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“A little brains, a little talent…”


The pet-peeve language issue I’m going to look at in this post is a particular way of using the word “talent,” which isn’t really a metaphor per se but more of a quality or attribute that is nominalized and reified in ways that detach it from actual people, and their lives and work. I’ve discussed this briefly before in a post about international mobility, where I described “the extraction and objectification of ‘talent’ as something apart from those who might have it and use it, and transformation into a product available for sale.” But lately it seems like these expressions are popping up more regularly in the higher ed news articles I’m reading.

Another term that I hear often at the moment is “talent market”, and closely related to these is the expression “talent pool” (don’t go fishing in the shallow end!). We also see the related use of “brains” (brain drain, brain exchange) and in some cases, “minds” (“free trade in bright minds”). Here are a few examples culled from higher ed news articles:

  • global competition for talent
  • countries compete for the world’s top talent
  • cultivating domestic talent
  • race for the ‘best and brightest’
  • attractive destination for foreign talent
  • international students are seen as a fabulous talent pool for Canada
  • tilting the talent balance
  • the global brain race
  • brain circulation
  • a free market in minds

The underlying synecdoche – the one valued attribute standing in for the whole person – is reflected in expressions of an objectified quality that can be traded in an international market. With the market framing come the metaphors of competition, including war and sports imagery (“battle for brainpower”). In other examples (such as the media coverage of the first CERC awards) there are obvious parallels, including the use of hockey metaphors to describe the recruitment of international scientific leaders.

A number of discursive threads are enabled and connected by this framing of “talent”:

Talent as “natural”: The obsession with talent masks the obvious privilege it takes to have one’s gifts identified, nurtured, and brought to their full potential. Talent must be seen in order to exist, and resources are required for it to be visible; it has to be recognisable to those who seek it and within the systems that attach value to it. Like academic “merit”, this kind of talent is not inherent in people but constructed in large part through context.

Talent as a scarce (natural) resource: Framing talent as an object of exchange also seems to presuppose that the quest for “talent” (as with many other “natural resources”) is a zero-sum game. A “war for talent” becomes legitimate when we assume that talent is in limited supply, and our priorities shift to recruiting the “top talent” from other places. Hence there’s also a kind of fetishization of the “most talented” as objects of intense competition, or more accurately as a resource that must be ferreted out from its most obscure locations (diamonds in the rough!) and channelled to the most competitive institutions and nations: “The more countries and companies compete for talent, the better the chances that geniuses will be raked up from obscurity” (Economist).

Talent as economizable: The assumption that talent must be economized, or indeed is that which can be economized; whereas there are many things we could call “talent” that don’t fit this definition. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve read something by Richard Florida or one of his acolytes, who have given the same treatment to “creativity” – for example in the 2005 book, The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent. In his widespread proselytizing, Florida has named “talent” as one of the factors in fostering a “creative class” environment (the proposed solution for boosting economic development). Similarly to the theorising of “human capital”, this is a way of seeing people primarily in terms of what they can contribute to the economy. And like Florida’s idea of creativity, talent is only recognized in the forms that contribute to economic life in particular ways.

Talent as mobile: An example of this is the language of a “free trade in minds”. Governments seek mobile talent as one of the (human) resources required to build a productive and skilled workforce. International students are a primary source of this, which is why all this ties in with the effort to “brand” Canada as a top location. While there’s an assumption that talent itself, like an aether, can drift freely across borders to the “best” or most competitive nation, the reality is that not all bodies are as mobile as they need to be to compete in this way. Brains don’t move across borders, people do – people with hopes, with problems, with families, with bodies that need care. Minds also don’t move as freely when people want a level of stability and security in their working and personal lives, or when they lack the resources or privilege to follow important opportunities.

All this becomes the logic used to make arguments about which policy solutions are the right ones. Weapons in this “war” for talent are the policies that governments can use to fine-tune the intake of new potential citizens – general immigration strategies but also more targeted policies designed to help with recruitment of the right people (such as the UK’s “exceptional talent” category and China’s “one thousand talents” program). Again and again we see the vacuous imperative to national economic “competitiveness” being invoked, but for what exactly are we competing?

What was for the HR managers an organizational phenomenon (see “talent management”) has become, at least in part thanks to the creative class gurus, positioned as a national problem that governments need to deal with through policy change. The rhetoric of talent is applied to immigration, to governance of competitive research funding, and to international post-secondary recruitment. International students, many of whom now see themselves as “cash cows” for financially needy universities, are also being viewed as a “talent pool” into which the nation can dip for its required quota of desirable immigrants.

You could argue that it’s obvious why economic theorists would see people in terms of their economic value. But focusing too much on this single factor is both alienating and obfuscating; it takes us away from a holistic understanding of the issues. Students, early career researchers, and other potential migrants aren’t merely the plugs that will stop up the supposed skills gap, and there are ethical problems with any argument that treats them as such.

Not only that, but the “talent market” is like all markets, an unequal and constructed one. So what are the costs of competing, and who can pay them? Would “talent” perhaps be less scarce if we tried developing it by dealing with inequities – looking at what holds people back – rather than trying actively to find the few, elite “best and brightest” elsewhere?

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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