I spend a lot of time thinking about the future–both mine, and that of the world as a whole–and one of the things that has been on my mind is the need for us to do things differently.
A recent longform piece in New York focused on the theory that the seeming inexorable economic progress we’ve experienced from the industrial revolution through the 1960s was an anomaly rather than the new normal…a blip in the history of man:
I often make a similar argument when discussing macro policy. My thesis is that the great American post-WW2 expansion was a historical anomaly, consisting of export- and consumption-driven growth in a temporarily uncompetitive global economy. My conclusion is that the large number of medium-skill, high-wage, middle-class blue collar jobs were a temporary phenomenon.
Human beings are pattern-matchers; if we see two points, we can’t help but draw a line between them and conclude there’s a trend. Yet I would argue that both sides–both the people who, like Barbara Eherenreich, mourn the workers’ paradise lost of the post-WW2 era, and the catastrophists of “The Blip” who believe the age of growth is over–are seeing false patterns. They look at the data and draw their conclusions without trying to understand the reasons behind the data.
Since the financial crisis and global recession of 2008, growth has been slow. Yet think of all the value that has been added to the world since then. For example, the iPhone was only 1 year old in 2008, and the iPad was only a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye. Think that the iPhone and iPad are just trinkets? I’d argue they represent as big a revolution as the original PC, by making computing intuitive and accessible to everyone.
It may be that conventional economic factors such as an aging workforce augur poorly for the future, but I believe that considering existing factor misses the point. The key factors are likely to be things we barely recognize today, whether it’s practical electric vehicles, the revolution in the science of being human, or hyperloops (whatever they are).
Yes, if we keep doing things the same way, we are doomed. Growth will slow, and climate change will kill us all. But we don’t have to keep doing things the same way. Startups demonstrate the ability for a small number of people to catalyze mass change. The first wave consists of the crazy ones, but pretty soon, even the cautious are busy downloading Angry Birds.
Work in the future will be more like the startup world–chaotic, unstable, but creative and productive.
I think humanity’s best days lie ahead of us. The future is waiting. We just have to invent it.