From 1945 to 2015 in one hour: The bloom is off the rose: Facing the new status quo

What we think of as normal was just a statistical aberrationThe following is an abbreviated version of a presentation called 'From 1945 to 2015 in one hour' made by Jake McCall, president of research consultancy Second Sight, to a gathering of...

What we think of as normal was just a statistical aberration

The following is an abbreviated version of a presentation called ‘From 1945 to 2015 in one hour’ made by Jake McCall, president of research consultancy Second Sight, to a gathering of marketers and advertisers on Jan. 31 in Toronto. Second Sight is a division of Bates Canada of Toronto.

There are still people who refer to what we’ve all been going through for the last few years as a recession.

This implies that, once we’ve all ‘taken our medicine,’ things will get back to normal. By ‘normal,’ the inference is a continuation of what we’ve known from the end of the Second World War to roughly 1980.

In fact, all the evidence suggests that the period from 1945-1980 was a statistical and sociological aberration.

It arose through convergence of a string of random factors from women working for the war effort to introduction of the Pill.

Most of the expectations ‘imprinted’ into most people over the age of 40 come from that period of boom: growing markets; more disposable income; mass marketing; middle class; the average family, and jobs for all.

But at some stage, roughly around the mid-1980s, the bloom came off the rose. It happened so imperceptibly that few people realize even to this day the enormity of what had begun to happen.

People, or at least those with jobs after all the downsizings, began to work harder and longer.

Where previous recessions had affected mostly blue collar workers, now white collar and managerial jobs were hit.

Total family income began to decline, behind it an even more polarized family income picture in which older people were doing well and younger people people losing out badly.

At the same time, we began to see three other forms of polarization: one based on education, demographics, and, of course, income disparity.

Read this quote from the November 1994 issue of The Economist: ‘In both America and Britain, income inequalities are now larger than at any time since the 1930s.’

While all this was occurring, the global ‘knock-on’ effect was in play, whereby any worker’s job is as likely to be taken by a company in Thailand or India as by a competitor in North America.

The boom element of post-war life was an aberration. If we can expect any ‘norms’ in life, they certainly won’t be based on that period.

In one respect, the new or real ‘norm’ will closer resemble the 1920s and 1930s than the ’60s and ’70s, particularly in terms of the existence of haves/have-nots.

In the old days, this schism was based on class. Now, it’s more to do with education. What the Nazis did for the Untermensch concept through sheer brutishness, the early 21st century will do through the education and intelligence we inherit from our parents.

Read this quote from the February/March issue of Wired magazine: ‘In the next century we may see 20% of the workforce become the elite nomad tribes of tomorrow, roaming the planet as highly paid forces.’

In other respects, the new ‘norm’ will be shaped by the new technologies. What we’re actually witnessing is the transition from one epoch to another. We’re in transition, from the Industrial or Machine Age to the Information Age.

As with the shift from Agrarian to Industrial Age, we will move, glacier-like, grindingly and painfully, into the new Information Age. It may take two or three generations for the new ‘norm,’ whatever that is, to manifest itself.

The Information Age will, in some respects, simply reverse many of the facets which we’ve begun to accept as the ‘norm’ from the Industrial Age.

Read this quote from Jim Davidson in the June 1994 issue of Strategic Investment:

‘In contrast, the new technology of the Information Age is decentralizing. As the new technology does away with jobs for the unskilled, it leaves behind a brittle, centralized system that is almost bound to be subject to the same type of furious sabotage that the formerly middle-class Luddites directed against an earlier generation of `new machines.’ Mark your calendar for 2048. If the nation-state still exists by then, it won’t be 2050.’

Paradoxically, while technology is damaging and polarizing people in one sense, it is also having a fundamentally egalitarianizing effect in terms of management styles.

Helen Runtagh, chief executive officer of GE Information Services, is quoted in a 1994 interview in Fortune magazine as saying: ‘Communications in a network are absolutely incompatible with a strict, parochial hierarchy.’

While this may all sound a little esoteric or cerebral, there are some simple and stark business implications which will affect us in the next five to 10 years. For brevity, we’ll reduce them to five headings.

First, mass marketing is decreasingly relevant, given all the demographic, lifestyle and technological diversity we’re seeing.

The ultimate nail in the mass-marketing coffin will be the polarization between haves and have-nots, or knows and know-nots, as professional future watcher Frank Ogden refers to them.

Second, there are profound implications for advertising and marketing.

Among other things, the words ‘advertising’ and ‘agency’ will, mercifully, fade from use.

We’ve also watched over 20 years as the product and strategic management functions in companies have atrophied in terms of responsibility, foresight and creativity.

Companies will have to approach innovation in completely different ways.

Companies have tended to recruit against a narrow and conventional set of criteria. The Information Age will require a more ‘rainforest’ approach to handling and evaluating people.

Arts-based and ‘renaissance’ type of people will be just as useful as the more linear mba model who has all of the numbers, but none of the wisdom.

Fourth, dividing lines will continue to blur, to the point where the delineation between leisure and work, between interactive and virtual reality, between reality and non-reality will become finer.

Ultimately, the difference between internal neural systems and those we ‘wear’ will be indistinguishable.

A subset of this heading is that research will change its shape, taking more account of the demographic and psychographic diversity, and harnessing the new interactive technologies.

Finally, the impracticality and complexity of the old concept of global marketing and multinational corporations will have to be recognized. The global village predicted by Marshall McLuhan will actually resemble a globe of villages.

That all these trends and shifts either are in motion or will materialize cannot be in doubt. There are too many recurring clues. The two simple unknowns are the precise form in which, or the precise time at which, they become the new norm.