• 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.

First, the knowledge workers, collectively, are the new capitalists. Knowledge has become the key resource, and the only scarce one. This means that knowledge workers collectively own the means of production. But as a group, they are also capitalists in the old sense: through their stakes in pension funds and mutual funds, they have become majority shareholders and owners of many large businesses in the knowledge society.

Effective knowledge is specialised. That means knowledge workers need access to an organisation — a collective that brings together an array of knowledge workers and applies their specialisms to a common end-product. The most gifted mathematics teacher in a secondary school is effective only as a member of the faculty. The most brilliant consultant on product development is effective only if there is an organised and competent business to convert her advice into action. The greatest software designer needs a hardware producer. But in turn the high school needs the mathematics teacher, the business needs the expert on product development, and the PC manufacturer needs the software programmer. Knowledge workers therefore see themselves as equal to those who retain their services, as “professionals” rather than as “employees”. The knowledge society is a society of seniors and juniors rather than of bosses and subordinates.

His and Hers

All this has important implications for the role of women in the labour force. Historically women’s participation in the world of work has always equalled men’s. The lady of leisure sitting in her parlour was the rarest of exceptions even in a wealthy 19th-century society. A farm, a craftsman’s business or a small shop had to be run by a couple to be viable. As late as the beginning of the 20th century, a doctor could not start a practice until he had got married; he needed a wife to make appointments, open the door, take patients’ histories and send out the bills.

But although women have always worked, since time immemorial the jobs they have done have been different from men’s. There was men’s work and there was women’s work. Countless women in the Bible go to the well to fetch water, but not one man. There never was a male spinster. Knowledge work, on the other hand, is “unisex”, not because of feminist pressure but because it can be done equally well by both sexes. That said, the first modern knowledge jobs were designed for only one or the other sex. Teaching as a profession was invented in 1794, the year the Ecole Normale was founded in Paris, and was seen strictly as a man’s job. Sixty years later, during the Crimean war of 1853-56, Florence Nightingale founded the second new knowledge profession, nursing. This was considered as exclusively women’s work. But by 1850 teaching everywhere had become unisex, and in 2000 two-fifths of America’s students at nursing school were men.

There were no women doctors in Europe until the 1890s. But one of the earliest European women to get a medical doctorate, the great Italian educator Maria Montessori, reportedly said: “I am not a woman doctor; I am a doctor who happens to be a woman.” The same logic applies to all knowledge work. Knowledge workers, whatever their sex, are professionals, applying the same knowledge, doing the same work, governed by the same standards and judged by the same results.

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