Tom Brokaw speaks during the closing general sessio of the SHRM 2012 Annual Conference. Photo by Steven E. Purcell
ATLANTA—Tom Brokaw, an icon of U.S. broadcast journalism as managing editor and anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” used his closing keynote address at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2012 Annual Conference to call on HR professionals to be part of a national dialogue focused on solving the nation’s challenges.
The country, he reflected, has been in a difficult passage going into the 21st century, with deep political polarization, a struggling economy and international crises. “Human resources people are involved with the concerns and problems of employees, and in keeping your companies on the right path,” Brokaw noted, and he called on HR professionals to contribute their skills and understanding as part of a national conversation to move America forward.
“I have never seen the country so bewildered and weary, and even cynical,” he said. “Economic recovery seems to be a kind of ‘bait and switch.’ Young people are emerging from our best institutions with a heavy debt load and limited job prospects. Half of the country seems to be in a rage, and the other half seems to have given up.”
He recalled how the U.S. population in the 1940s—which he wrote about in his best-selling book, The Greatest Generation, (Random House, 1998)— dealt with the Depression and World War II with resolve and optimism. Overcoming polarization and national despondency will involve joining together and welcoming big ideas.
“Today’s young people are wary about big institutions, about whether they can trust big companies,” he observed. “These young people are a floating resource; they are not going to be locked into one employer the way their parents, or their grandparents, were.” He called them “a sharing generation,” noting that social media allows them to share everything about themselves. “Anyone involved in the workforce knows it’s an entirely different world these days, yet often we have a ‘retro’ perspective,” he said.
Reaching Out to Veterans
One issue close to Brokaw’s heart is the challenge faced by returning veterans. “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought by less than 1 percent of the population, mainly working class [citizens] from rural areas and inner cities, and too little was asked of the rest of us,” he said. “Now these combatants are coming home.”
Brokaw called for a common commitment to welcome veterans back and tell them, “We’re going to find a place for you.
“If we do that, the benefits will [be felt] throughout society,” he said.
He told the story of a captain who came home from Afghanistan and applied for a job with a big corporation, and who was told by the interviewer, “I don’t see much experience here.” The captain explained how he headed a squad that faced combat with minimal losses while living off the land and helping the local population irrigate their village. He told the interviewer, “I think that makes good experience,” and Brokaw agreed.
“When times are difficult, we need to lock arms and work together,” Brokaw urged, noting the success of the GI Bill in educating World War II veterans and helping launch the post-war economic surge. He recalled his time in Atlanta during the 1960s covering the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how “this country was changed profoundly as a result.” He noted the space program that sent men to the moon and gave us a new perspective about the Earth.
What will be the next big development? Brokaw suggested one possibility could be a partnership involving public service and private enterprise, and called for “public service academies” using historic land grant colleges to promote these efforts. He also called for more skills training for young people not interested in going to college.
“Maybe it’s time to recalibrate the American dream,” he suggested. “Consumerism has a finite capacity and has led to debt in many U.S. households that exceeds their net worth. Let’s think about the American dream qualitatively, not quantitatively.”
Brokaw pondered, “Forty or 50 years from now, what will historians say about our time? Working together, we can overcome these challenges and determine what our future is going to be.” Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.