Editorial – Attention Deficit

As economies wobble and layoffs pile up, adults are heading back to school in droves. ?Retraining!? is the cry of the hour, meaning everything from upgrading current skills to shifting careers entirely.

Engineers are becoming teachers and assembly line workers are training as dental assistants, while governments are ploughing money into programs to ease the process. The concept is hardly new. As a Human Resources Canada site pointed out in 2004, ?today’s worker will have on average approximately three careers and eight jobs over a lifetime.?

But with a drastic upswing in both the urgency and volume of retraining, It’s important to ask: do people have the skills to get those skills? In other words, does the workforce of the typical developed country still have what it takes to focus on and absorb new information?

Apparently, It’s a talent North Americans are losing fast, according to Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta. He’s the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardises Our Future.

And he isn’t alone. David Meyer, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, specializes in attention, ?how we focus on one thing rather than another,? as this Times article explains. As Meyer notes, chronic, long-term distraction is widespread?and deadly (even in early middle age, people in chronically distracted jobs exhibit high levels of stress-related diseases and even irreversible brain damage).

It isn’t just a matter of memory. As a recent Guardian article noted, our electronic world takes care of most of that for us (with numbers programmed into speed dial, 55 per cent of people surveyed did not know their partner’s number, while one in 10 couldn’t provide a single phone number from memory).

No, the real issue is whether we’ve lost the ability to focus, arguably an important factor when restructuring relies on people learning entirely new sets of skills (or upgrading existing ones)?and doing it well enough to stay globally competitive and turn the wallowing ship of an economy around.

As we’ve seen, CEOs are perfectly capable of running that ship aground in grand style, but the new economies that emerge will require a workforce that can concentrate long enough to grasp the information and skills of an emerging market (green manufacturing and energy jobs, for example).

The trouble is that these momentous shifts are coming at a time when our modern brains have been conditioned to skim and skip over tiny bursts of information (emails, text messages, Twitter, rapid-fire scene cuts on TV shows and commercials)?leaving us ill-prepared to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes or even seconds.

As the G20 leaders work on the foundations of a new global economy, vying to position their countries strongly, perhaps one of the biggest deficits they should be thinking about is attention.