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Blue Model Continues to go the Way of the Passenger Pigeon

Walter Russell Mead

The brave new post-blue world increasingly features corporations leveraging technology to get the absolute most out of its employees. The Wall Street Journal has a good article profiling the changes at Kimberly-Clark:

Even low performers rarely felt pressure. “A lot of people could and would hide in the weeds,” said Rick Herbert, a sales director who retired in 2014 after more than three decades with Kimberly-Clark.

That’s over. One of the company’s goals now is “managing out dead wood,” aided by performance-management software that helps track and evaluate salaried workers’ progress and quickly expose laggards. Turnover is now about twice as high it was a decade ago, with approximately 10% of U.S. employees leaving annually, voluntarily or not, the company said. […]

The changes mirror what is happening inside many large companies, where “performance management” reflects the conviction that a sharpened focus on creating a high-performing workforce is a vital tool to generate revenue and profit.

It is not a great thing for people who have been raised to live under one set of institutions and assumptions when their world changes and the cold winds of change start to blow. The workers who have had their lives disrupted by this change have our sympathy.

But it’s also important to remember that the goal of the social transformation through which we are now passing isn’t to have everyone wired up to demanding jobs 24/7 with instant feedback—jobs that fire those losers who didn’t get to their emails fast enough over the weekend.

The transition away from the old system of lifetime employment at sleepy and paternalistic corporations is not ultimately about plunging us all into a world of cutthroat hyper capitalism. It’s about decreasing the amount of work and energy it takes to produce the necessities of life so that fewer and fewer people spend their entire lives in routine and repetitive labor, toiling at drudgery that provides a living but detracts from life itself. The Great Work of the human race in this transition from the old industrial economy to the new information one is about releasing the energy and talent of hundreds of millions of people to work on making their lives better, richer, and more interesting. As a species, we will be spending less time wresting nature into submission, and more time learning what it means to be fully human.

Those thoughts are probably not much of a consolation to the ten percent of workers losing their jobs every year at what once used to be a paternalistic company. Nor is their grief assuaged by thinking about how much more the managers who have engineered this change in corporate culture are making under the new dispensation.

An economic and social transformation as sweeping and as radical as the one Americans are now going through is bound to create many victims and many stories of hardship and loss. It’s tempting to think that the best way to help those who are being hurt by the change is to fight the change: to tax Uber to subsidize taxis, to block foreign competition, pass laws against self-driving cars, and otherwise to circle the wagons against social change. It’s very human to reach for responses like this, but also ultimately very misguided.

While we need to be compassionate as a society to those whose lives are being disrupted, and be helpful to those who need retraining or other help, what we really need to do is to be creating the conditions that favor the emergence of new jobs, new industries, new professions as the old ones fade away.

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