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Top Ten Workplace Events Of the ‘00s

I’m thinking the same thing I think every New Year’s Eve: Where the hell is my flying car?

The television shows of my youth promised me a flying car by now. Haven’t the movers and shakers in Detroit and Washington D.C. ever watched The Jetsons? Back To the Future? Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Harry Potter? If a flying car is out of the question, I’ll take a cool jetpack, because it would be so awesome to land in front of my local grocery store with reusable grocery bag in hand. Then again, D.C. drivers are bad enough on the ground that I’m not sure I’d want to see them in the air.

I hope your holidays have been everything you want them to be. I’ve been puttering around town and pondering a year-end “top ten” list that looks back on some formative workplace events of the past decade. Accountants ad, lawyers litigate, plumbers plumb, and journalists create wildly inaccurate top ten lists. It’s what we do, especially at the end of the year when nothing is happening and we don’t feel like thinking very hard. So without further delay, here is my take on ten workplace events that helped shape the last decade.

Y2K. Okay, this event technically belongs to the last decade, but news clips such as this one make one realize it foreshadowed the '00s very nicely. The fear, the uncertainty, the feeling that you'd better stock up on canned goods and grab some cash from the ATM before everything comes to a crashing halt…it all feels a bit second hand from our world-weary 2010 vantage point, no? The government told companies to worry about Y2K, so they spent a lot of money on public relations. Employees were told they wouldn’t get vacation time and that they should worry about their jobs disappearing. Then midnight came on December 31, 1999, Dick Clark did his thing, and we got some sleep before we started pointing fingers at each other. Now we won’t have to worry about another doomsday computer bug until 2038, the year Gen Xers born in 1968 will turn 70. But let's not go there right now. The point of this whole paragraph is that Y2K was our Beta version of bigger worries to come.

The Dot-com Bust. The U.S. stock market dropped an astounding (for the time) 617 points on April 14, 2000, effectively signaling the beginning of the end of the dot-com era. The NASDAQ would lose 78% of its value over the next 18 months as investors and speculators fled the overvalued technology start-up market. Running a company on the power of eyeballs, stickiness and VC funding got harder as burned investors started to pine for real-world fundamentals such as actual sales and profit margins. For employees, it meant far fewer IPOs turning them into instant millionaires, at least on paper. The twee Gap TV ads danced into oblivion as job growth slowed and employees began to realize they might soon jump, jive and wail their way to the nearest unemployment office. Employees under 35 wondered who pooped in their soup. And to think the '00s were only getting started. Sigh.

9/11. Employers responded to the worst terror attack on U.S. soil by beefing up security and creating contingency plans. They also ramped up background checks, an employment practice that remains with us to this day. 2011 is the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, so employers should anticipate a barrage of non-stop media retrospectives this summer that could make employees feel like they’re reliving that horrible day all over again for a few months. Smart managers will open a door for employees to talk about it (e.g., “It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years…where were you guys on 9/11?”). Or maybe employees can channel their emotions into doing something nice for their local emergency responders. The goal is to let employees know they’re not alone if they’re feeling anxious or down as the anniversary nears. Also, it’ll be an opportunity for companies to revisit their contingency plans, which probably need updating after two years of rampant layoffs. Jim was supposed to turn out the lights according to our emergency plan, but we laid Jim off 18 months ago. Oops. Your company does have a contingency plan, right?

The iPod. The first iPod was released six weeks after the 9/11 attack and was touted as a MP3 player. Eventually, people realized they could use the iPod for work purposes, and the wireless workplace revolution really took off. The iPhone came along in 2007 and changed the way we live, work and tell time. Now we could put that Nickelback song on pause while we updated our boss on a client meeting. The iPad has been marketed from the very start as a sleek work tool. The Android and other wireless devices will continue to reshape how, and where, we work in the coming years. The downside? It’s getting harder to have a real conversation with anyone and managers still don’t trust employees to work remotely. Maybe someone can create an app for that.

Enron. Ah, Enron. The Grandma Millie in all of us hangs her head in shame. In 2000, the Houston-based energy giant had 22,000 employees and stated revenues of $101 billion. Things were going so well that Fortune magazine named Enron "America's Most Innovative Company" six years in a row (1996-2001). Then a Fortune writer got suspicious, things got wonky behind the scenes with Enron's investment banks, and the company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy toward the end of 2001. The company’s founder and CEO both went to jail, while dazed and confused employees lost their jobs. The public learned about financial instruments such as "offshore entities" and "mark to market accounting" that had allowed Enron to hide its losses in offshore shell companies and to report future sales as current sales. These financial instruments were so obtuse and hard to unravel that no one really understood them. Congress held hearings and passed Sarbanes Oxley, but echoes of Enron's "innovation strategies” would come back to haunt all of us on a much bigger scale toward the end of the decade.

