Like a new car once it’s spent a few weeks ferrying the kids to school and soccer practice, 2010 no longer feels like such a fresh and shiny new year. Our new year’s resolutions aren’t surviving that much better than the ones for 2009 or 2008 did, for that matter, and the holiday season feels like it was over eons ago as winter stretches bleakly ahead into the indefinite future.
This is not my favorite time of year.
But the new decade is still just starting out, and it’s a useful exercise to think about what kinds of problems and opportunities it is likely to bring. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been writing about some of the major global trends that are likely to be driving events in the new decade. Now I want to shift gears and write about America’s situation going forward.
This is one of those moments when it’s fashionable to be gloomy about America’s prospects. The Obama administration has lost that fresh New President smell and the President, once widely hailed as The One who was coming to transform Washington, is preparing for his first State of the Union in dismal political circumstances.
But what is going on in America is much bigger than the political problems of one leader. Our country is heading into a period of rapid and radical change for which we are not well prepared. This is a global phenomenon, not an American one; as I wrote earlier this month, the acceleration of technological, social, economic and political change is the most important trend of our times.
All things being equal, this accelerating change will be good for the United States. For hundreds of years, our comparative advantage in world economics and politics has been our society’s breathtaking ability to generate change, adjust to change, harness change and thrive on change. Today as the United States and the world confront massive waves of accelerating change, we have a better chance than anybody else of surfing the incoming waves rather than being swept off our feet and carried out to sea.
But there are no guarantees. In fact, there are two important reasons why the incoming changes will be harder for us to master than just about anything we’ve faced before.
First, the changes are bigger and faster moving than ever. The continuing revolutions in IT and communications technology are not only driving social and industrial changes like the rise of the internet and the crisis of the old media companies. They are making financial markets harder to understand and regulate. By facilitating the development of global supply chains they have accelerated the rise of manufacturing in the developing world, producing not only political and economic problems in the US, but changing the global balance of power. By allowing the automation of many skilled jobs, they are challenging the economic foundation of professions like law and accounting. More, because faster, more powerful computers stimulate, facilitate and expedite the work of scientific discovery and technological innovation, the explosion of computing power is turbocharging the overall process of scientific and technical development.
Even by the standards of the last 300 years, this is a lot of acceleration and change. If we are struggling to cope, that is partly because there is so much to cope with.
The second factor is that this new wave of change is affecting the people and the organizations whose job it is to understand and manage change. It is hard, for example, for journalists to think clearly and positively about a wave of change that is destroying their livelihoods. Professional civil service workers in government cannot be expected to embrace with enthusiasm technologies that make their jobs obsolete.
The learned professions in the United States — lawyers, doctors, nurses, accountants, educators, journalists, government bureaucrats — are under the gun. The IT revolution is going to put them all through the wringer — the way it has already put blue collar America through the wringer by a combination of automation and outsourcing. The upper middle class did very well in the last generation, even as blue collar incomes stagnated and in many cases fell. The next phase of change will challenge the institutions and the livelihoods of America’s managers, professors, lawyers and others in the same way that it has already thrown journalism into the maelstrom.
These changes are necessary and in the long run benign. Dramatically and thoroughly restructuring the professions will ultimately make the vital services they provide much cheaper and much more widely available — just as the destruction of the old manufacturing guilds in the industrial revolution eventually made manufactured goods much cheaper. But just as the spinners and weavers fought the new machines, so we can expect a lot of our intellectuals and managers to fight the challenges to a system that has worked very well for them.
This means trouble. The upper middle class is disproportionately powerful and influential in American society. It’s going to fight, hard, to defend the status quo. At the same time, the upper middle class is the part of our society which is supposed to do the thinking and the innovation that equips us for change. But instead of eagerly anticipating change, fighting for its adoption and developing clever plans for overcoming resistance and implementing change, the upper middle class is going to be devoting tremendous brainpower to resisting, subverting and delaying it.And the problem won’t just be their resistance; it will be their inability to grasp and their unwillingness to exploit the enormous opportunities that new technologies and new institutional arrangements create.
America’s success in the next generation will be largely dependent on our ability to master social and economic change. Those best placed in our society for this job, and those whose responsibility it would normally be to lead the change process will be unable and unwilling to do their job well. This will make the change process more disruptive and painful than it has to be and it will distract and divide our society at a time we will need to focus our attention on a world that will be having an even harder time than we are.
There are some who think that to cope with all this we are going to have to change who we are, and become less ‘American’ — less individualistic, less risk oriented, less religious, less ambitious, less concerned about economic growth, less nationalistic and so forth.
Well, we can always improve, and our national character is not without faults. But in dealing with our emerging challenges I think we are going to have to be more American than ever; the qualities that got us this far are the ones we will have to draw on in what is going to be both a terrifying and exhilarating ride through the white water rapids ahead.