That Used to Be Us | Thomas L. Friedman

Summary of: That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back
By: Thomas L. Friedman


In ‘That Used to Be Us’, Thomas L. Friedman explores the reasons behind America’s decline and suggests strategies for reclaiming its former status as a global powerhouse. The book delves into the four key challenges faced by the U.S.: adapting to globalization, adjusting to the information technology revolution, coping with soaring budget deficits, and managing rising energy consumption and climate threats. The book highlights how the U.S. can overcome its complacency and rebuild its strengths by forging a unique partnership between the public and private sectors, focusing on education, and embracing innovation. This summary will provide a comprehensive understanding of these challenges and the potential solutions, instilling hope that America can bounce back to its former glory.

America’s Decline

Americans are worried about the state of their country, with many feeling that its best days are behind it. This sentiment is due to issues such as crumbling infrastructure, lagging educational standards, dearth of jobs and political deadlock. These issues have their roots in the US’s self-congratulatory mood at the end of the Cold War and its failure to adapt to globalization, the information technology revolution, rising energy consumption, and budget deficits. Without addressing these issues, there is a risk of a decline in US economic growth and global influence, which would have negative consequences for the rest of the world.

The Pillars of American Prosperity

The United States has faced and overcome seemingly insurmountable tests throughout its history, arising as a formidable nation. However, its people have become too comfortable and complacent and have failed to comprehend the challenges they face, leading to the lack of necessary demands from their leaders. Sacrifice, hard work, and less consumption are now required. The keys to American prosperity were the partnership between the public and private sectors to foster economic growth, rooted in five pillars- universal education, building and maintaining infrastructure, immigration, state support for research and development, and necessary regulation of private enterprise. The Founding Fathers advocated for mass education, while Abraham Lincoln won emancipation and championed settlement of the West to lay the groundwork for the transcontinental railway. Free markets were regulated by Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal instituted the “social safety net” that catapulted the American economy. The pillars built America’s strength, while Dwight D. Eisenhower’s highway system now sustains it.

The Future of Work

The digital age has altered the job market, making it more competitive and global. With the advent of the “low-wage, high-skilled worker,” the workforce is changing, and average employees will not be sufficient in a wired world. Workers must now distinguish themselves with their unique ideas and contributions. Employment polarization means that routine jobs are becoming obsolete, while non-routine jobs are in high demand. Workers fall into one of four categories: creative creators, routine creators, creative servers, and routine servers. Education is key to building America’s wealth and influence, but current standards are inadequate for preparing graduates for the jobs of the future. To compete in the modern workforce, students need to focus on critical thinking, math, science, and creative thinking.

America’s Debt Crisis and Environmental Inaction

The US needs to prioritize its financial future by reducing debt and investing in energy alternatives. The country’s debt problem must be taken seriously, and everyone must contribute to solving today’s problems by paying increased taxes. Moreover, the US should set high energy efficiency standards, impelling consumers to demand innovation in energy provision, leading to lower-cost alternative fuels and drive economic incentives away from expensive oil.

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