What Will We Do for Work

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What Will We Do for Work
Drastic change is afoot. You'll have to be flexible and upgradable, but you may actually enjoy what you're doing

I believe that 90% of white-collar jobs in the U.S. will be either destroyed or altered beyond recognition in the next 10 to 15 years. That's a catastrophic prediction, given that 90% of us are engaged in white-collar work of one sort or another. Even most manufacturing jobs these days are connected to such white-collar services as finance, human resources and engineering.

I talked to an old London dockhand some time back. He allowed as how in 1970 it took 108 guys about five days to unload a timber ship. Then came containerization. The comparable task today takes eight folks one day. That is, a 98.5% reduction in man-days, from 540 total to just eight.
This time the productivity tool kit aims, belatedly, to reconstruct--make that deconstruct--the white-collar world. In fact, I see a five-sided pincer movement that will bring to fruition my apparently bizarre 90% in 10 years prognostication.

FIRST The destructive nature of the current flavor of competition, dotcoms. Sure, most will fail. But the survivors will exert enormous pressure--fast!--on the Big Guys. When an Amazon or a Charles Schwab moves into your neighborhood, you've got moments to react. Or take king entrepreneur Jim Clark of Netscape fame. His latest venture, Healtheon/WebMD, intends to squeeze hundreds of billions of dollars of waste out of the health-care system. These new firms aim to create nothing less than havoc in the theaters in which they operate.

SECOND Enterprise software. It's a jargony name for the tools that will hook up every aspect of a business's innards--personnel, production, sales, accounting--and then hook up all that hooked-up stuff to the rest of the family of suppliers and the suppliers' suppliers and wholesalers and retailers and end users.

They are your nightmare, these white-collar robots. The complex products from German software giant SAP will do to your company's innards exactly what forklifts and robots and containerization did to the blue-collar world circa 1960. Installing these tools is not easy. The technical part is harrowing; the politics are horrendous. When the blue-collar robots arrived, the unions raised hell. This time it's management bureaucrats who are turning Luddite. Why? These tools threaten their cozy baronies, carefully crafted over several generations.

But the robots did come. And they triumphed.

THIRD Outsourcing. M.I.T.'s No. 1 computer guru, Michael Dertouzos, said India could easily boost its GDP by a trillion dollars in the next few years performing backroom white-collar tasks for Western companies. He guessed that 50 million jobs from the white-collar West could go south to India, whose population hit 1 billion last week. The average annual salary for each of those 50 million new Indian workers: $20,000.

FOURTH The Web. Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler announce a rare hookup. They will link all their tens of thousands of suppliers into a single, Internet-based network. This entity will encompass $250 billion annually of suppliers' products (and perhaps an additional $500 billion of those suppliers' suppliers' products). In short, every penny of waste will be wrung from the mammoth procurement system. The order cycle will speed up dramatically. Medibuy aims for the same hat trick in medical supplies, DigitalThink in training, CarStation in the auto-body-shop world. This is the white-hot world of B2B (business to business) electronic commerce, which will soon encompass trillions upon trillions of dollars in transactions.

FIFTH Time compression. It took 37 years for the radio to get to 50 million homes. The Web got there in four. Hence my belief that while it took about a century to revolutionize blue-collar job practices, this brave new white-collar regime will be mostly installed in a tenth of that time--10 years.

Each of these five forces is fact, not supposition. Each influences the others multiplicatively. Therefore my unwillingness to back off my predictions about the power of the white-collar tsunami bearing down on us. Unsettling madness is afoot. Especially if I'm a 48-year-old white-collar staff member or middle manager entombed in a corporate tower in Manhattan or Miami or Milan.

Yet these forces are liberating. Blue-collar robots took the grunt work out of factory and warehouse and dockside. The same will happen to white-collar work. Just as workin' the line at U.S. Steel was no walk in the park in 1946, passing papers in the tower is no great joy. My dad did it for 41 years at the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. He was, sad to say, a white-collar indentured servant.

The world is going through more fundamental change than it has in hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. The head economist at Sandia National Laboratories, Arnold Baker, said it's the biggest change since the cavemen began bartering. Do you want to be a player, a full-scale participant who embraces change? Here is the opportunity to participate in the lovely, messy playground called Let's reinvent the world.

Here's a new role model I call Icon Woman:

- She is turned on by her work!

- The work matters!

- The work is cool!

- She is in your face!

- She is an adventurer!

- She is the CEO of her life!

- She is not God. She is not the Bionic Woman. She is determined to make a difference! (Dilbert would be appalled, no doubt.)

My Icon Woman, of course, embraces and exploits the Web.

- She submits her r�sum� on the Web and keeps it perpetually active there.

- She is recruited and negotiates and is hired on the Web.

- She is trained on the Web.

- She creates and conducts scintillating projects on the Web via a far-flung virtual stable of teammates (most of whom she's never met).

- She manages her career and reputation-building efforts on the Web. And she has a fab personal website!

But what--exactly?--will she actually do?

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�consultant speak 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