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Immigration Boosts the Number One Skill Set Needed in the 21st Century

Empathy: The Means and the End

When we think about immigration, a few things inevitably pop up. For starters, there’s that “why” issue – the reason behind the occurrence itself. Moreover, the answers are typically evident. One of the highest-ranking reasons for immigration is (and has always been) the search for betterment inherent in every human being. We often leave our motherlands behind to take up job opportunities in a foreign country that offer us the chance to achieve a better quality of life for ourselves and our loved ones. Alternatively, we sometimes leave to escape political unrest or terror and the like. In short we can sum up the reason for immigration in one word: opportunity.

This leads us to another of our fundamental thoughts regarding immigration: the “to be or not to be” issue if you will. It is impossible that the topic of immigration should arise without there being that timeless debate to accompany it. For some immigration is altogether too opportunistic. For instance the United States of America, with its popular moniker of “the Land of Opportunity”, has to deal with the very real problem of massive numbers of illegal aliens and what that can mean for its citizens. This is an issue that cannot simply be brushed aside. Yet for others immigration is a right and even a necessity. Take for instance the debate over the flood of refugees streaming into Europe in recent times in a desperate bid to escape the terror of ISIS.

However, to leave the political sphere behind entirely, we can ask ourselves about the workplace and the economy. Should we accept immigrants into the workplace and won’t they displace our workers? Why should organizations go out of their way both to try to import a foreign labor force and to establish themselves upon foreign soil? For a very good reason, actually: immigration boosts empathy, that quality that has been dubbed the most critical skill set needed in the 21st century in "Humans are Underrated" by Geoff Colvin for Fortune.

First, what is empathy and what makes it the number one skill set in all of the 21st century? Merriam-Webster defines it thus: empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this”. The Oxford dictionary calls it “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. As for its importance we find the likes of writer and technologist Chad Fowler, the former vice-president of Oracle Meg Bear, and President of the United States Barack Obama speaking very highly of the skill; with Fowler calling it “your most important skill” and Bear naming it “the critical 21st-century skill”. Moreover, this idea holds much merit. After all, it is very true that the hallmark of the 21st century has been the accelerated process of globalization. In such a world empathy becomes highly important.

Globalization has created a world based on service rather than just products. In the past, it was often enough for an individual or an organization to simply have a product to sell. The world was markedly more insular both in geography and ideology. The challenges naturally associated with distance and geography meant that suppliers typically had only to compete with local rivals. This could also mean that some suppliers would be doomed to not having enough of a market or no market at all for their goods. Moreover, people looked more to themselves and their communities or countries and national and regional borders, and boundaries existed more strongly in the mind than anywhere else. This is not to say that there were not exceptions to the rule. However, it did mean that generally speaking there were less options available to the common man and that there was less of an open demand for understanding between people in the business arena. Essentially people stuck to what they knew and made fewer demands because options were more limited.

However, in more recent times and particularly during the last century the world has become far more open. To put it another way, the world has grown smaller. The barriers formerly imposed both by geography and ideology has been, and continues to be, superseded. Advancements in travel and technology, as well as the advent of the Internet, have thrown the doors of the world wide open. People, having become more internationally aware, are abandoning more and more the smaller mindset of the past. They make more demands and hold higher expectations of those around them, and they are no longer interested simply in products but in service as well. In short it is no longer enough to sell products. People want service, and they are prepared to do more and go further to get it. This also means that people have to tailor their services to fit a larger, more diverse, demanding and sophisticated market.

So the focus has ceased to be local and has become instead global. But then how do we sell services globally without understanding what is outside of our immediate environment? We can’t. Not if we intend to be efficient. There is but one way to tailor one’s services to a different culture, and that is to know the culture itself. So the only way to do that is to travel there, to live among the people, to cultivate the skill of empathy.

Yes, empathy is a skill and not just a virtue or quality. It can be developed. It can be learned. The whole backbone of globalization is empathy: understanding each other on a deep, personal level. It is the purposeful movement from one nation to the next that enables us to understand other cultures and each other. You cannot connect with what you have not known. And that is what people seek to do when they travel. They seek to connect and to understand and to feel and to learn. That is what people crave from each other. That is what is being demanded in every market across the world. That is precisely why empathy has been called the most important skill of the present century. Far from being just a skill needed in the present-day marketplace, empathy is a skill needed in all spheres of our existence and interactions with each other. Empathy is the boon of global progress.

It is necessary that business professionals immigrate for global progress to occur. The 21st century is a world in which the terms “global market” and “global economy” hold much importance. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the existence of trading relationships among virtually all countries of the world for important resources such as oil, or in the manufacturing, buying and selling of new and necessary technologies across nations. Therefore, it is necessary that business professionals move between countries if for no other reason than that these people must engage in the manufacturing and distribution of vital 21st-century goods and services that are best achieved in a certain location and with certain levels of expertise. Or, that there is a constant need for regions to be developed for the good of the inhabitants from a humanitarian point of view.

Both these ends require the mobilization of key individuals. And this reality need not be seen in a negative light as if it can only breed unhealthy competition among nations. In her journal article Brain Circulation: How High-Skill Immigration Makes Everyone Better Off AnnaLee Saxenian, professor of city and regional planning at the University of California at Berkeley notes that in some parts of the world the old “brain drain” dynamic is giving way to what she calls “brain circulation” and that high-skill immigration increasingly benefits both sides. She states,

“Far beyond their role in Silicon Valley, the professional and social networks that link new immigrant entrepreneurs with each other have become global institutions that connect new immigrants with their counterparts at home. These new transnational communities provide the shared information, contacts, and trust that allow local producers to participate in an increasingly global economy.”

She then goes on to say:

“These new international linkages are strengthening the economic infrastructure of the United States while providing new opportunities for once peripheral regions of the world economy. Foreign-born engineers have started thousands of technology businesses in the United States, generating jobs, exports, and wealth at home and also accelerating the integration of these businesses into the global economy.”

One thing, in particular, should be pointed out here: trust. When business professionals become integrated into another society and exercise that all-important skill of empathy as it should be employed, we find that local producers can become profitably involved in the global economy, not only their local one. The beauty of immigration is that it creates the platform where mutual understanding and appreciation between people can be realistically achieved. It forces a person to step out of his comfort zone and range of experiences and learn to operate within those of others. It brings people closer together and brings them face to face with the empathy that teaches them to be more accepting and appreciative of each other and to learn to see and value the things that others see and value most. It creates the trust and security that come from knowing that the other person really gets where we are coming from, and that is priceless in this global economy.

The idea of empathy is to become one in experience and goal with others. It is to make people feel accepted and valued. It is to go the extra mile just for their benefit. How can suppliers achieve this with consumers if they have never connected with them and seen the world through their eyes or walked in their shoes? How can we provide the services required by our clients if we cannot understand and listen to and think like them? In a world where people are becoming more and more exposed and are expanding their knowledge base and seeking to cement their place in the global economy, empathy is truly the vital skill.

Cheers to peace and progress,