Thomas Friedman discovers reinvention again

by Robert Teitelman  |  Published July 13, 2011 at 12:45 PM
blackburn125x100.jpgMust be summer over at The New York Times. Outside the sleek curtain walls, the debt ceiling and the euro-zone mess fuels thoughts of economic apocalypse, the Arab Spring lumbers on, and the implosion of News Corp. in London is the most deliciously spectacular scandal in years. And what are the regular pundits on the Times' op-ed writing about? Maureen Dowd tackles Nazis and their penchant for dogs ("Hitler's Talking Dogs"). And Thomas Friedman tells us all, once again, that we all have to imitate Silicon Valley and plunge into the free agent, reinvention, entrepreneurial lifestyle ("The Start-Up of You"). Both columns cite the kind of books you flip through this time of year.
There's little to be said about the Dowd column, except: What's the damn point? Who the hell cares? This is an op-ed? But it's Friedman that pops already overloaded, heat-stressed circuits. This is what the World's Greatest Columnist can come up with in the middle of the week? We've been hearing this sermonette about career reinvention not only from the persistent Friedman for years -- too many years -- but it's been a commonplace of American life for, conservatively speaking, two decades now, probably more. Daniel Pink wrote "Free Agent Nation" in the late '90s, just as the dot-com bubble was peaking (it seemed less pressing after the bust, but it still retains a certain validity); before that it was a business magazine staple; before that it was the kind of idea Peter Drucker and the business schools liked to chew over.
The notion that Americans can't really make career plans that work out quite right is about as obvious as the notion that economists have trouble forecasting accurately. We know that! We've known that for years! The folks who don't know that are adolescents, rich people and apparently Friedman who can do (or imagine) just what they damn please. The rest of us have more problematic futures. Were jobs, blue collar and white, somewhat more stable, say, a half-century ago? Yeah, but I suspect less so than the mythology suggests. Crap happens in life. Feelings change. Decisions are made and remade. This was supposed to be the genius of those flexible American labor markets; this was why we killed off unions. From the day I started working in the late '70s -- the oil crisis was full blown -- folks have been saying: Sonny, you better not get comfy. Think reinvention. Ever consider PR?
Not long after that, employers began peddling defined-contribution plans to employees. There were lots of reasons for that -- they were cheaper for companies than defined-benefit plans -- but the stated purpose was portability. People were job-hopping; companies were restructuring more regularly; unions were fading; loyalty was so yesterday. (Not to get all pointy-headed, but Christopher Lasch published "The Culture of Narcissism" in 1979.) If we weren't going to be bereft of funds in retirement -- and Social Security has looked creaky since the day I started working -- we better have some assets we could carry with us. That occurred in the early to mid-'80s.
But it's not just that Friedman is a little late to this realization, it's his tone of neo-Victorian moral condescension, that wheedling, whining schoolmarm-on-a-laptop tone of his that drives me beserko. Should we all be like those engineers that work at social media companies? Maybe we can't do math. Maybe we hate computers. Maybe we live in, say, Michigan. Maybe we have all kinds of problems. Besides, does he really think that every worker at LinkedIn is a friggin' entrepreneurial genius? I suspect that LinkedIn has as many time-wasters, bullshitters and office politicians as other places, including The New York Times. Just because the "product" is successful -- and who knows what next month or next year will bring, remember how well those Nazis did for a while -- does not mean everyone who works there is some paragon. Chronic job-hopping isn't necessarily good for the company, Silicon Valley or the nation. Yes, it is a symptom of entrepreneurial activity, but what's left behind as the dust settles? Do we want to live in a continual dust storm? Could Apple have been Apple if the company didn't retain a core group of geniuses, including Steve Jobs? How can you even consider a project that takes more than a quarter or two if folks up and leave at the first chance to try something new?
My favorite part of Friedman's lecture is when he waxes poetically on the wonders of Silicon Valley companies that review employees quarterly. "Today's college grads need to be aware that the rising trend in Silicon Valley is to evaluate employees every quarter [his ham-fisted italics], not annually. Because the merger of globalization and the I.T. revolution means new products are being phased in and out so fast that companies cannot afford to wait until the end of the year to figure out whether the team leader is doing a good job." The language here is quaint: need to be aware; a rising trend. Japan was a rising trend once. So were Rebekah Brooks and Chairman Mao. I'm also still trying to find the verb in that last sentence. Maybe he's typing too fast. Globalization, no? Murdoch's on his tail.
Anyway, one can imagine a company where quarterly reviews are necessary, particularly those that require production of new features, apps, extensions, generations. But the notion that companies are imagining and producing truly new products annually is a lunatic exaggeration. And how destructive is this? What use is the quarterly review, except as a colossal, even Orwellian, bureaucratic time sucker or excuse for power plays? Is Friedman himself -- or Dowd for that matter -- eager to be reviewed every three months by some pale-faced editor? Has it dawned on Friedman that this kind of speedup, which is reflected in so many aspects of modern life including the stock market, may be a source of our deeper woes? This kind of speedup, with its affiliated traits of high compensation and job volatility, was exactly the model that Wall Street adopted as it swung to a public market structure. Quarterly earnings prevailed. Performers got enormously well paid; nonperformers found themselves looking for work. Loyalties declined; talent was still hard to judge because no one's perfect, politics were omnipresent, and judging these things was as much a science as necromancy. The end result was not a paradise of productivity and prosperity, but the mortgage crisis. Don't put your head up and look around. Don't think. Just shove out product. You're only as good as your last quarter. And folks wonder how these things, including the dot-com bubble, happen.
Friedman ends by letting LinkedIn founder Reid Garrett Hoffman, "one of the premier starter-uppers in Silicon Valley," to lead the last hymn on the wonders of networking. You know this is an exercise in casuistry or nostalgia when Hoffman tosses around the phrase "old paradigm," meaning lifetime employment (it might also suggest where Friedman got the rest of the column, if he hadn't used it himself many times before). The fact is, as Friedman admits, Hoffman has a book touting this notion of constant career change coming out next year (ham-fisted italics mine), which makes sense, since in pushing these well-worn ideas, he is essentially promoting, ta-dah, LinkedIn, a tool for networking. You can't blame Hoffman for trying. You can blame Friedman for foisting this moldy set of unrealistic and creepy ideas upon us. - Robert Teitelman