Why American Workers Need To Toughen Up

Business guru Tom Peters argues that we must rely more on ourselves and less on the government.

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A lot has changed over the past few years. A grueling recession has rearranged America's economic landscape, like a hurricane that reshapes the coastline and leaves some places permanently underwater. Millions of lost jobs are probably gone forever. Many Americans lack the skills needed in a fast-paced, tech-driven marketplace. And a prolonged slump has left many people feeling like they're falling behind. To sort out what's changing, I spoke recently with business guru Tom Peters, author of 15 books, including The Little Big Things, his latest. We talked about the Gulf oil spill, overprotective parents, volunteering, and self-reliance. Business, too. Here are some excerpts:

You recently said that we lack resilience in America. What makes you think that? Look at the Gulf disaster. Large numbers of people, way beyond the Tea Party folks, want us to have smaller government, while others are screaming bloody murder because the regulations we have weren't executed properly. We're very much conflicted. I really have this strong feeling, whether it's the war on terror or the situation in the Gulf or things that led to the Gulf problem, that none of our presidents have asked us to sacrifice.

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We've just had this awful recession, and it changed a lot of things. What should people be doing to adapt? I was born in 1942, and I worry about sounding like an old man. I don't remember World War II, but I do remember the Korean War, and for some reason we were making soap at home. I'm not suggesting people should be making soap today, but I do think there may be a lack of personal accountability. We expect everybody to do everything for us. It might sound silly and trivial, but the kids who grow up in our cities are so protected by fluoride and everything else that they don't do very well when they make their first trip to Jakarta.

I live on a farm in Vermont now, so my own bias is that every kid ought to have one glass of water out of a mud puddle once a week. I have real warfare with good friends about this. I don't think having a GPS in your kid's phone, so you know where the kid is every minute, is a great idea. Kids are going to screw up and I'd rather have 'em screw up when they're reasonably close to home and still kids. That's a classic case of loss of resilience. We expect to protect our kids against everything. Every germ, every bad guy.

What about working people? How should they be making themselves more resilient? Well the fact is, all over the world, including the United States, the large share of people who are resilient just don't happen to be written about by U.S. News or by Tom Peters. They're the people who work in the seven-person insurance shop in Manchester, Vermont. Plumbers and mechanics. In 1999, I wrote a book based on the "Brand You" notion, and I was going on the Today Show thinking, how do you summarize your life's work in 120 seconds? Then I thought, well I know how to talk about this. It's about the electrician who's doing some work at my home, and whose job security depends on the quality of the last job he did. He lives in a "Brand You" world, even though he'd get sick to his stomach thinking about it like that.

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Do you think companies lack resilience? Or just individuals? Both. Too-big-to-fail companies will still be around regardless of financial reform. But a whole lot of companies can't live without being totally wired up. When I talk to companies, I ask a lot of them, "Could you survive without computers for 10 days? Would you have been able to survive the Y2K disaster, if it had happened?" And for many of them the answer is no. When we had the avian flu scare a few years ago, I saw a story about Microsoft going all out to make sure that large numbers of its critical work force were equipped to work at home for two to three weeks. That kind of thing is a terrific idea.

How well are we adapting to these kinds of changes and threats? There is one very good thing that has happened with kids in their mid-20s. Unlike me, or even the generation after me, nobody expects to work at a company for life any more. That's a fabulous step in the right direction. In my era, that was almost the ultimate expectation. Back then, after World War II, a university degree was I used to call the middle-class entitlement act. Unless you behaved badly, you'd get your degree then you'd work at the bank for the next 40 years. Nobody thinks that way now. Maybe people are better prepared from an attitudinal standpoint than in the past.

What I don't know is whether people are any smarter about saving at least a little amount of money. It reminds me of one of the funniest line I've read in a while. I saw a story where this guy from Wall Street was defending big bonuses by saying, "Now look, most of these people have second homes, kids in private schools, they're paying off divorces." It makes you wonder how intelligent people can make such insane remarks.

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That's one subset of society. What about the rest? We have behaved so child-like in this Gulf disaster. You don't have to be an engineer to be able to tell: We don't know how to fix this goddamn leak! Period. But people keep saying, "Why isn't President Obama fixing the leak?" What's he going to do? Stick his finger in it? We need to grow up.

