In ever-changing climate, be flexible or get burned

ON EXCELLENCE

September 13, 1993|By TOM PETERS

We are coping with the biggest economic change in two centuries. That's self-evident. But what does it mean?

It means that to be scared out of one's wits is sensible. To be certain of anything is suicidal.

"The obsession with boosting productivity has created widely disparate layers of working Americans," Roger Swardson wrote recently in the San Francisco Chronicle. "One is prosperous, whipping around chanting slogans and wondering what the hell the problem is beyond some bad attitudes; another works each day fearful that it will be the last; and another has fallen through the cracks into dislocation and a dreadful wage depression."

That's actually mellow compared to Charles Dickens' account of the traumatic shift from farm to factory, in his 1854 novel "Hard Times." He portrays the human scene in literal chaos, as entirely new ways of living grip the land.

Workers and families were effectively imprisoned in dangerous factories and execrable cities. The aristocracy, which for all its haughtiness had paid genteel attention to the country artisans, was supplanted by calculating, passionless middle-class merchants.

Every pillar of civilization teetered. Was it any wonder that muckraking business novels flourished? That Karl Marx's "Das Kapital" came just 13 years after Dickens' "Hard Times"?

Amazingly, the churn caused by the Industrial Revolution has just ended. Striking the Kremlin's red flag at Christmastime in 1990 was the final scene.

You could say we needed those 150 years to work through that last big upheaval -- even though most of the core technologies that defined the Industrial Revolution were put in place during the first 25 years or so.

Now an even bigger shift is upon us. There are few trenchant business novels. And we don't have a new Marx. But to imagine we won't get both would be naive.

Modern champions of technological change, such as former Citicorp chairman Walter Wriston and economics guru George Gilder, are preaching liberation. But that's not new. The champions of change preached liberation the last time around. It turns out those optimists were mostly right -- but it took six generations, the transformation of society, and two heinous wars to realize industrialization's democratizing promise.

History probably will repeat itself. The technical impact of the new tools will be largely settled in the next 25 years. But the social shakeout will linger for another century.

How, for example, do we deal with the devastating and accelerating wage gap between the haves and the have-nots in our society? What about the even more monstrous chasm between have and have-not nations?

Even those with the moxie to survive face mind-boggling changes. How do you keep replenishing knowledge that becomes obsolete every half-dozen years? What does the end of job security portend? Will all of us work for Manpower Inc. by 2013?

Political scientist Walter Truett Anderson argues even our personalities must change! To cope with the unprecedented upheaval, we must trade "the traditional mental-health ideal of firm and fixed identity," he says, for "elasticity." Yikes.

Suppose you buy the story line. Is it foolish to ask "What do I do tomorrow morning?" Maybe not:

* 1. Don't worry if you're feeling nuts. In fact, worry if you're not. There are no certain answers. We don't even know what questions to ask. A tolerance for ambiguity will be success tool No. 1 for line workers, politicians and corporate chiefs alike.

* 2. Don't even think about hiding. In a speech on defense conversion, President Clinton marveled that one hard-hit community came out smelling like a rose -- without government help. "How much better off would they be with help?" Clinton wondered. I'm not so sure.

There's no such thing as insurance against bicentennial change. Sadly, most well-intended government aid efforts have the practical effect of insulating folks from the inevitable for a little while longer. When the money runs out, they're no more prepared than before -- and therefore further behind. Overall, Americans' increasing demands to be protected against any and all untoward events amount to an enormous drag on our ability to adapt to this tectonic shift.

* 3. Reinvent yourself. Corporations and government must be transformed. And so must you and I. The race will go to the curious, the slightly mad, those with an unsated passion for learning and daredeviltry.

* 4. Remind yourself that you're in the midst of something really big. Maybe that, in and of itself, will make us a little more receptive to the next cataclysmic disruption that will surely come our way. Soon.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 420-8200.)

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