Farms, Factories, Fat Farms

Tom Peters

Like it or not, it’s a brave new world. Some three-quarters of us work in the service sector. The fraction continues to rise. Furthermore, about three-quarters of manufacturing workers perform service jobs—design, accounting, marketing, distribution. The few who do labor in the factory stare at computer-terminal screens more often than they lift heavy objects. And it appears that as many of us now work at fat farms as dairy farms.

Concurrently, products are going from “hard” to “soft,” then softer still. Harley-Davidson sells a lot of big bikes in Europe. But it’s the market for bike derivatives—hats, jackets, mugs bearing Harley logos—that’s white hot. Or consider the California Raisins, a group that plumps for the state’s raisin crop. It’s sales from the likes of personal appearances and T-shirts in 1989 were greater than the value of the raisin crop itself. Beat that!

Even Japan is changing. Its best and brightest are suddenly eschewing jobs in factories in favor of financial services; and after years of self-denial, its recreational market, for one, is ticketed to grow from $30 billion today to $130 billion by 1995.

What’s the world coming to? Something different. Something “weird.” But that need not frighten us. When harvesters and fertilizers became so effective that farming no longer absorbed most human resources, we poured into the cities and went to work in the factory. Now that tools are eliminating the need for hammering and hauling in the factory, we’re migrating to desks and service jobs. This shift began decades ago, but the ripening promise of information technology is accelerating the process.

The transition has, of course, altered our consumption habits. Long ago, plentiful food and a leak-free roof defined consumer satiety. Much later, the auto was a toy, until Henry Ford made it affordable to the masses: Who gave a hoot that it came in one color? Then came more hues, direction signals, deluxe interiors. Today, car buyers of all stripes demand a choice among radio, radio with tape deck, radio with tape deck, and CD player. The same thing happened to athletic shoes. We 40-something types remember Keds, black or white, high top or low. Now, only a Cray supercomputer could track the variety of available “sneakers.”

It used to be that you worked from dawn to dark, seven days a week, to put adequate food on the table for your family of six. Now, for most, the food and rent is paid for by noon. From 1 o’clock to 2 o’clock you work for a night out at a local restaurant. You spend the next hour toiling for health club dues and recreational gear, so you can work off the calories added at that restaurant. Then from 3 o’clock to the end of your eight-hour stint, it’s earning bucks for a trip to Disney World and additions to your “home entertainment center.” (Such consumption patterns are comparable for the middle class and above in all the advanced industrial nations.)

Each day brings new options. A November issue of the National (a sports daily—one of a host of new, narrow-gauge magazines) featured a one-page ad for TeamLine. You call the 800 number “of your favorite team,” on a touch-tone phone (natch!),then listen in to a live radio broadcast of the game; it’s all conveniently charged to your MasterCard or Visa. Speaking of life’s utter necessities, San Francisco Focus magazine carried this ad from Federal Express: “Got friends who can’t make it another day without barbecued ribs? Take it easy. Just give us a call and we’ll send you a gourmet food guide stuffed with all the mouth-watering places that will happily deliver your favorite food to you, or anyone you choose. Overnight.”

What to make of all this? An intense MIT professor recently tried to depress me with tales of erosion in America’s steel-making technology. Another professor, from the Midwest, wanted me to weep over Honda’s matchless rate of motorcycle product introductions. I don’t dismiss their concerns, but I was puzzled that neither saw our lead in 800 numbers and gourmet food delivery as significant offsets.

Steel and cycles are important. And in manufacturing we have a tidy lead in as many areas as we have troubles. The rest of the world would love to have our “problems” in microprocessors, computers, software, biotechnology, and aircraft, perhaps the most important arenas in the 21st-century manufacturing economy.

I’m glad we are holding our edge in these crucial arenas. (Intel, which complains that it was forced out of commodity memory-chip production by the Japanese, has turned by necessity to creating supercomputers on a chip. I’ll take it!) But I’m just as pleased to read of new FedEx services, and toll-free numbers for dialing up your choice of sporting events. There’s nothing shabby or unsophisticated about any of this. Indeed, our best service companies, such as MCI, Fed Ex, Turner Broadcasting, Disney, or Marriott, are now more sophisticated than our top manufacturers. And the new commercial offerings are precisely the “goods” that modern consumers in fully developed countries, sated on standard products, want. It’s no more strange than was the luxury of non-black cars from Ford in 1927.

By 2005, virtually all of us (including the remaining handful of farmers) will be “knowledge workers.” Our products, and our lives, will be very “soft” compared to those of the farmer of 1820, the steel worker of 1920. Those who understand the change—industrial behemoth Matsushita with its acquisition of entertainment giant MCA?—will prosper.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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