It's a little bit of, "Life's a bitch, then you die." If you're going to continue to drive your two SUVs, then don't be surprised when you've driven the oil companies to the limit and they start doing risky drilling. Things can go wrong.

We are such spoiled brats, you and I, as we live in the United States, compared to 85 or 90 percent of the world. I just wish we could grow up a little bit in that regard.

What should we do? I'm unusual because I live in a rural area. But back during Y2K, I figured there was a 20 percent chance that computer systems would explode and things like the power grid might go kaput. So I invested in a generator. I'm not a survivalist nut, I don't even own one gun, and there's no barbed wire fence around my farm. I just started thinking, "My gosh, could I live through this thing if it happened?" We need to learn how to do more things for ourselves.

During the avian flu problem ... I have a friend who works as a doctor, and he was a bit alarmist. He said, "You ought to have a 90 days' supply of all of your pills." That's not stupid. It costs a little out-of-pocket, because the insurance company will only sign off on 30 days at a time, so I had to front a couple hundred dollars. But it adds to the notion that I could be more independent. My wife 20 years ago took an advanced CPR course. Why not ? Again, you don't want to slide into whack-job territory. You just need a little ability to live without total dependence on the grocery stores being stocked.

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Translate that into how people should think about their jobs and careers. Don't get too dependent on having total continuous employment.

And do what instead? I'm 67, and you look in the mirror and see things differently at 67. The inadvertent message of my latest book was, be part of the larger world. Get involved with your community. My wife is going at 5 p.m. today to chair a board meeting of our local daycare center in Manchester, Vermont. She owns her own company and is at least as busy as I am, yet she finds the time to be involved in the day care center. In a lot of families there are two working parents, and day care is of shocking importance. Our local businesses would fall apart if we didn't have decent day care. So get involved with your community. Because we live in communities.

Peggy Noonan wrote a column recently about Tim Russert, and she said that when you're gone, nobody asks what your job description was—they talk about whether you were a decent person. An awful lot of us, we're moving so fast in our careers—I'm guilty myself—we don't quite get around to doing the community stuff we ought to do. But when the shit hits the fan, your community becomes an important part of everything that happens. Even if you're somebody who moves for a new job every five or six years. So be part of the larger world. Don't wait till you're 67 to say, my god, I should have spent some time with the daycare center!

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But as you pointed out, government is pretty unpopular these days. I've said in speeches many times, when people are bitching about the government, then shut up and run for the local school board. Government is not 535 elected representatives on Capitol Hill, it's a whole bunch of community-related things.

Are there practical day-to-day things people ought to be doing more? I guess I'd play the grandfather role, and it seems a lot more obvious now, but for God's sake, start saving a little bit of money. I read another article, in Harper's, about some executive who got laid off. He was moaning about how every time he got a raise, he bought a bigger house. My sympathy was zero, although my empathy was reasonably high. To be fair, when we were going through the housing bubble, you calculated your saving to some extent in the value of your house.

But now, obviously, you need some kind of cushion without depending on whether our dear friends on Capitol Hill do or don't extend unemployment benefits by another 90 days. You ought to have tide-you-over money. Maybe six months instead of six weeks. You could argue that that's a hell of a challenge for a lot of people, and probably 15 percent of us couldn't do that. But the other 85 percent of us, there are a whole bunch of middle class people who are a long way from the poverty line, who could save more.

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Should people get new skills? What do we need to learn how to do better? The biggest weapon your brain or your parents can give you is curiosity. Your greatest defense against what's happening is to be interested in a wide variety of things and be intrigued by things. Like you, we're all reporters to the extent our eyes are open and we learn new things. That's the ultimate human resilience.

Do you mean curiosity for curiosity's sake? Or because it's a skill that will help you get ahead? Curiosity for curiosity's sake. It will lead you instinctively to talk to people you wouldn't ordinarily talk to, to go farther afield than you might think you should. It's applicable to everybody. If you're a 21-year-old who has his or her first supervisory job in fast-food joint, what can you learn and who can you meet? It's about networking, which is another form of curiosity.

I like to say "never waste a lunch." You work, on average, 220 days per year. That's 220 at-bats, in my language. If you happen to have five good pals you work with, don't go to lunch with them all the time, even though you like them. Meet other people. With any luck you'll meet people who do stuff that's off your main dimension. Incidentally, to put it in a purely selfish context, the selfish benefit of doing community stuff is the people you meet.