Let’s make business cool again
Back in my high school days, I recall longing to be one of the “cool kids.” Guys with names like Matt or Jim. This was a time of jocks and cheerleaders. I wasn’t great at sports, but I liked cheerleaders. I tried following in my older brother’s footsteps by being a yearbook photographer. Maybe I wasn’t nerdy enough, but I wasn’t great at taking pictures either.
In 1964, Ford Motor Co. introduced a new concept car, the Mustang. Stewarded through the development process by then-General Manager Lee Iacocca, the Mustang was the epitome of cool. Iacocca’s roots were in sales and marketing. Imagine that — a top executive who didn’t come from accounting! Iacocca later went on to head the Chrysler Corp., turning the near-bankrupt company around with government-backed loans in 1979. By the way, Iacocca also made a blue shirt with white collar and cuffs a ubiquitous ’80s business fashion cornerstone.
These were the days when big business was all about making and selling products that Americans wanted to buy during the post-World War II economic boom. Working for a big company offered career development and it largely meant employment for life. It also paid off with the promise of a comfortable, pension-funded retirement.
Around this same time, a small but significant shift began — a rise in lobbying efforts to create a more friendly legislative environment for big business. Pension obligations, safety and environmental regulations, tax policy and numerous other legislative issues were ripe for change.
Thus began a transformation of the American economy from industrial production to professional services. Labor and production were offshored to low-cost countries. Business became a global affair. Professional services such as law, accounting, financial management, investing and consulting grew into some of the largest segments of the U.S. economy. Sectors such as agriculture became increasingly characterized by low-cost and often undocumented immigrant labor.
By the late 1980s, the “cool jobs” for U.S. college graduates were in global finance. First, get an MBA, then fall in line to interview for a post in consulting with McKinsey & Co. or Boston Consulting Group, or a spot in banking with Deutsche Bank or HSBC. The cool kids aspired to be like Michael Douglas in 1987’s “Wall Street” — remember walking on the beach and talking on a cell phone the size of a small shoebox? Financial engineering and hedge funds were in the initial stages of becoming the behemoths they are today.
Fast-forwarding to today, hindsight makes it easy to see some of the downsides to that economic transformation. Labor has been devalued in our economy. The stability of a company-guaranteed, defined contribution, pension-funded retirement has been traded off for the volatility of self-determined 401(k) plans. Overheated financial derivatives, namely mortgage-backed securities, crashed during the Great Recession. An entire generation saw the comfortable retirement hopes of their big company-employed parents crash onto the rocks of income disparity.
Today, cool jobs seem more like get-rich-quick schemes — develop an app and sell it to someone else and cash out quickly in the venture capital market. Is wealth all there is? Even big tech barons seem only passingly cool. Hoodies and T-shirts are more the products of basement-bred Xbox culture than anything close to the corporate cool of Lee Iacocca or Michael Douglas. Craft brewing, the celebrity culture of “Top Chef,” or being a social media influencer all pale in comparison with being a captain of industry.
It’s time for business to find its cool again. Just as 2020 offered an opportunity to slow down, retool and rethink, 2021 offers an opportunity to reboot and rebuild the kinds of businesses that serve everyone.