A Return to Self-Reliance

Tom Peters

Essayist Lance Morrow, in a hand-wringing article in Time magazine, “The Temping of America” (March 29, 1993), claims the restructuring of the U.S. workplace represents a “profound betrayal of the American dynamic.”

I’m the first to admit we’re in the midst of an earthshaking change in the way business gets done. And it is spooky to realize, as Time reports, that Manpower Inc., with 560,000 workers, is now America’s largest employer.

But “profound betrayal”? Not so fast.

As usual, the media act as if history started last week. Consider several factors Time overlooked:

* Self-employment is not a new phenomenon. In 1900, 50 percent of American workers were self-employed. By 1977 that number had dropped to just 7 percent, as giant firms—for the first time—dominated the economic landscape. Currently, the self-employment share is 13 percent.

In hindsight, the era of huge-company preeminence will most likely be seen as an anomaly. Fortune 500 employment soared after World War II, and now it’s plummeting. So?

* Big-company jobs are no bargain. I’d hardly deny that old-fashioned, big-company job security has taken a permanent blow. (News flash: A job is not an entitlement—and the majority, in smaller firms, never were secure.) But let’s get serious: Yesterday’s blue- and white-collar jobs—e.g., pounding home another 5,000 rivets for Mother GM—mostly stunk. Try a few pages from Rivet Head, by Ben Hamper, if you doubt me.

* The workforce is not “being downsized” (per Time). Many severely bloated, huge firms are shriveling. In the 1980s, the Fortune 500 shed 3 million jobs, and the trend continues apace. But that contraction was offset by about 20 million positions created in new and growing smaller companies. To be sure, the new jobs juggernaut was stopped in its tracks in 1989—which is the primary problem Bill Clinton’s economic plans must address.

* Japan doesn’t hold the answers. The Japanese lifetime-employment story, repeatedly touted in the ’80s, was mostly malarkey. Only a third of Japan’s workforce—males working for giant outfits—are offered lifetime employment. The rest are buffeted mercilessly by the market: Small suppliers (and their employees) are jerked around by big customers; part-time workers (mostly women) are enlisted when big-company demand is high, then thoughtlessly discarded when business slumps.

Yes, enormous changes are under way. Modest-size companies are becoming dominant. Large firms are partnering with passing parades of small, specialized suppliers, and reconfiguring regularly as the fickle market demands. Careers are becoming fast-paced, on-and-off-a-payroll dramas. Industrial consultant Carvel Taylor, quoted in Time, sums up: “You need to have an entrepreneurial spirit, definable skills, and an ability to articulate and market them, but that is exactly what the bulk of the population holed up inside bureaucratic organizations doesn’t have, and why they are scared to death.”

Finally, Time and I agree! But the question lingers: Is it so awful to ask the average adult to exhibit an entrepreneurial spirit and beaver away, for life, at improving his or her marketable skills? Isn’t that, not the dreariness of most big-company travail, the true American tradition?

As Time gnashed its teeth, Inc., the small-company magazine, ran an upbeat feature, “A Company of Businesspeople,” in which writer John Case declared that total quality management and excellence were passing fads. Though useful, these schemes were based on the old model of worker-as-slot-filler (even if the slot filler is a bit more empowered than in the past).

The real workplace revolution, Case claims, stems from pioneering companies turning every employee into a de facto entrepreneur-businessperson. He cites Baltimore-based cardboard-box maker Chesapeake Packaging, whose mission statement begins, “This is a company of owners, of partners, of businesspeople.” Anyone can say such things, but Chesapeake and others Case
profiles are living them.

How much inefficiency is left to be wrung out of big business? A lot! (One gloomy forecaster says if the current craze for “re-engineering”—completely redesigning business processes—is fully played out, 25 million more jobs could evaporate.) How long will it take to transform employees into “businesspeople”? Decades. How wrenching will the transformation be? Utterly.

The good news is numerous firms are vigorously pursuing brave new models. The better news, most employees are up to the scary challenge.

A “betrayal of the American dynamic”? Perhaps the opposite is more accurate. While most temp work in 1993 leaves much to be desired, one can reasonably hope we are witnessing the first signs of a return to the Emersonian spirit of self-reliance on which this nation was founded.

(C) 1993 TPG Communications.

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