Boston College Conference on Prospects for a Global Economy

Panel explores how business should address worker anxiety

By Sean Smith

The first of three panel discussions during the June 3 conference at Boston College explored American workers' employment and financial anxieties, and how business should alleviate these concerns.

The discussion, "American Jobs, Economic Growth and Global Competition: Sources of and Solutions to Uncertainty," was moderated by Cable News Network Anchor and Senior Correspondent Judy Woodruff.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney makes a point during the panel discussion as (from left to right) Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Sybase Executive Vice President Mitchell Kertzman and Cable News Network Anchor and Senior Correspondent Judy Woodruff look on. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Panelists readily acknowledged Americans' widely-reported anxiety over their future, but did not completely agree on its significance or its remedy. For example, Richard Breeden, chairman of Coopers & Lybrand, pointed out that for all its uncertainty the contemporary economic system has advantages over earlier models.

"We have had a world with complete economic security," Breeden said. "It was called feudalism. There was not a lot of mobility and the thing a family needed most was stoicism especially if you were on the bottom rung, because you were highly likely to stay there. There may be more anxiety today but there is more opportunity. A great deal rests on you."

"The statistics are very clear: There has been a divergence of income growth in the US," said Merrill Lynch & C o. Chief Investment Strategist Charles Clough Jr. "But there is always anxiety out there. When you look at the American economy, you have to give attention to productivity as well as the wage side."

Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter said the anxiety stemmed from workers' disillusionment with more than a decade's worth of downsizing and restructuring. In the 1980s, she said, many Americans "felt it their patriotic duty to support corporate decisions," but after "sharing the pain they have felt no gain" and in fact have lost ground.

Prof. Peter Gottschalk (Economics) agreed that instability had long been a fact of life for many American workers, but it became a political issue once "the anxiety hit upper-level, higher-income white-collar workers."

"Those at the top can take steps to secure their position," Gottschalk said. "The public policy response should be the opposite and help those who do not have the resources to do so."

Panelists also discussed the tension companies face in trying to invest in their labor force while feeling pressure to show profits, and how corporations could best provide for their employees. Kanter said individuals should each be "armed" with education and training that will enable them to succeed in the changing marketplace.

Sybase Executive Vice President Mitchell Kertzman said a company can best serve the full needs of its employees by being competitive, a task which is more complex than in past years.

"Our expectations were set when America was monopolistic in the world market, and many people look back on that time as our glory days," he said. "Unfortunately, there is no political leadership to say 'We can't go back there.'"

"I have heard the President give that speech," Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy Joshua Gotbaum quickly responded.

Other panelists were former General Electric Co. Executive Vice President Frank Doyle and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

Back to News and Information from Boston College

Return to InfoEagle Home Page