A dozen years ago, I had a heated discussion with a young business
reporter. He was adamant in his belief that America's living standards had
peaked and that his generation overall would not fare as well economically as
their parents. My response to him: "The whole history of America has been one of
advancing living standards. What proof do you have that this historic trend is
all of a sudden ending?"
Today, I'm still not prepared to join those who say that America's golden days are over. Yet there does seem to be an underlying sense of national unease that torments us even amid good economic news. The unemployment rate recently fell to a four-year low, productivity is up, inflation is under control, and the outlook for new college grads is the best in years. The country is at peace, and the prospects for world trade are rising with the passage of GATT and NAFTA. Yet the country turned on the Democrats in November like they were utter failures, and people keep referring to the country as "being in a recession" when in fact we've been in an economic recovery since the fourth quarter of 1991.
So what's the problem? Why all the worry and even anger among Americans? I believe that much of it can be traced to the uncertainty that surrounds the workplace. America's huge corporations have indeed become lean, world-class competitors, but in the process many have fractured the sense of loyalty and trust they once shared with workers. Even employees who survived waves of layoffs must now live with scaled-down benefits, bigger workloads, and the fear that they might be the next ones to get the ax. Meanwhile, the performance bar gets raised higher and higher because of the need to take on all comers around the world.
In this climate, more Americans-including many engineers-have chosen to work for small and medium-sized companies. Those companies are going flat out, too, yet they seem to be doing a better job of making workers feel valued and appreciated. More people, too, are starting their own businesses, preferring to control their own destiny, even if it means settling for less.