For example, it’s important for even low- and mid-level workers to understand how their work fits into the broader corporate strategy of their organization—understanding the shifting economics of a business isn’t just for senior executives anymore.
And, relatedly, there is particular value in being a “glue person,” someone who understands how their specialty fits together with other types of technical expertise, who can ensure that teams containing people with diverse skills can work together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
People also need to cultivate adaptability—to stretch themselves into areas that are uncomfortable rather than just doing more and more of what comes most naturally. This adaptability, I argue, is a skill that you can develop, just as you can work at becoming better at public speaking or data analysis—it just requires overcoming the natural instinct to keep doing what you’re already good at.
Fundamentally, though, you can thrive in this changing world, while also accepting the critique of corporate power that economists and politicians are increasingly making, and working to fix the problems they’ve identified.
This shift of the hotel industry toward relying on intellectual capital would have had the same effects even if antitrust regulators had been more skeptical of consolidation-by-merger, such as Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood in 2016. It would be true even if the hotel workers’ union gained greater clout and used it to substantially increase wages for housekeepers and desk clerks. It would be true even if lobbying and campaign-finance reforms limited the ability of the big hotels to get their way in Washington or local city councils.
In thinking about the rise of winner-take-all effects in the corporate world, in other words, we need to separate the broad shifts in the economics of an industry from pernicious deployment of corporate power.
Think of the historical changes in the auto industry. On the eve of the Great Depression, there were 108 automakers in the United States, most of which are long since forgotten by history. By the 1950s, the Big Three were wildly dominant, fueled by the economies of scale of their assembly lines.
Yet we don’t remember the middle of the 20th century as a time when auto workers were exploited; to the contrary, it was a golden era in which workers without advanced education could attain a solid middle-class life.
The difference between that consolidation and the consolidation of major industries today was that the automakers had a strong counterweight to their power in the form of an equally powerful union that ensured the economic spoils that resulted from this concentration were shared with workers rather than exclusively retained by shareholders and executives.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as industrialization proceeded at breakneck speed in the United States and Western Europe, the downsides of the industrial age became glaringly obvious. Union leaders and other reformers strove to change the awful work conditions in many factories, and to prevent plutocrats from warping the political system. Those hard-fought battles reduced the rough edges of capitalism; it will take similar battles to do the same today.
But if you wrote a book offering advice to young people embarking on a career in that era, it wouldn’t have been, “Stay on the farm.” It would have been, “Learn how to make your skills well-suited for the industrial age—and work to make the world fairer.” And the same goes for the winner-take-all-world of the 21st century.
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