Alan Webber: The disappearing man in the grey flannel suit
If you want to keep track of how the world is changing, keep track of business. So suggests Alan Webber, co-founder of Fast Company Magazine, who for over two decades has been interpreting the intersection of life and work in America.
Webber has just completed a book, Life Reimagined: Discovering Your New Life Possibilities, co-written with Richard Leider, about how people make transitions during their so-called retirement years. As it turns out, retiring doesn’t have the same appeal that it did a few generations ago when it felt like a reward after a lifetime of dedication to a single organization.
The man in the grey flannel suit—the company man—is now the vestige of another time, another culture of work. Today, people move around in search of jobs that nourish them in important ways, and in retirement, they still want that nourishment. Fewer of us look at our careers as having an endpoint where we will segue cheerfully into a leisurely existence.
“It’s part of the vocabulary of our times,” Webber says. “Nothing is a destination; everything’s a journey.”
Webber has observed the progression of this work-life attitude since he helped launch Fast Company in 1995. As he reported on business and the economy, he was chronicling a major cultural shift in the U.S. He says Fast Company was really a magazine about work, and it spoke to a generation of Americans who were witnessing the end of the organization man, that post WWII employee who put self to the side so he could put food on the table.
Boomers had another idea about work. They wanted to be fulfilled by it, and Fast Company watched and reported as it happened.
“The dirty little secret about Fast Company was that it wasn’t a business magazine,” Webber says. “It was a magazine that took a very capacious view of what constitutes business. If you take a broad view of the role of work and the workplace in people’s lives and in society at large, business is a huge driver of how we think and what we value, what we do and what we don’t do.”
Globalization in the ‘90s destabilized traditional organizations as people began to look at different models of what large-scale corporate America was supposed to be. The pages of the magazine aimed for a new conversation, exploring questions about business in society: What makes a company a good place to work? Where do great ideas come from? What are the conditions for failure? What technological changes are going to happen? Do leaders have to be tough?
People who were willing to ask those questions about work helped release a flood of entrepreneurial energy.
“We were trying to cut things on the diagonal and look with peripheral vision,” Webber says. “There were people in large organizations who thought they were misfits, people who wanted to be entrepreneurs who thought they were the weird ones. We were telling people who were feeling marginalized and alone, you’re the one who gets it—you’re the guy who’s seeing the future, and the others are going to come late to the game.”
The mantra of the magazine from its inception was: Work is personal, computing is social, knowledge is power. Break the rules. “Today all those things are true, but on steroids,” Webbers says.
Just as he tapped into a major social shift 20 years ago, Webber senses another change coming around. Instead of rethinking work, members of the younger generation today are rethinking capitalism. They want their work to contribute to something larger than themselves. For the man in the grey flannel suit, that “something” was the company. For boomers, it was self-fulfillment. For this generation, it’s the world.
The current workforce feels a sense of cohesion with people beyond the compass of its own existence. The new mantra is this: What we do every day at work can ripple away from us and reverberate out into the world. No grey flannel suits here.
“I think folks are hungry for that sense of purpose in their lives, to be part of something that actually works—something that makes a difference and solves a problem,” Webber says. “They want a handle on why what they’re doing every day is worthwhile.”