• Strategy
  • The Economist

Survey: The Near Future

Peter Drucker explains how it will differ from today, and what needs to be done to prepare for it.

Knowledge Is All

The next society will be a knowledge society. Knowledge will be its key resource, and knowledge workers will be the dominant group in its workforce. Its three main characteristics will be:

• Borderlessness, because knowledge travels even more effortlessly than money.

• Upward mobility, available to everyone through easily acquired formal education.

• The potential for failure as well as success. Anyone can acquire the “means of production”, ie, the knowledge required for the job, but not everyone can win.

Together, those three characteristics will make the knowledge society a highly competitive one, for organisations and individuals alike. Information technology, although only one of many new features of the next society, is already having one hugely important effect: it is allowing knowledge to spread near-instantly, and making it accessible to everyone. Given the ease and speed at which information travels, every institution in the knowledge society — not only businesses, but also schools, universities, hospitals and increasingly government agencies too — has to be globally competitive, even though most organisations will continue to be local in their activities and in their markets. This is because the Internet will keep customers everywhere informed on what is available anywhere in the world, and at what price.

This new knowledge economy will rely heavily on knowledge workers. At present, this term is widely used to describe people with considerable theoretical knowledge and learning: doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, chemical engineers. But the most striking growth will be in “knowledge technologists”: computer technicians, software designers, analysts in clinical labs, manufacturing technologists, paralegals. These people are as much manual workers as they are knowledge workers; in fact, they usually spend far more time working with their hands than with their brains. But their manual work is based on a substantial amount of theoretical knowledge which can be acquired only through formal education, not through an apprenticeship. They are not, as a rule, much better paid than traditional skilled workers, but they see themselves as “professionals”. Just as unskilled manual workers in manufacturing were the dominant social and political force in the 20th century, knowledge technologists are likely to become the dominant social — and perhaps also political — force over the next decades.

The New Protectionism

Structurally, too, the next society is already diverging from the society almost all of us still live in. The 20th century saw the rapid decline of the sector that had dominated society for 10,000 years: agriculture. In volume terms, farm production now is at least four or five times what it was before the first world war. But in 1913 farm products accounted for 70% of world trade, whereas now their share is at most 17%. In the early years of the 20th century, agriculture in most developed countries was the largest single contributor to GDP; now in rich countries its contribution has dwindled to the point of becoming marginal. And the farm population is down to a tiny proportion of the total.

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