Do we owe our careers to our country?
How the Japanese concept of Ikigai can address America's talent gaps
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You can be anything you want to be – or so we tell American girls and boys. From graduation speeches to self-help books, American career advice overwhelmingly encourages citizens to pursue professions that are aligned with their self-interests. But, with unprecedented labor shortages and global competition on the rise, should Americans, make more of an effort to orient our occupations with the needs of our nation? Do we owe our careers to our country?
America’s Talent Shortage
America’s capabilities are largely determined by the human capital of our citizens. To achieve energy independence we need men and women who can refine oil and frack natural gas. Reshoring U.S. manufacturing will require skilled tradespeople who can operate heavy machinery. Our national defense depends on a well-trained army of professional soldiers. No matter what ends America hopes to achieve, human capital will dictate our odds of success.
Unfortunately, America is having trouble filling roles across many industries that are critical for our standing in the world including cyber security, manufacturing, energy, construction, and education. Each of these shortages has its own laundry list of causes including compensation, education policy, demographics, regulation, and cultural perception. If left unaddressed, America’s talent shortage could cost the U.S. economy over $8.5 trillion by 2030.
This is particularly worrisome as the global order that once guaranteed international trade starts to unravel. To remain a superpower, the U.S. will need to become far more self-sufficient in supplying its own needs. That will be impossible if we don’t have the talent to staff our critical industries.
Millions of Career Choices
Our talent gaps are ultimately the product of millions of individual career choices.
Enroll in higher ed or join the workforce?
Vocational school or four-year degree?
STEM or humanities major?
Technology or Health Care?
Retire or continue working?
While these choices are complicated and personal, countries do have the ability to influence them.
In 2021, the Chinese Communist Party took major steps to shift talent away from homegrown consumer tech companies like Ant Financial, Tencent, and Didi and toward preferred tech sectors like telecom, semiconductor, and artificial intelligence.
In his annual letter on the state of technology and China, writer Dan Wang explains the human capital argument behind China’s aggressive moves:
Where does Beijing prefer dynamism? Science-based industries that serve strategic needs. Beijing, in other words, is trying to make semiconductors sexy again. One might reasonably question how dealing pain to users of chips (like consumer internet firms) might help the industry. I think that the focus should instead be on talent and capital allocation. If venture capitalists are mostly funding social networking companies, then they would be able to hire the best talent while denying them to chipmakers. That has arguably been the story in Silicon Valley over the last decade: Intel and Cisco were not quite able to compete for the best engineering talent with Facebook and Google. Beijing wants to change this calculation among domestic investors and students at Peking and Tsinghua.
While the CCP’s heavy-handed tactics would be inappropriate in America, the U.S. can still nudge people toward careers that are more aligned with our national interests. For example, our government could subsidize education for students who pursued preferred fields of study or offer expedited citizenship for immigrants with the right certifications.
Collectively, we can also foster a bottoms-up culture shift to increase the prestige of essential careers. This could look like actor Mike Rowe, celebrating Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel or podcaster, Nick Huber teaching people how to build service businesses with The Sweaty Startup. Influencers like Mike and Nick increase the status of vital occupations, which impacts whether people choose to pursue them.
Should you sacrifice?
While America is fortunate to have plenty of citizens who feel called to jobs that align with our national interests, many citizens feel a tension between what we want to do and what our society needs.
The Japanese resolve this tension using a concept called Ikigai. Roughly translated as a “reason for being,” discovering your Ikigai requires finding work that balances what the world needs with what you’re good at, what you love, and what you can do to earn a living.
Rather than framing serving society as a sacrifice, this framework shows how acting toward a greater good is a key element to finding purpose. Ikigai changes the question from a binary about sacrifice, to a choice about how much weight to give the needs of your nation.
As Americans, many of us are in the fortunate position to choose careers for reasons other than survival. In order to preserve this opportunity for future generations, we will need to better allocate our human capital toward America’s pressing challenges.
While each political party has its own policy prescription to close America’s labor gaps, individuals also need a way to frame their own personal career choices. Currently, many of us view serving our country as a sacrifice, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be.
Doing well and doing good doesn’t need to be a tradeoff. Ikigai shows how choosing a career that accounts for the greater good is critical for finding a sense of purpose. If we can normalize this mindset, perhaps we can get more Americans to account for the needs of our nation when deciding what profession to pursue.
Looking to get smarter about web3?
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This event is open to the public. To join, register here.
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