD youth entrepreneurship rates.

To be truly innovative you need to be able to fail. However, the Korean education system is one of the most competitive, high-pressure systems in the world. There is not much room for failure. The government needs to introduce a social safety net that allows people to take bigger risks; only then will people be able to reach their innovative potential.

Other countries are currently investigating what this social safety net will look like. Some have speculated on a universal income to allow people minimum standards of living, for example. This may be a necessary step in the future. Any costs of such a policy would be mitigated by the economic returns from giving people the freedom to be innovative and the new jobs created in the process.

Maya Angelou once said her mission in life was “not merely to survive, but to thrive.” Those that thrive are more likely to be innovators.

Having a good work-life balance is part of this. Korea’s high-pressure work ethic from school carries over into the workplace and the country has some of the longest working hours yet lower productivity.

This year Korea also made headlines for its decreasing birthrate and high-profile suicides. If Korea is to succeed in the coming decades, it needs to employ a holistic approach to measuring success. The global economy would benefit from less working hours and more leisure time.

Furthermore, placing more emphasis on leisure creates a market and potential for future jobs in itself. As social creatures, our level of satisfaction has always been relative, but social media has expanded our field of comparison from our next-door neighbors to anywhere with an internet connection. In this interconnected world, people are pushing the boundaries like never before in a bid to be their “best selves.”

The market opportunities from this self-actualization quest are endless. This will be especially important as we navigate the development of artificial intelligence and have to grapple with philosophical dilemmas that question what makes us “us.”

We will likely see a boom in industries that cater to discovering our purpose in life and helping us hold on to our humanity. Thus, creating more jobs and a thriving economy starts with giving people the freedom to change, the freedom to explore their potential, and most importantly, the freedom to fail.

Kirsty Goodman is a student at Korea University Graduate School of International Studies.

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