The signals are coming from every direction. To understand the future, signals illuminate possible paths. As I have written multiple times, history provides a wealth of signals. Looking at similar historical periods provides insight that feeds foresight. A book I recently completed did an incredible job of using history as a source of signals. In The Changing World Order, Ray Dalio explores all the major historical empires, the world order they presided over, and their eventual collapse. In doing so, he points to several signals that are shining bright red. Decision-makers would be wise to understand these signals.
With that same goal in mind, I studied a specific period in that long history, the period that began in the early 1900s. In writing about a post pandemic society, I explored the similarities between the roaring 20s and current day. While that analysis was sobering, a recent book took it further. In The Raging 2020s, Alec Ross looks backward to see forward. In this case, the context is the various social contracts embraced by the countries of the world. He is one of America’s leading experts on innovation, serving four years as Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Mr. Ross is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Bologna Business School. In an earlier book, he wrote about the Industries of the Future, explaining the advances and stumbling blocks that emerge in the next several years, and describing ways to navigate them. In his recent book, he describes the invisible and silent interplay between government, business, and citizens that has existed throughout history. In doing so, he focuses on the periods where equilibrium has existed, and the past twenty years where it has fallen off. Sticking with the theme of history, this lack of equilibrium mirrors the 1930s. The choice of book titles makes that historical link – replacing roaring with raging. In that era, some reacted by embracing Fascism, while others expanded the social contract. Think about the similarity to our current day (something he explores in the book): a choice between authoritarian and democratic governance models (signal). What other signals does the book uncover? Here are several directly from the book, with my thoughts woven in. As you review them, consider what they might mean to your decision-making.
Signal One: During the 1800s, vast technological changes swept through much of the world, drastically altering the structure of society. It was this shift that sparked the social contract that still, in one form or another, predominates in the world’s developed nations. This was a period of stagnant living standards (the period is referred to as Engels’ Pause) in the face of rapid technological change. Its by-products included ideological movements like Marxism and the largest wave of revolutions in Europe’s history. The earliest decades of industrialization and instability during Engels’ Pause came to a close only when governments began taking on responsibility for citizens’ economic security.
Signal Two: In 1950, George W. Merck, president of Merck at the time, delivered a speech in which he famously said, “We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits.” Companies were expected to turn a profit while also working to improve the well-being of their employees, support the communities where they did business, and generally serve the public good. Today, purpose and stakeholder capitalism (or a return to that era) is a growing conversation. But another signal to look for is one that undermined past iterations of stakeholder capitalism: the old model did not allow for a coherent set of guiding principles. Shareholder capitalism asks businesses to optimize for a single variable: financial returns to the business (and thus the shareholders). The transition back to stakeholder capitalism requires a new set of guiding principles and a mechanism to measure impact across the stakeholder community. As Mr. Ross states, an entire industry is built around accounting metrics for measuring shareholder value. We need similar standards for calculating stakeholder value.
Signal Three: At no time since the Great Depression have so few firms controlled so much wealth. The similarity doesn’t end there, as it drove a search in that era for new forms of governance and set the conditions for citizens to embrace those new forms. Which takes us to signal four.
Signal Four: Authoritarian models are gaining ground on liberal democracies throughout the world – even in places that favored democracy. In another similarity to the past, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were both democratically elected before destroying their countries’ systems of democracy. As mentioned above, the future of governance is increasingly a choice between authoritarian and democratic governance models. The next decade will be defined by the rivalry between Western democracy and Chinese authoritarianism.
Signal Five: The monopolies of the Gilded Age were deeply invested in currying favor with lawmakers and defending economic policies that sustained their monopolies.
Signal Six: The Great Depression had depressed wages and decreased job opportunities for working people, leaving much of the country feeling insecure and discontent. The federal government guaranteed workers’ right to unionize and participate in collective action in the 1935 Wagner Act, one of many pro-labor policies enacted under the New Deal. It was at this same time and facing similar economic distress that Germany turned to Nazism and Italy to fascism (see signal four above). This visual captures a quote from the book that underscores why historical signals matter – inflection points or tipping points of this magnitude do not come around often. You can’t think about the future without appreciating this potential.
Signal Seven: After the crash of Wall Street and the Depression that followed, the US government and workers’ unions effectively came together to revise the social contract so that it better fit the needs of workers. It was a move away from the boom-and-bust model of the “roaring ’20s,” which bears a heck of a strong resemblance to the 2010s in the United States.
Signal Eight: Coming out of the Depression there was a new sense of who the indispensable workers were – those building the cars, planes, trains, and skyscrapers that defined industrial America. A similar awakening came during the COVID pandemic, which brought about a new appreciation for frontline workers in health care, food, and services.
Signal Nine: The golden age of American unions, which lasted from the 1936 GM Flint strike to the early 1980s, coincided with the lowest levels of economic inequality the United States has ever seen.
Signal Ten: The high stakes of the Cold War forced multinational businesses and democratic governments to work in lockstep on foreign policy issues. The book refers to the emerging war of this era as the “code war” and envisions another period where business and government need to work together.
Signal Eleven: The crowning achievement of history’s strongest social contracts has been to create a sense of balance – where individuals have a meaningful say in the larger institutions and powers that direct their lives.
Signal Twelve: Today, Africa is home to some 1.3 billion people, making it the world’s second-most populous continent behind Asia. Over the next three decades, the United Nations expects the population of Africa to nearly double, reaching 2.5 billion. By the turn of the next century, the population will surpass 4.3 billion.
Signal Thirteen: The combination of explosive population growth, climate change, and weak social contracts could create a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions.
Signal Fourteen: If nothing changes, rage will be the defining quality of the 2020s. The rage and protest movements from both the political Right and Left will have grown larger, more violent, and more nativist. As inequality grows even more entrenched, violent unrest is likely to become more frequent and ferocious, drawing more citizens and their governments toward controlled and authoritarian versions of the social contract rather than attempting the messiness of democracy.
Signal Fifteen: Cities around the world will explode in population over the next decade.
Signal Sixteen: We will see spikes in migration as extreme storms and droughts become increasingly common. The logic of market forces holds that as severe droughts and storms destroy the habitability of certain regions, both people and capital will flock to places that are more livable and safe.
Signal Seventeen: Artificial intelligence and surveillance technologies will grow more powerful.
Signal Eighteen: At work, either you will be telling a machine what to do or a machine will be telling you what to do.
Signal Nineteen: Just as the six-day workweek of the agricultural age became a five-day workweek during the industrial age, the norm can evolve to a four-day workweek.
The focus on a changing world order introduced by Ray Dalio, and the critical need to revise our social contracts presented by Alec Ross, are both driven by a common expectation: massive change in this decade. As Mr. Ross says in this visualized quote, multinational companies need an intelligence apparatus. The mental model shift required when thinking about foresight should not be underestimated – and the signals are coming from every direction. These books are a critical source of signals and I highly recommend them. I have added both books to my Library.