The United States, as it enters the last half of 1999, is a remarkable, amazing, strange, and deeply troubling place. A good deal of the wonder and the worry of this place at this time can be attributed directly to the still relatively recent arrival of the new economy and its impact on our way of earning a living — and on our way of just plain living. The strength, resilience, creativity, and vibrancy of today’s U.S. economy is unprecedented. The ordinary metrics of economic growth (employment opportunity, stock-market expansion, productivity, new-business starts) paint a picture of a country that’s riding the crest of a wave of technological breakthroughs, market openings, and new-product introductions — a wave of change that will mark the advent not only of a new millennium but also of a global economic revolution. At the individual level, the potential for personal growth and personal expression — as well as for mind-boggling personal wealth — make this a time of opportunity to create the kind of work life that previous generations could not even have imagined: “The Organization Man” (1956), William H. Whyte’s take on corporate America in the Age of Conformity, has been turned upside down. Today organizations must sell themselves to talented people, and teams of the most-skilled, most-sought-after free agents can auction themselves off on eBay. The development of this new talent market is the closest thing that we have seen to the emergence of workplace democracy.
And yet: With so much to celebrate, so much to appreciate, so much to anticipate, it is impossible to ignore the troubling evidence that so much plenty provides so little opportunity.
We know, for example, from the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, that technological change creates social change: In fact, social tremors continue to be felt long after the technological upheavals of an era have subsided. We are still in the early stages of the social restructuring that the Information Revolution has set in motion, and already there are legitimate concerns that the most critical impact of that revolution may not be on the world’s financial institutions — it may be on the social fabric of the United States.
Today’s winner-take-all economy may have irreversible consequences not only for companies that are too slow to adapt but also for individuals, families, and communities that lack the resources to participate fully and legitimately in the expanding marketplace. The current technological revolution brings up a fundamental question: Without widespread social action, will the have-nots of today become permanently disenfranchised from the new economy? To find out what three grassroots community organizations are doing to change the game, read Sara Terry’s Across the Great Divide — and then give some careful thought to how you can make a contribution.
And people who are winning at the gaming tables of the new economy must answer this perplexing question: How Much Is Enough? When you can win oversize economic rewards, gain lavish lifestyle comforts, and even ensure the future economic well-being of your children, and when you can achieve all of this in a few short years of late nights and lost weekends — well, what exactly is the problem? One answer to that question is another question, and it was posed three years ago in the cover story for the second issue of Fast Company: Mort Meyerson, then the CEO of Perot Systems, asked, “To get rich, do you have to be miserable?” (“Everything I Thought I Knew About Leadership Is Wrong,” April:May 1996).
At some level, most of us know that “more” is not only a promise — it’s also a promissory note that lays claim to our time, to our families, to our energy, and to our hearts. Ultimately, there is no single answer to the question “How much is enough?” Ceaseless striving is indelibly stamped into the American character.
The American Dream — an old engine that’s been installed in the new economy — says that we can have it all. The American Reality whispers that when you do get it all, you’ll only want more. The new economy is as much about the high jinks of the Oklahoma land rush as it is about the high stakes of the Web’s cyber rush. Part of the mystery — and, perhaps, part of the misery — of this era has to do with its polarities: on the one hand, a sense that external rewards are plentiful and powerful; on the other, the knowledge that the only meaningful answer to the question “How much is enough?” must come from within.