Almost three years ago, a satirical publication in the United States, The Onion, reported that many American workers were outsourcing their own jobs. In a mock interview, an ''accountant'', Donald Felton, explained: ''I take the money that I would have spent on coffee and pay someone in India to do my job for me. It's allowed me to unleash my full potential.'' By ''full potential'', he meant he could spend his work days browsing the internet and watching YouTube. The Indian worker told The Onion: ''I am able to feed my family and Mr Felton can devote more time to his fantasy football team.''
Like all good satire, that ''news report'' was rooted in an uncomfortable truth about our society: the privileges we bear, and injustices we suffer, often depend on the geography of our birth.
This week, life imitated art.
The American telco Verizon published the fascinating tale of a computer programmer employed by one of its clients, whom it named only as ''Bob''. It described him as a ''family man, inoffensive and quiet. Someone you wouldn't look at twice in an elevator.''
Bob's colleagues thought he worked a typical 9am to 5pm day. He was the best software developer in his team. A Verizon investigator said his performance reviews showed that ''for the last several years in a row, he received excellent remarks''. ''His code was clean, well written and submitted in a timely fashion.''
Yet Bob's work was performed entirely by a Chinese firm he had contracted, and which logged into his computer remotely. Bob paid the Chinese company less than one-fifth of his six-figure salary to do his job - and it did it very well. The Verizon investigator said Bob had spent most of his time in the office surfing the web, watching videos of cats and updating his Facebook page.
Bob's identity remains unknown to the public. Indeed, some insist that his tale is aprocryphal. Yet he has become a cult figure overnight, lauded by many workers as a genius. It's unknown whether he was sacked, though he no longer works for the same company.
But Bob's story is far more than just a laugh. In one neat anecdote, it sums up the challenge many Western workers will face this century.
The great labour upheavals of the 20th century were caused by automation and, in the past few decades, the freeing-up of trade between nations. For countries like Australia, these changes led to fewer jobs for unskilled labourers but more opportunities for professionals and knowledge workers. Today, it is simply unfeasible for Australians to compete with the cheap, unskilled labour available in Asia, whether to sew fabric into shirts or to assemble electronics components into phones and TVs. We have focused instead on developing products in creative or information-based industries, which require skilled, educated workers. These are the areas in which we have, and must maintain, a comparative advantage.
This century, professional labour - skills in IT, accounting, teaching and law - will be subjected to the same degree of international competition that killed off much of Australia's manufacturing sector. Asia is no longer a Third World backwater. The ranks of its educated middle classes are expected to expand from about 500 million in 2009 to 1700 million in 2020, and to 3200 million in 2030.
Some of the brightest of these people will study at Australian universities, which have become one of our crucial export industries. Yet trade is not one-way. For example, we can now buy accounting services from Australian-educated, Jakarta-based Indonesians at a cheaper price than we can buy locally. Many Australian companies already employ IT and customer-service staff who live in south-east Asia. We will soon be able to seek legal advice online from Indian lawyers who specialise in Australian statutes.
We should not fear these changes; indeed, Australia's future growth relies on Asia's prosperity. As federal Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson said last year, we have already benefited greatly from Asia's rise. ''The rapid development of the Asian continent is not a force that can be slowed; nor should it be.'' Asia's expanding middle classes will demand better services, goods and experiences. We can provide what they want, whether it be high-quality education or tourism.
The challenge for Australia's white-collar workers is not to fight overseas-based competition but to adapt. We can, and must, use the cheaper services that Asia offers to develop better, more-innovative products and services. If we watch videos of cats and assume we are inately better workers, we will swiftly become a backwater ourselves.
An earlier version of this editorial wrongly said that "Bob" was an employee of Verizon. He worked for one of Verizon's clients.