• 5/10/2023 8:53:08 AM

Regaining Talents- Part 1

A New Approach to Social Life and Economic Sustainability

Barış Onur Örs

The Origins of the concept of Talent

The word "talent," which emerged as the Hellenized version of a Babylonian concept, was used in Ancient Greece as "talanton" to define weight. Over time, with increasing commercial activities, the meaning of the word changed, becoming a unit of measure that defined the value of a product and began to be used as a currency. When it entered Latin in the Middle Ages, it gained an abstract meaning. Instead of being a currency, it now referred to an action or task undertaken with skill. It had shifted from a tangible, measurable thing to something more difficult to measure, referring to the knowledge and skill of a person that produced material value. Today, "talent" implies a person's natural abilities, skills, and potential. However, it is difficult to claim that this concept is completely separated from economic terminologies.

The transformation of talent from a unit of weight to currency and from currency to a value referring to a human attribute was likely influenced by the "Talents" story told in the Bible. In the story, a wealthy man embarking on a journey entrusts his wealth to three servants. According to their abilities, he gives the first servant 5 talents, the second 2 talents, and the third 1 talent. The first two servants double their talents by investing them. The third servant, fearing the loss of his talent, buries it in the ground and returns it unchanged to his master. When the master returns, he praises the good management of the first two servants and rewards them with more responsibility. He condemns the third servant for lack of initiative, takes his talent, and gives it to the first servant who now has 10 talents. The unprofitable servant is cast into darkness.

In this story, although "talent" is still used as a currency, it begins to emphasize the skill of those who receive this material value and turn it into an investment. In a sense, material value and a human attribute find a common meaning in the expression "talent." Until today, the material origin of the word has been forgotten and has taken on a meaning indicating individual skills, especially since the Roman Period when everything began to be individualized.

Today, when using the word "talent," we don't think about its material origin or economic relationship. In our daily conversations, we consider it an enviable attribute that some of us are born with and some are not. Possessing it has become a privilege. So much so that we want to find and exhibit our "talent" at any cost. Similarly, its absence becomes a source of grief that we can never accept. As a result, we feel the need to bring out our positive attributes like a fruit vendor in a market and hide our negative attributes behind the counter. Or, within the selective nature of the current economic system where talent becomes a competitive factor, we may find ourselves suppressing others' creative power as a manager or employee.

Guy Standing's "talent economy" refers to a system where "talent" is seen as an economic value, breaking the courage of individuals to use their creativity and original thoughts and directing them to develop skills that provide more financial gain. Similarly, Frank Furedi also states that creativity and originality are suppressed by the market-oriented approach of the talent concept. These approaches, although hidden in the background, demonstrate that the material and economic nature of "talent" in the past continues today in different forms.

In the Bible story, "talent" is essentially an object of investment. The Talents parable is a narrative that implies we have moved to an age where simply accepting and returning existing value is no longer accepted and sustainable relationships cannot be established with it. It is the story of our transition to an age where exchange value replaces use value. In this new age, merely preserving and using what we have frugally will no longer be sufficient; we are expected to turn our possessions into investments and double their values. Otherwise, we may be deemed incompetent and punished.

This understanding corresponds to the dominant economic thought of today, where natural resources are seen as raw material and unused resources are considered waste. Just as the potential energy of water that cannot be converted into energy, trees that cannot be sacrificed to the forest industry, and the inherent values and unique meanings of our planet's life are not considered without being mobilized; potentials that cannot be activated are called "waste," and "talents" that cannot be turned into investments have begun to be seen as losses within the current economic paradigm. This is because the concept of talent is still seen as an object of investment and a resource offered to the competitive economy, which is determined by the fastest side, rather than an intrinsic or shared common value. However, today both the concept of working life and the economic order continue to evolve.

Another “Talent”

In English, while "talent" refers to an innate tendency or potential, the word "skill" generally corresponds to abilities and knowledge learned or developed over time. However, the distinction between these concepts has become less sharp today, and as a result of recent psychological, pedagogical, and neurological studies, the concept of talent has evolved into an understanding that combines innate potential with lifelong learning and development processes.

