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raceAhead: Davos Needs Grit

January 29, 2018, 6:01 PM UTC

Fortune’s own president, Alan Murray, returns from Davos with an upbeat report on the global economic outlook.

In two decades of attendance, “I can’t recall a time when the meeting ended with attendees as optimistic about the economic outlook as last week,” he says in his recent CEO Daily dispatch.

High on his list: President Trump’s repurposed “America First” to “America First, but not America alone,” helped ease trade concerns, and the president’s new tax bill has added to a spate of reasons why the U.S. is the top spot for foreign investment once again. And the global economic outlook is unusually favorable, with every big economy experiencing some growth. (China and India are leading the way.)

But these points also got my attention, given my current preoccupation with re-tooling the workforce. From his column:

  • With unemployment low and inflation dormant, we face the possibility of several years of “high pressure” growth, in which wages and other rewards to workers will rise, after a decade of anemia. The unusual bonuses paid by some companies to workers in the wake of the tax bill are partly an acknowledgement of that trend.
  • The rapid advance of technology—and, in particular, the increasing ability to take proliferating pools of digital data and turn them into useful intelligence (AI)—carries the promise of a sea change in business productivity, as well as potential solutions to a host of difficult social problems. U.K. Chancellor Philip Hammond said in Davos that AI could “double the rate of economic growth in advanced economies by 2035.”
  • A new generation of global business leaders are rethinking their companies’ obligations to society—a healthy development fueled by rising populism, declining trust, failing governments, and a generation of workers who want to know their employers are doing good in the world.

Murray correctly notes that while there are plenty of problems we still need to tackle, this is a good time to enjoy the progress. (When the boss gives you permission to feel hopeful, do it, I say.)

But it’s also a good time to smell the opportunity.

Big employers and ambitious entrepreneurs will be hunting for gritty, diverse and prepared thinkers to leverage gains in technology to enter new markets while solving big social problems.

Expect a boom in creative credentialing, like this experimental new master’s program in data, economics and development policy, offered by MIT. The initiative is associated with MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, which studies and measures the effectiveness of poverty alleviation programs. Interested students are allowed to take core courses online for free, and if they do well on exams, they can be admitted into the master’s program. Simple. They don’t even need a college degree, just an affinity for learning the subject at hand. More than 8,000 students from 182 countries have enrolled online, many from China and India.

Lessons learned from MIT and others could have a real impact on developing the workforce that employers will clearly need. And it’s safe to say our level of thinking has been insufficient so far, as this piece from The Atlantic makes clear. The tech gig economy of low-paid digital piecework has become the 21st century equivalent of sorting coal or taking in washing, rather than an innovation revolution in the making.

If the Davos elite puts their optimistic thumbs on the scale in favor of meaningful access to creative education opportunities, it would go a long way to fulfilling their promise to make the world a better place ahead of schedule and under budget.

On Point

Sony deletes a pro-Kesha tweet after online backlash The 2018 Grammys were an interesting mix of political wokeness in the performances, conservative sentiments in the awards and an epic fail in gender equity and representation. But a dramatic performance by Kesha, who spent years in a legal battle with Sony Music producer Dr. Luke after sexual-abuse allegations, turned into a jarring online moment for the record label. After Sony Music posted a tweet with a photo of Kesha’s performance, “No words. All love. #GRAMMYS,” fans began to call out the label for their perceived complicity in the singer’s trauma. “What’s worse: that @SonyMusicGlobal ever posted this tone deaf @KeshaRose tweet or that they deleted it because they couldn’t handle the internets response?” asked one fan.Fortune

A database of 2018 black female candidates now has over 400 names
The original list was the work of author and multi-media superstar Luvvie Ajayi, along with her friends Sili RecioLucrecer Braxton and Candace Jones. The four were inspired by the role of black women organizers in Roy Jones’s Senate defeat in the recent Alabama special election, and scoured the internet and found about one hundred black women candidates. Now, the list is brimming with potential – there are women in red and blue states, seeking local, state and federal seats. Best of all there are some 220 challengers to long time incumbents on the list.
Huffington Post

Small town librarians are saving local news, sort of
It makes sense. After all, librarians understand research, facts, data and databases, and people generally trust them. As cutbacks impact local news offerings, librarians are populating their Facebook pages with useful local information – everything from curated lists of events worth attending, to up-to-the-minute information around major news like school shootings. As small town librarians increasingly work to fix “news deserts,” there are existential conversations to be had. Student accomplishments are one thing. But who will cover government accountability? Criminal justice trends? Cultural conflicts?
The Atlantic

A transgender activist makes an impact in Pakistan
Pakistani transgender activist and dancer Jannat Ali received a standing ovation after her TEDx talk and performance in Lahore last fall, an indication of changing attitudes in a country that once considered transgender people a “criminal tribe.” While there is still much work to do --  the experience of transgender people in Pakistan remains marked by violence and stereotyping -- there have been signs of accommodation. Click through for an encouraging list, but here are two: This past summer, Pakistan’s government issued its first third-gender passport to a transgender activist, and a third gender was recognized on the nation’s census for the first time last year.
Ozy

The Woke Leader

“They is okay,” they say at Merriam-Webster
The use of “they” as a gender-neutral option in a preferred-pronoun world is problematic for many grammarians for a simple reason: “They” is a plural pronoun. The good folks at Merriam-Webster explain that “they” has been in use as a singular pronoun since the 1300s, but changing societal norms have expanded its acceptable application. Click through for a helpful history of the search for a nonbinary term, and some encouragement if it all seems a little awkward to your ear. Here’s some progress: In the 17th century, English laws sometimes referred to people who didn’t fit a gender binary as “it”, “which, while dehumanizing, was conceived of as being the most grammatically fit answer to gendered pronouns around then,” they say.
Merriam-Webster

Bloomberg writer Noah Smith breaks down the research on diversity and trust
Smith held a master class on Twitter yesterday, breaking down the often-competing bodies of research regarding diversity and trust. The argument in a nutshell: People who want to restrict immigration believe that diversity sows community distrust and creates social discord. Some research shows a negative correlation between trust and diversity, but the most often cited study (by Robert Putnam) finds the impact to be pretty small. Smith’s thread is a helpful list of studies which mostly disprove the claim, with lots of very smart commenters weighing in. Smith’s final take on the current version of immigration reform: “The idea that America could gain so much social trust by engineering our population to be 2% or 3% whiter that it would be worth the DAMAGE we'd do to social trust by endorsing a race-based national identity is insane.”
Twitter

Rihanna did the Gwaragwara dance, and now we all must too
The always thrilling Rihanna further thrilled an entire subset of Grammy watchers last night when she and her Wild Thoughts dance squad gave a clear nod to a South African dance called the Gwaragwara. (It was absolutely not the stanky leg.) Clicking around, I found many authentic versions, including a fun tribute from Nigeria. But do check out this tutorial from a lovely woman named Augustine. The dance has four parts, a little front, side, back, then remember to keep your hands up – but you can play around with those – ba, barump bump bump – like that. Then the signature arm swing comes at stage three, and at this point, many of us will give up. Push through and let’s be sure to give it a try together at the next MPW event. The Gwaragwara might be too soon for the CEO Initiative, but I’ll float the notion and see what happens.
YouTube

Quote

Attention is something I’ve learned to ignore. This is what I do: I live my life and they document it.
Rihanna