How can we rescue meaningful work?

21 March 2017

In the face of an unprecedented job crisis driven by technology, the best response is to develop people who do fabulous work, says Tom Peters.

Everywhere we look, work as we know it is being transformed by the seemingly unstoppable forces of technology, globalisation, and the digital revolution. According to one estimate, nearly half of all jobs in the US alone are at risk of being computerised within 20 years.

President Trump and his fellow US populists have responded by attempting to wind the clock back, resurrecting old industries, and throwing up tariff and migrant-worker walls. But is old-style isolationism the best way to confront job uncertainty?

At a time of unprecedented job dislocation, where even once-impregnable professions are falling to intelligent machines, what can we do to safeguard meaningful work for everyone?

These were among the questions put to management writer and consultant Tom Peters, a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the University of Auckland Business School, by the School's Professor of Connectivity, Darl Kolb.

"We are possibly on the edge of a truly significant jobs crisis, driven by technology," said Peters.

He quoted a recent Oxford University study that claimed 50% of American

and British white-collar jobs would be under assault in the next 10 to 20 years.

"We spent the past 25 years automating our factories – first we attacked the factory jobs, then the back-office white collar jobs, and now we are going after the lawyers, and the doctors, and the engineers," he said.

"In the past 15 years, China has lost 35% of its manufacturing employment. They are being hit as hard as the rest of us. One way to describe that in a memorable fashion is that Foxconn – which among other things assembles Apple products – a year ago placed an order for one million robots. So, it could really be a crazy time."

His advice to firms wanting to survive the dislocation: "develop people to do fabulous work. Be the best. It is the only market that is not crowded."

It is a message Peters first articulated in the 1982 bestseller In Search of Excellence, co-authored with Robert Waterman.

"We know what big companies everywhere do. They cut costs, throw people over the sides, and commoditise the product or service. If there is a single word that I despise in the English language, it is the word 'commodity' – that is a race to the bottom."

Citing the success of Australia's largest franchise, Jim's Group, which specialises in doing jobs that no one else wants to do – from grass cutting and dog-walking to window cleaning and asbestos removal – Peters said that business opportunities were "infinitely available".

As to whether any country is capable of slowing the tide of globalisation, Peters suggested that President Trump would discover how unrealistic it was to talk of unwinding the intricate international network of manufacturing and distribution relationships.

"Any complex device has so many components from so many places that untangling it is an impossibility."

The more fundamental problem, said Peters, was the economic pressure now being put on the middle classes – and particularly on the job security of middle-class white males – in the US, Britain, and elsewhere.

"The inflation-adjusted wage for 25- to 64-year-old white males in the US in 2017 is exactly what it was 50 years ago."

The problem, he said, was that jobs were not being created by new investments in the numbers that they once were. The answer was to help small- and medium-sized companies to do well, grow, and add jobs.

"Business is all about developing people. I have never seen a tombstone that has someone's net worth on it," he said.

"The only stuff you remember when you get old are the people you helped. And that is as true for a business woman or business man relative to their 2- or 2000-person enterprise as it is for anybody. That is the signature of your life achievement.

"And if that is a true story in general, in the face of the technology coming down the pipe, it is multiplied by an order of magnitude. We have got to help people."

Tom Peters spoke at an alumni event hosted by the Business School in March 2017.

Tom Peters

Tom Peters is a writer and consultant on business management practices.



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