Rebuilding the Dream

October 21, 2015
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

The number one determinant of happiness is a good job.

I’ve long quoted this statistic from a Gallup poll of people in 155 countries around the world. Here’s another Gallup quote with resonance, this time from a recent column:

…the great American dream is to have a good job, and in recent years, America has failed to deliver that dream more than it has at any time in recent memory. A good job is an individual’s primary identity, their very self-worth, their dignity — it establishes the relationship they have with their friends, community and country. When we fail to deliver a good job that fits a citizen’s talents, training and experience, we are failing the great American dream.


How did we get to this point? How did our leadership in business begin to fail “the great American dream”?

If you look at the Industrial Revolution, the beginning of mass production when Henry Ford started making Model T Fords, mass production was about mass production. It was not about human dignity or human growth.

There were many economic benefits. We give great credit to the Industrial Revolution for raising the standard of living in our country, which isn’t a bad thing. Factories for cars, shoes and appliances came to small communities.

Henry Ford paid people fairly well, compared to what they could make on a farm. But we took a farmer who had a craft and a pride in his craft (though also an unpredictable income stream), and we gave him a job in a factory. He went from being a craftsman in his trade on the farm to an assembly line where he put on a hubcap every 15 seconds.

Then we measured how fast he put on those hubcaps, and we thought, maybe we can get him to do this in 12 seconds. Why? Not to create a more meaningful role for this man or woman, but because we wanted to make more money. We wanted to get our costs down so people would buy more cars. We were enamored with mass production and the wealth it created.

And, because we were focused on wealth creation and not people, unions were formed to protect the people we employed because we were more interested in our product and our customers than our people.

At some point, companies started making so much money, we could afford to be nice to people because we needed them to meet our market demand. We gave them vacation time and benefits because we had to compete for skilled talent. But, just as before, we didn’t do it to improve the lifestyle of the person, we did it because we needed them to produce product and wealth.

All of a sudden, in the 1950s and early 1960s, America started facing more international competition. Their prices were lower than our prices. Once this happened, we decided we couldn’t afford to give that skilled assembly worker $15 an hour in Evansville, Indiana, or Toledo, Ohio, anymore.

To maintain our profits and compete, we started moving good-paying jobs to places like Mexico, then to Brazil. Factories in Evansville and Toledo were abandoned. Now we’ve moved those jobs to China because we’re constantly in the search of the person who would work for considerably less than the last person.

Eventually, those more price-competitive imports were of good or better quality. So we went overseas to study innovations in industrial process improvement like Lean. But again, it was never to enrich the person’s experience; it was to eliminate waste. It was never about allowing people to express their gifts fully.

That’s the piece business has missed and that’s the piece we’ve found on our journey at Barry-Wehmiller. People are capable of doing amazing things if we just give them the environment in which they can discover, develop, share and be appreciated for their gifts. Creating opportunities through which they can realize their potential and be appreciated for it is how we, in business, can fix the broken American dream.

A quote from a recent CBS News article offers great perspective:

According to a December 2014 New York Times poll, the number of Americans who still believe in the American Dream is slipping. It was 72 percent in early 2009, at the worst of the financial crisis, and 64 percent this past December, in spite of the improved economy… The flip side of the news that faith in the American Dream has slipped to 64 percent, is that 64 percent — nearly two-thirds of Americans — still DO believe in an idea that is often about much more than making money.

People want to believe. It’s our responsibility as leaders to make the American dream a reality. We can do this by moving away from the singular focus on shareholder value and working towards leadership practices that create a "safe" environment. An environment where people feel valued for who they are and what they do as we collectively aspire to a vision that creates value for all stakeholders. Business could be the most powerful force for good if it simply cared about the lives it touches.

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