Howard Gardner (1983) states in his Multiple Intelligences Theory that each individual has different types of intelligence from birth, and each intelligence has a separate learning style and tendency. Carol Dweck (2006) proposes that people have two different mindsets, "fixed mindset" and "growth mindset." With this perspective, "talent" becomes changeable and can be developed with effort, rather than being an immutable innate characteristic. From a psychological standpoint, Angela Duckworth (2016) introduces the concept of "grit," emphasizing that achieving success is not only related to abilities but also to determination and perseverance. In the pedagogical field, Ken Robinson (2006) advocates that each individual's unique talents and potential should be valued in creativity and education. Robinson believes that education systems should provide an environment in which individuals can succeed and be happy by valuing their natural talents and uniqueness. Neurological studies also offer new perspectives. For example, the concept of neuroplasticity refers to the brain's lifelong learning and adaptation process (Merzenich, 2013). These findings indicate that individuals have continuous learning and development potential throughout their lives, in addition to innate abilities, and suggest that the issue should be approached more broadly and flexibly.

In addition to pedagogical, psychological, and neurological studies, there are also sociological, economic, and political approaches to the concept of talent.

Pierre Bourdieu (1986) argues that cultural resources obtained by individuals from their education, family, and social environment, which he calls "cultural capital," have significant impacts on success and social mobility. Gary Becker (1993), using the concept of "human capital," draws attention to the importance of the economic value of investments in individuals' education, experience, and skills. These two approaches parallel the concept of "general intellect" introduced by Karl Marx. General intellect represents the general intellectual capacity and knowledge accumulation of society and refers to common intelligence and knowledge resources beyond individual abilities. In the context of the knowledge economy and digital transformation today, this concept is regaining importance. Richard Florida (2002) presents a similar perspective with his concept of the "Creative Class." Florida argues that the economic success and innovation of societies depend on the presence of individuals with creative talents and diverse skills. These individuals contribute to the economic and social development of society by working in education, technology, and cultural industries.

These approaches offer a more social perspective against the understanding of "talent" as a resource to be converted into investment. According to this perspective, "talent" is considered a synergy to be revealed together within social conditions that prioritize total benefit rather than being a characteristic to be developed individually for specific purposes within a competitive logic. Influenced by these thoughts, the evolution of the concept is also manifested in education policies and workforce strategies.

Especially under the influence of technological change and globalization, governments and policymakers are taking steps towards uncovering and developing individuals' innate abilities and potentials by implementing lifelong learning programs, skill development initiatives, and innovations in education policies (OECD, 2019). In this process, the importance of the social perspective plays a critical role in the development of individual abilities and potentials and the economic and social success of society.

Nurturing Talent

Nowadays, our perspective on the concept of "talent" is shaped within a competitive economic system, where individuals display their skills in an atmosphere of contests and shows, trying to outperform each other. Our schools, streets, workplaces, and even homes have transformed into show venues. Digital spaces, which are increasingly replacing reality, are designed from the outset for individuals to exhibit and present themselves. The flow of life allows us less and less opportunity for shared experiences; although our range of experiences or encounters may be increasing, the duration and quality of our joint activities diminish day by day. Within these narrowed experiences, instead of holistically presenting the qualities we consider unique to ourselves, we are left to present the diminished summaries of our identities. Thinking about discovering or unleashing the unique potential of individuals while moving within such constrained experiences means taking on the risk of contradicting the flow of our daily lives. As our opportunities to enable individuals to discover and unleash their potential shrink, it becomes inevitable for companies to turn to readily available talents for the continuation of their ongoing work. Companies develop their own methods for accessing talents, while job candidates must continuously display their knowledge, skills, and experiences, managing their careers like running a small business, as Pierre Levy (2000) puts it.

This dual relationship between job candidates and human resources departments of companies, based on presenting oneself and finding talent, has been shaping our social life for decades, while companies continue to benefit without compensation from the social resource they consider their human capital, as Andre Gorz describes. Today, the rapid consumption of natural resources due to industrial activities without considering sustainability poses a serious problem for our planet; similarly, extracting talent (general intellect) from social life for the individual interests of companies creates similar risks for our shared culture. We see that the knowledgeable and skilled workforce we need to solve urgent problems, such as the climate crisis, which require us to mobilize all our knowledge, skills, and experience, is being diverted to other tasks for the sake of large companies' profit logic. Moreover, as these skilled individuals are withdrawn one by one from society, like deforested areas losing their forest quality, new ones cannot replace the departed, or companies often avoid responsibility by externalizing the talented workforce. In this sense, reintegrating "talent" into social life and developing a similar sense of responsibility for this concept as we have for natural resources is of vital importance.

To be continued...


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