Work Force 2000: Farewell to Sinecures

Tom Peters

The United Auto Workers have picked General Motors to set the pace in establishing Big Three employment parameters for the next 36 months. Their chief aim: lifelong employment security.

Bunk! In 1987 in my book Thriving on Chaos, I devoted a full chapter to such job security, which I unstintingly recommended. I’ve changed my mind.

It’s not that I’ve become a curmudgeon. To the contrary, I’ve come to see mandated job security as a snare and a delusion for the worker even more than for management.

In short, our commercial affairs are undergoing a sea change. Only those ready to confront and master change each day will thrive in the ’90s and beyond. This is true for a company chief, a small-business owner, and a receptionist. Only those who constantly retool themselves stand a chance of staying employed in the years ahead. The old ideas of loyalty, security and lifelong employment—as practiced by the Japanese (though less than advertised), IBM and others—are nonsense today.

Apple Computer chief John Sculley describes the new world of work: “You are asked to pour a part of yourself into the success of the company. … The individual is asked for a greater commitment than in the days when he or she was simply a cog in the wheel of a systematized corporation. In return, you should get an experience that sharpens your instincts, teaches you newest lessons, shows you how to become self-engaged in your work, gives you new ways of looking at the world. … I’m not asking for open-ended loyalty. I am asking people who are at Apple to buy into the vision of the company while they are here.”

Sculley is not alone. In the current issue of Management Review magazine, American Management Association Chief Executive Tom Horton strikes a similar chord: “Tomorrow’s typical career will be neither linear nor continuous, nor will it always be upward. Instead, one’s work life will take more of a zigzag course. Those who prepare themselves for change and growth will have the highest probability of success.”

And in his book The Age of Unreason, British consultant Charles Handy likewise writes that “changing has to become a part of our lives.” He urges us to conceive of careers as “portfolios” of different jobs and disciplines and, even while on the job, of different activities; he proposes, for instance, that “homework” or “study work” become a large part of everyone’s life. (I recall spending part of a summer, some 30 years ago, with a family that included a doctor; he retired to his library each night after supper to read journals and prepare for the next day’s surgery. I was dumbfounded that “homework” might go on forever. Unfortunately, such practice is still unusual.)

The AMA’s Horton cites economist David Birch’s partial quantification of the above: The average college graduate should expect to hold no less than 10 to 12 jobs in three to five different fields in the future!

And make no mistake: There’s not a scintilla of difference between college grads and UAW workers. Handy observes, for instance, that certain professional-service firms in London are subcontracting their typing to Taipei, thanks to modern telecommunications. “Mere” typists in London, then, must see themselves in direct competition with lower-wage counterparts some 9000 miles away; their only defense is a better and improving skill package (e.g., know more word-processing or file-management software than “competitors”).

In response to the 1987 plunge of the dollar relative to the yen, the Japanese started subcontracting anything and everything throughout Asia. Thus the Toyota or Canon employee, like the GM or IBM employee or London typist, is also increasingly likely to fall victim (perhaps more than once) to a foreign subcontractor or to a little, efficient, innovative domestic firm. This is a simple fact. Unions at home or abroad can fight the changing nature of work, global interdependence, and the crumbling of vertical integration all they want; but they are fighting rear-guard actions at best.

Our federal government can abet the transition. It is in GM’s, the UAW’s, and society’s interest to focus directly on perpetual skill upgrading. Tax credits (individual, corporate) any and all sorts of education, increasing portability of worker pensions and more attention to junior colleges and vocational-technical schools are among the policies which could help prepare our work force for tomorrow.

Work Force 2000, poised for the “borderless,” “brain-based” global economy, will look far different from post-World War II’S Work Force 1950. As British management commentators Andrew Garner and Godfrey Golzen say in their forthcoming book, Smart Moves, “We see it as the most profound change in relationships between masters and men since feudalism.”

The barons at the top of Detroit’s steel and glass mountains, and at the UAW’s Solidarity House, are not there to provide comfy nests for life; the best they can or should do for their employees/members is to provide challenge, involvement and perpetual skill-enhancement opportunities—which will measurably up the success odds for the worker, the company, and the American economy.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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