Bernardo M. Villegas
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We Can All Be Millennials (Part 3)

          The Rosevale students and their parents and grandparents were glad to hear that the Philippines is finally catching up with the rest of its neighbors in becoming a First World country in the next twenty years or so.  This happy happening is coinciding with another global development favorable to the present and future generations of Filipino youth.  The epicenter of the world’s economy is shifting to Asia in which our country is very strategically located at the very center of East Asia.  Whereas the twentieth century was known as the American Century, the twenty first is the Asian century.  More strictly, the twentieth century was characterized by a three-way competition among the three largest economic powers at that time:  the U.S., Japan and Europe.  In fact, when I was studying in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I read many publications about the possibility that Japan would be “Number One” surpassing the U.S. in economic might.  It never happened because of the demographic crisis that befell Japan.  But there was no question about how Japanese industries were threatening their U.S. counterparts because of higher productivity.   Then the European Union gave a big boost to the strong recovery of this third world power.

         Today, these former economic behemoths are struggling to grow at more than 3% annually in GDP while Asia is still growing on the average at 5 to 6%, with a few of them like India, the Philippines, Myanmar, and Vietnam able to post 7% or more.  As the Philippines moves towards upper middle income and high-income categories over the next twenty years, there will be also a trilateral competition among the biggest economies of China, India and the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC, which will resemble the European Union of the last century).  Among the ten nations of AEC, the Philippines is fortunate to be among the three most promising economies in Southeast Asia:  the VIP nations (Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines).  These three are the only large economies that have a young and growing population in contrast with most of the countries in Asia that are already suffering from demographic suicide (including China whose one-child policy in the past has resulted in a rapidly ageing population).  Another tragic example is Thailand that is still a relatively poor country but is already suffering from a serious shortage of manpower because of very low fertility rates.  It is the first economy in Asia to grow old before becoming rich.  I cited all these data in my talk because I wanted to encourage the young people present who will be the future parents to target, as much as possible, at least three children or more once they start forming their own families.  Three is a good target because the replacement rate at which the population neither increases nor decreases (zero population growth) is 2.1 children per fertile woman.

         As regards their career choices, I told them not to be so worried about what course to take if they decide to go to a university.  One characteristic of the digital age is that, as Thomas Friedman wrote in the best-seller “Thank You for Being Late,” “the workplace is being globalized, digitized, and roboticized at a speed, scope and scale we’ve never seen before.  It is hard to think of any career not being touched by this process, which is why it is posing such a fundamental challenge to how we think about educating people for work, organizing people at work, and helping people adjust to both new realities.”  One’s specialization in the university may have very little to do with the many different jobs or occupations he or she will be occupying in his or her working lifetime (which could span as many as fifty years).  Except for those who decide to take up medicine, a relatively long and very specialized course, the other professional courses can lead to a variety of  work experiences in the future.  Someone who took up, say civil engineering, may end up as a top banking executive in the future.  Someone who studied to be an architect may end up as an agribusiness executive.  Someone who pursued legal studies may end up as a hotel manager, and so on and so forth.  That is why I gave them the advice to choose a university course that assigns the highest importance to subjects in the humanities and the liberal arts, which will sharpen their ability for critical thinking, effective communication in writing and in speech, and in  relating one human discipline to another.  These skills are most important to the future generations who will have to continue acquiring more knowledge and know-how through either formal educational programs or for most professionals through massive open online courses (MOOCs).  Needless to say, I did not resist the temptation of marketing my university, the University of Asia and the Pacific, that has patterned all its undergraduate courses after the Harvard College curriculum that gives the highest importance to the humanities and liberal arts.

         I also told them to ignore all the talks about human beings being replaced by robots in many of the existing jobs, especially in the business process and knowledge outsourcing sectors.  As long as they have been immersed in the liberal arts (which today should include basic courses in the Calculus), they will always be in demand in any sector.  Friedman said it all:  There will also be jobs in the digital age that will require and reward the ability to leverage technical and interpersonal (soft) skills—to blend calculus with human (or animal psychology), to hold a conversation with Watson (a software) to make a cancer diagnosis and hold the hand of a patient to deliver it, to have a robot milk your cows but also to properly care for those cows in need of extra care with a gentle touch.  I am sure I am not being overly a jingoist by saying that being a Filipino adds more value to the practice of these soft skills.  Very few people from other nationalities can equal the ability of Filipinos to give “tender and loving care” in those jobs that require personal interactions.

         As long as we continue nurturing these soft skills in our families as well as in our schools (and Rosevale has the best combination of parent and teacher involvement in the inculcation of values and virtues), robotization poses no threat to the employment of our future generation of workers.  Let me end by quoting again from Friedman’s best-seller: “In an essay in The New York Times on October 18, 2015, entitled ‘Why What Your Learned in Preschool Is Crucial at Work,’ Claire Cain Miller pointed out that ‘for all the jobs that machines can now do—whether performing surgery, driving cars or serving food—the still lack one distinctly human trait.  They have no social skills.  Yet skills like cooperation, empathy and flexibility have become increasingly vital in modern-day work.”  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.