The need for mobile individuals

by seangljacobs

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

‘He is as comfortable in a church pulpit,’ observed Bill Clinton’s adviser Stanley Greenberg, ‘as in a Wall Street conference room.’

Politics aside, Greenberg’s description of the former American President is instructive for the kind of individuals we’ll increasingly need in Australia. Australia’s social and economic trajectory demands young people who can acquire portable skills, generate strong networks and produce outcomes across sectors.

One of the most lethal developments to a society over the long run, and indeed a nation, is when people are rarely reaching out, interacting or speaking to each other. Our leaders, for example, often talk about ‘social cohesion’ in the same breath as economic growth because, quite simply, it’s as important. For a nation to work its individuals must ultimately share values.

However, despite advances in social media and the opportunities to ‘connect’, the capacity to live atomised lives, where people stay in their closed groups, is actually easier than ever. ‘Organisational membership is down,’ records the Australian Andrew Leigh. ‘We are less likely to attend church. Political parties and unions are bleeding members. Sporting participation and cultural attendance is down. We have fewer friends and are less connected with our neighbours.’

It’s important to remember that a lack of social connection or mobility isn’t always based on how rich someone is. It can be found more, I believe, in the lifestyle they live – the preference they give to religion, their social tastes, whether they drink or not, the activities they pursue and so forth.

I feel that truly being mobile means being able to connect with people, which at its core requires real compassion and affinity. These virtues, I sense, are what enable people like Clinton to possess comfort among people regardless of their settings. ‘All my life I’ve wanted to be involved with people and help them with their problems,’ he says. ‘I’ve been interested in all kinds of people. Politics has just given me a way to pursue my interest and my concern on a large scale. I’ve given it all the energy and spirit I can muster; I’ve tried to bring out the best in people through politics; and I’ve really been very happy doing it.’

What has helped me build compassion and affinity? Besides genes, which have a lot to do with the values you form, I was fortunate to also have a cosmopolitan upbringing. I was born in Papua New Guinea to my Papua New Guinean Mum and Australian Dad before spending ten years growing up in the small Middle Eastern nation of Bahrain. Sitting cross-legged in class I can still recall my Indian, Pakistani, American, British, Egyptian and Libyan schoolmates – many of them also mixed-race – building that same process of affinity. Dad was a pilot and, when not visiting Australia, I was even luckier to travel throughout the region, Africa and parts of Asia. These exchanges didn’t always mean an open tolerance of accepting everything I saw. But it has given me some sense of familiarity when moving in different circles.

Compassion and affinity can, of course, be easily cultivated without an expanded cultural horizon. In high school, when coming to Australia, I also worked hard on trying different activities. I was a lousy academic student but I took part in everything from sports to learning guitar, drama, and activities like army and air force cadets.

When hitting university and emerging from school I noticed that young people tended to cocoon themselves, pursue their own activities and increase their isolation. Again, like my school days, I worked hard at showing up to different events and trying different things I wasn’t entirely enthused about. I helped organise public speaking competitions, worked as a sports development officer around Queensland’s schools, doorknocked on campaigns, performed fundraising for my water polo club and engaged in other activities that weren’t entirely fun but meant ‘getting out there’ and seriously ‘giving things a go’. This required no smarts or savvy. And it was entirely useful in generating professional and personal networks, which came in handy later.

Besides compassion and affinity, building mobility also means seriously being able to exchange ideas. Unfortunately, from my experiences with many young Australians, considering different points of view is in serious deficit. It’s rare, for example, to hear balanced opinions from students on sensitive public issues like climate change, refugee policy, terrorism and capitalism. The only remedy I can suggest, for young Australians to expand their horizons, is to read more books and speak to more people – processes that, because of technology, are much easier than ever before.

Ultimately, being comfortable with different ideas isn’t just nice to have – it’s an economic necessity. ‘The free exchange of goods and ideas,’ the Australian journalist Nick Cater writes, ‘are the natural distributors of wealth and knowledge.’ As a result of unprecedented wealth our interests are more diversified and highly specific. This has created markets for all kinds of individually designed products and services that competitive young Australians will need to meet. It means a future of smaller companies, more entrepreneurs and, in Mortimer Zuckerman’s words, a demand for ‘the upstart, the rebel, the young, and the innovator.’

Jan Morris, describing the World War Two soldier and writer Patrick Leigh Fermour, writes a great passage in the introduction to Fermour’s classic A Time for Gifts. It’s worth finally quoting here because it’s a gentle but spectacular example of a mobile young man that applies across generations and despite the trappings of new technology:

He is Everyman, but in a particularly delightful kind. People of all sorts like him. He makes friends wherever he goes, is as polite to tramps as he is to barons, repays all his debts, shows just the right degree of diffidence to his seniors, merriment to his peers, flirts with girls who give him duck eggs, gets drunk, hates hurting people’s feelings, and altogether behaves as a clever and gentlemanly young Englishman of the 1930s ought to behave.

There are clearly opportunities for competitive young Australians who can exhibit not just affinity and compassion but use these virtues to be mobile, move across groups and seek opportunities in a changing economy. If they can possess such characteristics a future of social cohesion and economic growth awaits.