Offshoring.
At the start of the decade, white-collar knowledge workers were largely happy to ignore the offshoring plight of their blue-collar brothers and sisters until the same thing started happening to them. The U.S. economy has lost at least 5.5 million jobs to offshoring over the last 10 years, and now we’re all in the same boat. Even SMBs are shipping jobs abroad in greater numbers. The United States is quickly reaching a tipping point where it must confront the negative impacts of offshoring on the American workforce, as well as the difficult questions this management practice raises for our society. Should Americans have the right to a job? Is a job not only an economic necessity, but a moral and a patriotic imperative as well? Should the U.S. Government encourage U.S. companies to bring jobs back to the United States by using a carrot (tax and business incentives), a stick (higher taxes on companies that offshore jobs, laws that prohibit excessive offshoring), or some combination of both? Are Americans willing to pay more for products made in the U.S.A.? What will we do when other countries balk at our “buy American” policies? Will we get tougher on China about its business practices? Will Congress re-evaluate NAFTA? Do the risks and hidden costs of offshoring outweigh the benefits for companies? Will the president and Congress muster the courage to address the offshoring issue head-on before it’s too late?

The rise of the WAHM. The work-at-home mom is at home with the kids but thanks to the Internet she's still working a few hours per week from the comforts of her home computer. Oh my God Gen X and Gen Y women are ruining feminism! the media have cried. Don’t they appreciate the struggles Boomer women endured to propel them through the glass ceiling? Gen X and Gen Y women appreciate the professional struggles of Boomer women but they don’t view motherhood as a career killer. They’re taking a few years to raise the kids, but they’re keeping a toe in the work waters while they’re doing it. When the time is right, they’ll merge back on to the career freeway and hit the gas. Smart bosses no longer scoff at moms looking to get back in the game, and quite frankly, after this recession is over it’s not going to matter if moms dropped out of the mainstream workforce for a few years. Everyone will be trying to explain their own resume gaps. WAHMs aren’t hurting feminism; they’re simply forcing the workplace to reflect who they are and how they want to live their lives. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

Gen X turns 40. Little attention was paid to this Gen X milestone with the "Baby Boomers are turning 65" meme hogging the media spotlight. But age catches up with all of us, and Gen Xers have replaced their torn jeans and Pearl Jam CDs with jobs in middle management. They're graying around the edges, struggling for work-life balance, and discussing how Winona Ryder can’t possibly be old enough to play an aging prima ballerina in Black Swan because she was just in Reality Bites. Gen Xers are a unique hybrid; the last generation old enough to remember rotary phones and Atari Pong, yet still young enough to adapt to the latest, greatest technologies. Whether it's rewriting the rules of management or taking over the CEO post at major corporations, look for Gen Xers to leave their cynical but savvy mark on the workplace over the next decade.

Social media. What types of social media were you using in 2000? It's a trick question. You weren’t using social media in 2000 because it didn’t exist. Myspace launched in 2003 and Facebook launched in 2004. Twitter joined the social media fray in 2006, and “Follow me on Twitter” and has become part of our everyday lexicon. Employers have spent the last seven years trying to keep employees’ social media use in check by blocking sites, prohibiting social media use and monitoring employees' online social profiles. Employers have a lot of information at their fingertips, because we’re living smack dab in the social media wild west where people post whatever is on their minds. We’re telling everyone why we didn’t like our Christmas presents this year, why we hate our jobs and why we can’t eat beans anymore. Why hold back? Social media is all about over-sharing with complete strangers! In the not-too-distant future, however, there will be a social media backlash as millions of people experience something I’ll call Tweegret: a feeling of regret, embarrassment or outright horror over certain things they shared on Twitter five years ago. Hiring managers in 2017 will feel anything but bored reading everyone’s old tweets from 2010. Instead of being seen as a shoe-in for the job, a job candidate could be laughed at as the guy who farts nonstop whenever he eats beans. Now that’s social progress.

Great Recession. Move over corporate offshore entities, here comes the real estate derivatives market! These overly-complicated financial instruments that no one really understands (where have we heard this one before?) nearly brought down the whole U.S. economy, which lost 2.6 million jobs in 2008 alone. We bailed out the banks, but didn’t put any bankers in jail. We’re still dealing with a 10% official unemployment rate and turning to animated figures for brilliant deconstructions of important 60 Minutes interviews. The people lucky enough to have jobs want to hold on to them; the people who are unemployed just want a job, period. This recession will hang over the workplace for years to come and will serve as a reminder of just how bad things can get. As hiring picks up, employees and managers will still be coming to grips with the Great Recession. What the hell just happened? Do I still have the skills to pay the bills? Can I get some training along with this staff lunch? So this is what a “great” pay and benefits package looks like now? Why can’t I go back to 1999 and live there forever? But I’m putting the cart before the horse because a lot of people think the Great Recession isn’t over yet. Signs points to 2011 getting better all the time, which is good because 2010 couldn’t get much worse for a lot of people.

Have a safe and happy New Year's Eve!

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