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Talent have not won the war. It’s a terrible lie.


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“The war for talent’s over, and the talent won.”

If you care about young people nowadays, stop feeding them such lies.

All that free coffee and fresh fruit and on-site gyms that we say is evidence that workers are beating off job offers with a stick will dry up in a few years.*

Globalisation and an inescapable fact of life – companies find their talent where it is cheapest – will make sure of this.

Capitalism is lifting people out of poverty worldwide and the world is becoming more equal. Many are seeing their living standards skyrocket and this is giving young people across the world better access to education and skills that will make them more employable.

This is a fundamental win for humanity. But if you're in a Western economy, it may not be so good for your career. In 1990 the world population was 5.279 billion and the people who could take white collar jobs were confined to rich, Western countries. Good education was hard to access. Going to university was a sound bet because it magnified your employability. Oh, and it was often free too, so no crippling debt at the end.

In other words, the middle class young in the Western world used to compete solely with other well-to-dos in a relatively tiny group. Then access to education and skills widened and they competed with people from working class backgrounds.

Now young people in the West increasingly compete with the whole world. The world population is over 7.3 billion and there are millions more going to universities and acquiring key skills.

This means the total global job market is far bigger and technology allows people to access jobs that aren’t even on the same continent. Skills are more even and things like a degree that historically elevated you to the top of the pack are now commonplace.

That’s why your local coffee shop asks for a degree when hiring new baristas: everyone’s frickin’ got one.

Now this is great if you’re living in a country where the cost of living is low. You can shout to employers in the Western world, “Hey, I’ve got a degree and I’m skilled and I can do the job for half the price!”

But if you’re in, say, the UK and you have higher cost of living – and especially if you feel the need to buy consumer technology designed to break within a year and drive cars that get 25MPG to the gallon – this is going to seriously hurt your job prospects and ability to maintain your lifestyle. Wages will not go up; they will go down.

Stop scaremongering!, I hear you say. That won’t happen!

Well, it already has. Educated writers used to get £25 an hour from freelancer marketplaces like Improved internet access across the world meant workers from countries with low costs of living flooded these sites offering 1000 words for $9. What Western-based writer can make a living on that sort of wage?

So talent hasn’t won. Companies and the power of globalisation and unequal living costs will win. Again, this is great for humanity. But it’s been increasingly hard for young people in the UK to get a well-paid job over the last decade (just ask any graduate who’s had to spend hours completing an application that 500 other people are also filling in).

Now it’s going to get a damn sight harder. So, we could start encouraging young people to take jobs that require a physical presence to insulate their future earnings against globalisation, to make them realise that university is one option out of many, and that you still have to work damn hard to get your head above the parapet.

Or, you know, we could carry on talking about how the talent’s won. Feeding them stories about how star developers in Silicon Valley hire agents to shop their skills around. Lies about how the world will bend over backwards to hire them and that they are so very special and that their degree certificate is a gilt-edged teleporter to a world-class position at the hippest, most well-funded start-up in the world.

But hey, it could be worse. You could tell them to be a driving instructor. Let’s see how that works out when Google has its way.

*Actually don’t let the fresh coffee and fruit and gyms make you feel sorry for these poor, desperate companies. They do it to increase the size of their applicant pool – to put the negotiation power with candidates in their favour – and stop people leaving when they’re through the door. Because hiring new people is expensive, yo.

5 Responses

  1. Talent is only part of the
    Talent is only part of the puzzle that determines success in war. In World War II, the United States demonstrated not only technical and military talent, but also strategic vision, resource mobilization, and alliances. Their influence, which can be read about in post, was enormous, ensuring not only military superiority, but also geopolitical stability after the war. Talent was important, but also skillful strategy and solidarity determined the outcome of the conflict and the building of peace.

  2. There are two wars (it’s a
    There are two wars (it’s a nasty and inappropriate term but let’s leave that aside.)

    There is a war for talent. Degrees may be commonplace but McKinsey suggest businesses could be short of 85 million workers with college degrees or vocational training by 2020 globally. If you’ve got one, you’re going to be in demand. But I think this war is largely about more specific skills that other don’t have – often combinations of technical and soft skills, and a good personal brand. These aren’t the sort of people who are going to be on, though they may be designing, coding or marketing this. These people are already and will become even more highly marketable, and can command their own price. They have won the war.

    At the same time, it’s predicted there will be 95 million lower-skilled workers who could be unemployed. Basic talent marketplaces give these people a huge new opportunity, but here, it’s the computer alogorithm that’s won. People just need to be grateful for what they can get and hope their jobs don’t get automated with the computers undertaking these roles for themselves. So it’s still not where you really want to be, at least if you live in a high cost of living location.

    We need to encourage young people to develop more higher level skills. That’s really the only way to keep ahead of the algorithm.

    Stats from McKinsey’s No ordinary DIsruption – see

    1. I do think that there are
      I do think that there are plenty of people with degrees who are stacking shelves and waiting tables. I’m not so convinced that ‘if you’ve got one, you’re going to be in demand’, but I do agree that the college degree is insufficient. The idea of personal brand when you’re stacking shelves is ludicrous, and probably fits into the ‘lies’ that the original writer identifies.

      For the basic skills set, I’ve yet to see the algorithm that can serve me in a restaurant or clean toilets, or provide care for mental patients. What’s needed is not necessarily more qualifications, it’s a rethink about how work is valued.

  3. Sobering stuff. But don’t be
    Sobering stuff. But don’t be dismissive of young people’s resilience to actually react to changing circumstances – including intense competition from overseas. This incidentally should not be limited to young people – anyone who’s in a job, or needs a job, are ALL impacted by cheaper, increasingly-better educated talent world wide.
    I too don’t think that university should be touted as the be-all and end-all of education, but there may be a positive side to the situation where ‘everyone has a degree’, in that if everyone has one, yours will need to be better – which means that standards may rise. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

    1. The world of work has always
      The world of work has always been a case of adapting for every generation as expectations and technology shifts; of course things are more accelerated at the moment, but I agree that it’s not just a consideration for younger people.

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