Wall Street Journal op-ed: The Loan Wait for a Millennial Prophet, by Sam Walker (author, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams (2018)):
WeWork’s Adam Neumann Was Right About One Thing: Someone Needs to Reinvent Work
Until recently, Adam Neumann, the co-founder and chief executive of We Co., had a talent that many on Wall Street found baffling. People loved throwing money at him. ... This month, ahead of a proposed initial public offering, the skeptics finally pulled the fire alarm. ... [How did he raise so much money?]
The 40-year-old Mr. Neumann is by all accounts an exceptional salesman. But I suspect there’s another, deeper reason for his investor appeal.
For about a decade, the business world has been bracing for the arrival of what might best be described as the “Millennial Prophet.” At a time when young, brash, visionary CEOs have disrupted nearly everything, it only seems logical that one of them will solve the biggest challenge of all—reinventing work itself. In Mr. Neumann, these investors may have thought they had their man.
The conventional modern view of what it means to have a job, and how that relates to having a life, hasn’t changed much in 100 years. In fact, it dates all the way back to another wildly ambitious CEO, Henry Ford.
The Ford roughly doubled the basic pay for his workers to $5 a day—a stunning move that lifted scores of laborers into a new middle class. Ford also believed that in the industrial age, leisure time would no longer be a luxury for the wealthy, and might be a great tool for boosting worker morale and productivity. In the 1920s, he capped the company workweek at five days and 40 hours. ...
For more than a century, companies have followed Ford’s basic principle—you give me 40 hours of dutiful toil and I’ll give you the financial means to pursue happiness at home. For decades, whenever pollsters asked people to rank their priorities in life, their answers mirrored this bargain. Things like having a family, owning a home and living in peace ranked well ahead of having a great job.
To understand what some investors might have seen in Mr. Neumann, it helps to consider what’s happened, more recently, when Gallup’s pollsters have asked people the same question. Having a rewarding job no longer ranks near the bottom—it’s climbed to the top. In other words, the world seems to have changed again. Modern workers aren’t just content to be happy at home. They want work to be fulfilling, too. ...
While companies grope for answers, young workers have never been less likely to thrive in the old Ford system. Research shows they’re better educated, more concerned with finding social purpose at work and less resistant to changing jobs. High debt loads often force them to delay or forgo buying a home, getting married or having kids.
Mr. Neumann isn’t technically a millennial, but he certainly looks—and behaves—like a serial disrupter. What makes him different from most young CEOs, however, is that work is the actual thing he’s trying to disrupt.
In exchange for rent payments, Mr. Neumann’s company promises workers entree to a vibrant community. They’ll work in hip, inviting, fun communal spaces with organized social events, many points of connection and all the latest technology—or what the company describes as a “physical social network.” The company also advertises flexible leases that make it easier to come and go and change trajectories.
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