Back in the 1990s, my favorite computer game was an empire-building game called Lords of the Realm. Players began with a small medieval fiefdom and had to grow its economy, raise an army, and build a castle. As the game progressed, players could build stronger castles. Armies invaded nearby lands and conquered them through battles for control of the castle. Different prices had to be paid to equip soldiers of various types, and peasants could be conscripted. Although peasants got killed quickly going into battle with their pitchforks, they were useful for digging when a moat around an enemy’s castle needed to be filled in.
I enjoyed the sound effects for the battles, which included dialogue. Professional soldiers such as knights or pikemen replied with an eager “Yes, my lord!” or “Right away, sir!” when sent into battle. The peasants, however, made their lack of enthusiasm abundantly clear. When they were selected, they grumbled something surly like “What now?” or “Where to this time?”
I don’t suppose the authors of the game had in mind today’s employment practices when they composed that dialogue, but it struck me as an amusing and very apt bit of social commentary. Modern corporations no longer expect to keep employees for a lifetime, or indeed for any amount of time. Company pension plans are vanishing. Instead of training young workers, which was once common practice, managers insist that new hires must already have all skills required for the job. If no applicants can be found who have the perfect background, work goes undone or is contracted out. Very little thought is given to the long-term effects of cutting costs; only the next quarter’s profit matters.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone in management, under these circumstances, when the employees grumble like surly peasants. Corporate executives give rah-rah speeches and bestow small perks such as letting employees wear jeans to work, but that doesn’t change anything. When their decisions reflect the attitude that any worker can be replaced at any time by someone who comes cheaper, they can’t reasonably expect to enjoy the steadfast loyalty that a medieval knight would give to his liege lord.
Eventually, as globalization progresses, the multinational corporations will exhaust their supply of low-wage workers in underdeveloped nations. I estimate that in less than two decades, companies will be faced with widespread labor shortages. Thereafter, advances in automation won’t keep pace with a shrinking labor force and an increased demand for better-trained workers. When that happens, the most successful companies will be those willing to invest the money needed to retain skilled employees. Competitive pressure will force employers to raise wages, improve benefits, hire the most qualified applicants without discrimination, and generally treat their workers with more respect.
Many executives won’t like it, of course, because they’ve gotten so accustomed to treating their employees like peons. They’ll have no choice but to face the facts, however. If they don’t… well, another feature of the Lords of the Realm game was that if the peasants got too unhappy they’d revolt. They would abandon their fields and go marauding across the countryside. If the revolt wasn’t put down quickly and the peasants’ happiness level raised, the castle would be lost. Those who want to manage the corporations of the future would be wise to take a lesson from that.