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The Good Old Days

I received a question from LinkedIn this week asking, "Has the American work ethic changed?" And then there is that Internet classic that seems to resurface every few months about "remember when" that takes us Boomers back to our formative years in the '50s and '60s. And yes, for you subsequent generations: all the stuff on that email is true, and you don't have to go to Snopes to check it out. All of which has led to my column this week, which is a bit different from my normal fare, but still helpful, I hope

So were the "good old days" really all that good? Have we lost something that we once had? Is business today more cutthroat and more dog-eat-dog than ever? That is the real topic of today's column. Has business evolved or devolved?

To begin with, consider the "robber barons", those business people of the 19th century who would stop at nothing to accumulate wealth. You can read more about them in the history books.

One of those robber barons was John Rockefeller, who was recently named the wealthiest businessman to have ever lived (he was more than three times as wealthy as Bill Gates in today's money). Now, you don't think he got there by playing by all the ethical rules. The Sherman Anti-trust Act was used against him, and history is rife with the misdeeds of Rockefeller.

Another case many of you won't be aware of involves the charges filed against John Patterson (NCR) and his 1st Lieutenant, one Thomas Watson. They not only were being pursued for anti-trust violations, but with criminal charges, as well. Then a little thing called the 1913 Flood happened, and Patterson became a national hero. And you can't throw a national hero in jail. So the anti-trust portion of the charges was the only part they continued to pursue, and the criminal charges were settled with a hefty fine.

Compare those crimes to the misdeeds of Ebbers, Lay, Tyco, et al. — pretty much a wash, I would say.

Then we have the terrible working conditions that existed in the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century. Today many of us get to work from our homes, wear our pajamas all day if we want, and keep CNN, ESPN, FNN, or whatever we want on. Interestingly enough, Patterson was actually one of the pioneers in better work place conditions.

So where does this first page take us? I will start with one of my favorite lines: "The only thing permanent is change." Folks, many of us have become what we saw our parents as and we swore we would never become: stodgy, set in our ways, and resistant to change. In other words, we have become our parents, and our children are now issuing our former mantra. But some of us have proven we can adapt.

I am no Bucky Fuller, but here are some of the changes I see currently occurring, or soon to be occurring, in the marketplace:

The pendulum is swinging back on offshore outsourcing. Many companies are discovering it is not all that much of a savings to outsource smaller pieces of work overseas, not when you consider the additional administrative burdens and the uneven customer service. "Get thee to a nunnery" has a different meaning today than it did in Shakespeare's time, as we all know. Offshore outsourcing will still be a reality, but not as prevalent.

There will be an even greater drive towards small and privately owned businesses. Privately owned businesses aren't subjected to the quarterly mentality prevalent in corporate America. That is why you see more "mega" corporations going private.

There will be an even greater drive back towards engineering and technical skills. I read a piece Jeff Immelt of GE was quoted in a year or two ago. He said America was falling behind not because of outsourcing, but because of a lack of engineers. Outsourcing is a reality. We can't produce products today in the U.S. as cheaply as overseas. But we still need people to design, engineer, market, sell, and repair products. A journeyman tool and die maker can make $70K and up. A person doesn't need a four-year degree to do that, yet we blindly push all our teenagers toward college, regardless of their likes and aptitudes.

Long-term tenure in a company is a thing of the past. Get over it and adapt.

There is demographically a labor shortage in this country and will be for many years. So why do we experience higher unemployment in certain geographies, age groups, and skill sectors? We can yell about all the stuff we have little control over, but the biggest reason is adaptability. If you are in a field that is shrinking, or even disappearing, it is time to think about taking the steps to change fields.

Retirement in the 55 to 65 age bracket is not the given it was for the past 20 years or more. There are many reasons for this. But guess what? This goes back again to the good old days: many of our grandparents worked well past 65, and unless there was a health problem, retirement before that age was very rare.

There will be a return to doing more business over the telephone and in person. Again, this harkens back to the good old days. I remember when AT&T (the original one) introduced "Phone Power" to teach their customers (and everyone was their customer) how to use the telephone to be more effective in business. As many of my AT&T friends who were around for that can tell you, there was a lot of resistance. Now look where we are. But people still buy and do business with people. The Internet is "peopleless."

There are many career fields, such as training, OD, technical writing, some IT, etc., that will never make a "comeback" in corporate America. I'm not saying they are not needed, but they tend to represent a cyclical need in companies. Therefore, companies do not want to hire nearly as many of these people full-time as they once did.

There will be a 12-step program for people who are addicted to the Internet. In fact, I believe there already is one. Guess what? It is Internet-based. Now, if that isn't a conundrum. I know, I can't seem to let this one die.

I will end this column with mention of an announcement many of you might have missed in the last few days. It may be one of the greatest demonstrations of how things change. Gordon Moore, creator of Moore's Law, which states that the processing power of a computer doubles every two years, said that this 40-plus-year reality is about ready to come to an end.

A little tickler. Watch next week for a column on how to use LinkedIn.

Here's wishing you terrific hunting,


About the Author

Bill Gaffney has 17 years experience as an executive recruiter and a career coach. He is also working on perfect balance, which would include being a member of a Zen rugby team. He can be reached at 937-567-5267 or For questions to be considered for this column, please e-mail
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