What Will We Do for Work?

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Circa 2010. She will be at home. Working for the next several months for Ford on a fiendishly difficult engineering problem. She won't be on Ford's payroll, though she will be drawing full benefits, even as a contractor. (During President Hillary Rodham's second term, health care, pensions and retraining will no longer be tied to a company but to the individual.) Her 79-member project team, only one of whom she's met face-to-face (she considers face-to-face a quaint idea that her mom suffered), comes from 14 nations. Her fully wired home is her castle. After half a dozen virtual meetings this morning, she'll take a so-called retrb (ReTRaining Break) and attend a virtual class in engineering (conducted from God knows where) as part of her virtual/online master's degree program.

She is deeply committed to her self-designed, do-it-from-anywhere-with-anybody "career" path. She is relieved, by the white-collar robots, of 95% of the drudge work ... and is adding value by being on the tippy top of her intellectual game. Her only security is her personal commitment to constant growth and her global (virtual) rep for great work.

"Get a grip, Peters," you retort. Is this "be wild and crazy and Webby and CEO of your own life" picture anything other than New Age/new economy/Palo Alto-consultantspeak b.s.?

I think it is relevant and real rather than wild and crazy on at least two important scores.

One is that though my "house" is in Vermont, I've hung my professional shingle in Palo Alto since 1981. All hell is breaking loose "out there/here." These folks may sound weird, but they may also be redefining the world. And speaking as a 57-year-old, "they" don't look or eat or taste or smell or work much like Frank Peters or George Babbitt or Dilbert.

Two is back to the future! I constantly remind my middle-aged seminar participants that George Babbitt and Dilbert are not the quintessential Americans. Who are? Ben Franklin (the father of self-help literature). Ralph Waldo Emerson (self-reliance was his shtick, recall). Walt Whitman. And yes, motivational guru Tony Robbins. And yes, Donald Trump. And ... Bentonville, Arkansas' Sam Walton ... and Bill Gates.

Hero Jim Clark, mentioned above, is no charmer, as revealed by Michael Lewis in The New New Thing. In fact, to my reading, he comes off as about as delectable as Donald Trump. But he's pure American bravado, a bravado that was lost in the Babbitt-Dilbert-Big Bureaucracy-Cubicle Slave decades.

WHAT IF? Maybe the wild new-economy America is the old America. Truer to ourselves. We came here to break free, to make our records in our awkward ways, as did my German grandfather Jacob Ebert Peters. He arrived in the 1880s and was a wildly successful Baltimore contractor 30 years later. Then he lost it all in the Great Depression. How quintessentially American.

Like Grandpa, I am facing extinction, only by this new set of powerful forces. I make most of my living giving live seminars and training programs and as a management consultant. It's all gravitating to the Web gravitating, heck. It's moving at the speed of light. I am scrambling to reinvent myself, to not just "cope" but to exploit the new communication and connection media. Hey, there are young management gurus hot on my trail. Hot = Web speed.

I'm completely fed up with Dilbert. He's funny. He's unerringly on the money. But he's a hapless victim too. Damned if I'm going to be.

In any event, it's going to be one hell of an interesting ride.

Consultant Tom Peters recently published a series of books on reinventing work, including 'The Brand You 50' and 'The Project 50'