February 17, 2011
February 17, 2011
February 17, 2011
After the boom and bust, the mania and the meltdown, the Composure Class rose once again. Its members didn’t make their money through hedge-fund wizardry or by some big financial score. Theirs was a statelier ascent. They got good grades in school, established solid social connections, joined fine companies, medical practices, and law firms. Wealth settled down upon them gradually, like a gentle snow.
You can see a paragon of the Composure Class having an al-fresco lunch at some bistro in Aspen or Jackson Hole. He’s just back from China and stopping by for a corporate board meeting on his way to a five-hundred-mile bike-a-thon to support the fight against lactose intolerance. He is asexually handsome, with a little less body fat than Michelangelo’s David. As he crosses his legs, you observe that they are immeasurably long and slender. He doesn’t really have thighs. Each leg is just one elegant calf on top of another. His voice is so calm and measured that he makes Barack Obama sound like Sam Kinison. He met his wife at the Clinton Global Initiative, where they happened to be wearing the same Doctors Without Borders support bracelets. They are a wonderfully matched pair; the only tension between them involves their workout routines. For some reason, today’s high-status men do a lot of running and biking and so only really work on the muscles in the lower half of their bodies. High-status women, on the other hand, pay ferocious attention to their torsos, biceps, and forearms so they can wear sleeveless dresses all summer and crush rocks with their bare hands.
A few times a year, members of this class head to a mountain resort, carrying only a Council on Foreign Relations tote bag (when you have your own plane, you don’t need luggage that actually closes). Once there, they play with hundred-and-sixty-pound dogs, for it has become fashionable to have canines a third as tall as the height of your ceilings. They will reflect on the genetic miracle they have achieved. (Their grandmothers looked like Gertrude Stein, but their granddaughters look like Uma Thurman.) In the evenings, they will traipse through resort-community pedestrian malls licking interesting gelatos, while passersby burst into spontaneous applause.
Occasionally, you meet a young, rising member of this class at the gelato store, as he hovers indecisively over the cloudberry and ginger-pomegranate selections, and you notice that his superhuman equilibrium is marred by an anxiety. Many members of this class, like many Americans generally, have a vague sense that their lives have been distorted by a giant cultural bias. They live in a society that prizes the development of career skills but is inarticulate when it comes to the things that matter most. The young achievers are tutored in every soccer technique and calculus problem, but when it comes to their most important decisions—whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise—they are on their own. Nor, for all their striving, do they understand the qualities that lead to the highest achievement. Intelligence, academic performance, and prestigious schools don’t correlate well with fulfillment, or even with outstanding accomplishment. The traits that do make a difference are poorly understood, and can’t be taught in a classroom, no matter what the tuition: the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships; to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures. In short, these achievers have a sense that they are shallower than they need to be.
Help comes from the strangest places. We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness. Over the past few decades, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and others have made great strides in understanding the inner working of the human mind. Far from being dryly materialistic, their work illuminates the rich underwater world where character is formed and wisdom grows. They are giving us a better grasp of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, predispositions, character traits, and social bonding, precisely those things about which our culture has least to say. Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.
A core finding of this work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. The conscious mind gives us one way of making sense of our environment. But the unconscious mind gives us other, more supple ways. The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years provides a different perspective on our lives, one that emphasizes the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, moral intuition over abstract logic, perceptiveness over I.Q. It allows us to tell a different sort of success story, an inner story to go along with the conventional surface one.
To give a sense of how this inner story goes, let’s consider a young member of the Composure Class, though of course the lessons apply to members of all classes. I’ll call him Harold. His inner-mind training began before birth. Even when he was in the womb, Harold was listening for his mother’s voice, and being molded by it. French babies cry differently from babies who’ve heard German in the womb, because they’ve absorbed French intonations before birth. Fetuses who have been read “The Cat in the Hat” while in the womb suck rhythmically when they hear it again after birth, because they recognize the rhythm of the poetry.
As a newborn, Harold, like all babies, was connecting with his mother. He gazed at her. He mimicked. His brain was wired by her love (the more a rat pup is licked and groomed by its mother, the more synaptic connections it has). Harold’s mother, in return, read his moods. A conversation developed between them, based on touch, gaze, smell, rhythm, and imitation. When Harold was about eleven months old, his mother realized that she knew him better than she’d ever known anybody, even though they’d never exchanged a word…
February 17, 2011
Behind her back, they call Eli Saetersmoen a “golden skirt.” But the Norwegian executive is actually dressed in tight gray wool pants and black patent leather boots as she emerges briskly from the door of the Oslo airport.
She smiles and looks satisfied, even though she has every reason to be exhausted.
Saetersmoen, 46, has just come from Bergen in western Norway, where she attended a meeting of the board of directors of the Bergen Group. “We discussed the business figures for the fourth quarter,” she says.
For several hours, she asked questions and searched for potential trouble spots in the balance sheet of the company, which specializes in the maritime industry. “You have to be analytical,” she explains, “even if it means stepping on people’s toes.”
New Approaches to an Old Problem
It’s shortly before 8 p.m., but her workday isn’t over yet. In the train from the airport to downtown Oslo, she’ll work on the presentation she is scheduled to give at a conference the next day. “They want to know how a successful board of directors needs to operate.”
Saetersmoen says this as nonchalantly as possible, and yet she knows all too well that only a few years ago, hardly anyone would have come up with the idea of asking a woman for advice on such matters.
But something has changed in Norway. “The country,” she says, “has taken a big step forward.” She is referring to a legal quota introduced in 2006, which requires that women must make up at least 40 percent of the boards of publicly traded companies. Companies that fail to comply face a draconian penalty: They can be dissolved.
Since then, economists and feminists worldwide have viewed the Scandinavian country as a testing ground for new methods to solve an old problem: the lack of women in positions of power.
Saetersmoen is a poster child of successful gender policy. She has already been a member of 12 boards, including that of the state-owned energy company Statoil. She is currently the chairwoman of the board of directors of the risk management company Scandpower, and she has been the managing director of the Norwegian branch of the Falck Nutec conglomerate for the last year and a half.
Proponents of Norway’s gender equality act, the only law of its kind worldwide, tout Saetersmoen as a role model for a new generation of self-confident women in senior management. But critics claim that her many positions of responsibility are evidence of the excesses of state-sponsored feminism. They refer to women who are members of the boards of multiple companies as “gullskjørtene,” or “golden skirts.”
The Norwegians proudly point out that their pioneering law is being imitated in various countries, including the Netherlands, France and Spain. The Norwegian media has also reported extensively on the gender equality debate in Germany. Will Norway become an exporter of women’s rights, in addition to oil and salmon?
The country already ranks at the top of the United Nations gender equality index. Norway introduced full women’s suffrage as long ago as 1913. For close to two decades now, the Norwegian government has paid women 80 percent of their salaries for an entire year during maternity leave. The percentage of women in the work place is also higher than average.
Nevertheless, the Norwegian statistics resemble those of other countries in many respects. The majority of women work in the public sector, as teachers, nurses or kindergarten teachers. Many women return to part-time jobs after paid maternity leave, which is an important reason why they earn less than men. And the so-called glass ceiling that prevents women from rising to the top levels of corporations also exists in the land of fjords.
Not Driven to Ruin
Now, about five years after the introduction of the quota, Norwegian academics are taking stock for the first time. “Neither the worst fears of opponents nor the greatest hopes of proponents have come true,” says Marit Hoel, director of the Oslo-based Center for Corporate Diversity. She has just presented her findings to German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger in Berlin.
Hoel’s conclusions suggest that the restructuring of corporate boards has not driven companies to chaos or ruin. The balance sheets of successful companies suffered a little in the short term but recovered quickly, says Hoel. “By contrast, companies that weren’t doing so well tended to benefit from having women on their boards.”
Norwegian companies clearly succeeded in finding sufficient numbers of competent women to serve on their boards. “The people who were replaced were mainly older board members,” says Hoel, adding that their positions were taken by women with substantially better education levels. According to surveys of corporate CEOs, women have hardly changed the working style on boards. “Only a few report that the culture of discussion has become more open,” says the social scientist.
A different study made headlines last fall when it revealed that more than 100 companies had transformed themselves from publicly held corporations (ASAs) to privately held companies (ASs), precisely at the time when the threat of punishment under the new law took effect. (The law only covers state-owned and publicly listed firms.) “We were all quite surprised,” says Hoel.
Upon closer examination, however, it became clear that the key reason for the change in most of the cases was a different law that took effect at the same time, and which no longer required financial firms to be registered as publicly held corporations.
Dominated by Men
The “golden skirts” phenomenon, on the other hand, is real. “Before the quota was introduced, no one had more than four board positions. Now the maximum number is eight to nine,” says Cathrine Seierstad, an economist who teaches at Queen Mary University in London…
February 17, 2011
Japan spent more than two centuries shut off from the rest of the world—and it still shows. Henry Tricks, The Economist’s Tokyo bureau chief, finds the Edo period still shimmering just under the surface …
It is mid-September, the heat is just leaking out of the end of summer, and Japan is enjoying a rare public holiday. A holiday, that is, in the uniquely Japanese sense of the word, which means the GPS hardwired into every citizen is sending thousands upon thousands to the same fashionable boutiques near my home in Tokyo to shop. It is more crowded than a commuter train at rush hour. Policemen shepherd the multitude along the streets with flashing orange batons. Yet there is something peaceful about the way the Japanese drift together in a crowd; they carry a tiny aura of personal space with them, no bigger than one of their Louis Vuitton handbags, and every bit as precious. They hardly touch, like those shoals of translucent fish that dart from one direction to another without colliding. The policemen use their batons like conductors, keeping everything harmonious. But if you try to defy them, those batons will block your way faster than they can say “Dame desu”—which is about as final as “Not on your life.”
Such are the means by which order and harmony are maintained in Japan. There is a deep-rooted respect for others, so ingrained that ground staff at Narita airport bow to departing planes as they taxi to the runway. And there is a subtle coercion, like an invisible hand on society’s collar, based on centuries of ancestor worship that has made many customs immutable. The attitudes have been shaped partly by the physical landscape of Japan, which packs one of the most crowded populations on earth onto narrow plains, bounded by sea and inhospitable mountains. For centuries the main activity has been rice farming, which requires communal planting, weeding, watering and harvesting, rather than the rugged individualism of American and European agriculture.
I have been mesmerised by life here since I arrived a year ago, floating on a wave of adoration of most things Japanese, yet getting in everyone’s way and doing everything wrong. I would jog around the Imperial Palace in a clockwise direction, only to find everyone else running anti-clockwise, bearing down on me as if I didn’t exist. I wore short sleeves in early autumn, and couldn’t work out why, when it was still blazing hot outside, everyone had put on their jackets and ties again. After swimming with dolphins on the island of Mikurajima this summer, my family and I went to a café to have lunch, still in our damp bathing costumes. Our hostess was so livid that at first I thought we must have set the place alight, not left a few damp seats where our bottoms had been. Living as a foreigner in Japan, for all its attractions, has many such small humiliations. You may be on a noble quest to plumb the depths of the Japanese soul, but you will take so many wrong turns you end up wondering whether you are indeed too brutish to make sense of it.
You may also be struck by how few of the locals have a matching interest in you and your culture. That is because it increasingly seems as if the outside world—with its sharper elbows, fattier food and shoddy dress sense—is kept at arm’s length. Fewer young Japanese are travelling abroad, fewer are studying English (this year, the main English-language school went bust), and fewer are taking places at leading academic institutions overseas such as Harvard Business School. Bosses at Japan’s legendary export businesses complain they cannot find youngsters who are prepared to work abroad. Two clever young Japanese friends, just posted to excellent jobs in America, told me that Japan is so comfortable they find it hard to leave.
Yet as those friends are the first to admit, it is a cotton-wool comfort that keeps out alien germs–like the surgical facemasks that many Japanese wear, so at odds with the rest of their perfect attire. To the outsider, it can lend the society an air of feeble vulnerability. At times it is downright maddening. Foreign ATM cards don’t work in most Japanese banks, Japanese movies—even the classics—rented at the ubiquitous Tsutaya video store don’t offer the option of foreign-language subtitles. Japanese mobile-phone technology is so idiosyncratic that analysts talk of “the Galapagos effect”, because it has grown up in a unique eco-system that makes it unsuitable for use anywhere else.
At times it feels as if the outside world does not exist. That can be liberating for an affluent expatriate—outsiders are not held to the same standards of conduct as their Japanese counterparts. Japan is so safe that my children can walk to school alone, and if I lose my wallet I know someone will find it and give it back. Life can be chillingly harsh, though, at the bottom of the social pile. Many Chinese immigrants, known euphemistically as interns, toil in sweatshop conditions in factories. Some have died through overwork. Illegal immigrants, including those with Japanese families, are regularly locked up in jail and deported…