“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards”
– Steve Jobs
The American Business History Center wishes happy holidays to all of our readers. As another year comes to a close, it’s a great time to think back over time, to learn from history and see what trends might point the way to our shared future.
Almost every aspect of life and business evolves, changing continually. There are “macro” and “micro” trends in every nation, state, and city, and in every industry and line of work. Here we touch on a few trends (and unchanging things) that we find most interesting. Our aim is not to be comprehensive, but to provoke further rumination by all of us.
In studying these evolutions, we must be careful to avoid the common trap of thinking that our own era is somehow different, more complex, or faster-changing than previous times. Those of your writer’s age have seen the coming of the jet age, the invention of the theme park, the rise of the computer, and the Internet “revolution” that has touched every aspect of life. Yet consider a person who lived from 1870 to 1930, a mere sixty years. In their lifetime, science fiction turned into reality alongside many cultural and social innovations:
- the telephone
- the useable bicycle
- the automobile
- the powered tractor (instead of horsepower)
- paved roads
- the airplane
- diesel-electric locomotives
- buildings taller than four or five stories
- refrigeration and air-conditioning
- vacuum cleaners and washing machines
- branded consumer products
- plastics and new metals like aluminum
- the widespread use of typewriters and adding machines
- indoor plumbing (no longer just for the rich)
- retail chains
- major league sports
- radio and broadcasting
- motion pictures
- national magazines and newspapers
Continuous technological progress has been with us for the last two centuries, since the industrial revolution.
“History may be divided into three movements: what moves rapidly, what moves slowly and what appears not to move at all.”
– historian Fernand Braudel
In order to understand change, we need to look at the types and direction of change. We form a foundation of understanding by first thinking about those things that do not change, or perhaps, in Braudel’s words, “appear not to move at all.”
If one studies the classics of Greek and Roman thought, the scriptures of the world’s religions, and behavior over the centuries, human nature appears not to change.
Yet, even then, social mores and acceptable behaviors do evolve. We gave up on sacrificing humans to the gods. For centuries, slavery was part of life, accepted around the world. No more. The Bible implies that the poor will always be with us, yet for the first time in human history we can foresee the virtual elimination of poverty, with the UN in recent years telling us that we are ahead of their projections for poverty reduction.
Sixty years ago, large-scale gambling was only legal in one state, yet today it is almost universal. Our attitudes (and regulations) about alcohol and drug use, abortion, prostitution, tobacco, homosexuality, and firearms have changed dramatically over the last century. Words and activities that were verboten on television a few decades ago are now on prime time every hour.
Yet human nature itself, our innate curiosity about the world around us, our generosity to our families and communities, and our drives for survival and for perpetuation of the species, underly all human activity.
We would suggest a starter list of other aspects of life that appear not to change:
- Political divisiveness
- The coming and going of natural disasters and diseases
- The birth and aging of successive generations
- The role of supply and demand in every aspect of life, from wages to the stock market
- The love of precious metals and precious gemstones
- The strategies that cause organizations to succeed and endure (see this post)
The Long-term Continuous Trends
Our natural interest in current events, in the “news,” often takes our eye off the underlying, long-term changes taking place. We read and hear of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, but sometimes forget to study the “plate tectonics” that underly those events.
Here are some long-term trends that shape American (and often global) lives and occupations, which continue today and can be expected to continue for the foreseeable future:
- The transition from an agricultural society and economy to an industrial society to a world of services. Financial, educational, healthcare, entertainment, travel, and other consumer and business services will be the “growth engines” of coming decades.
- Along with that, we moved from farms to cities and then to suburbs and today exurbs.
- Americans moved from the East Coast to the interior, then pioneered the west, and today increasingly move to the “sunbelt” and sometimes even smaller towns and cities. A general “diffusion” has taken place, as exemplified by the movement of big company headquarters out of New York City and into many more locations.
- Our energy sources have evolved from human muscle to animal muscle to waterpower to machinery powered by burning wood, then burning coal, then burning oil, and now nuclear, solar, and wind.
- People around the world are more affluent than ever in history, especially when one considers the “quality” improvements, like going from Princess phones to iPhones, from 10” black and white televisions to large color flatscreens, and from gas guzzlers to efficient, durable cars.
- People live longer and go to school longer. Any reading of the many biographies on our website shows that, a century ago, most people had dropped out of school and started work by fifteen, and were lucky to live to age seventy.
- Global democracy and freedom, over the long pull, are on the rise, though in many nations it is two steps forward followed by one step backward, a rugged journey.
- History repeatedly demonstrates that progress is real and that optimism beats pessimism over and over. Nobody can solve a problem if they don’t think they can solve the problem. (See the list of recommended books at the end of this post.)
Of course, technological evolution continues unabated. Yet even the amazing recent strides in eCommerce, social media, smartphones, artificial intelligence, and cryptocurrency are in reality just more advances in the use and management of electrical impulses, a trend that began over one hundred years ago. Bits and bytes, ons and offs inside computers have allowed books, phonograph records, pictures, and movies to be converted into digital forms, easy to make and easier to ship.
We should always remember that every technology, every innovation, has a dark side, a flaw of some sort. People die in airplanes and automobiles, and even from electricity. Vital medicines have side effects, sometimes fatal. In the wrong hands, nuclear energy could mean the end of the world. Yet each of these technologies has provided so much good for society that we have learned to live with the “downsides.”
It is also worth noting that media and entertainment follow technology closely, especially innovations in communications. Printing presses facilitated books, newspapers, and magazines. The telegraph allowed news and correspondence to fly around the world at unprecedented speeds. The invention of photography led to the movies and then television. Sellers of “adult material” were the earliest and most aggressive users of VHS tapes, DVDs, and video streaming. And today the whole world seems to be on Facebook and Amazon, all connected.
More Recent Trends
As your writer looks back over the almost-sixty years that he has been studying the world and especially business, these changes come to mind:
- The increased diversity in organizational leadership, the rise of women and minorities.
- The rising focus on the environment and conservation.
- Increased respect for other species, especially demonstrated in the way we treat pets.
- The collapse or at least decline of communism, the end of American hegemony, and the rise of other powerful economies, especially in Asia.
- The slowing of population growth worldwide.
At the same time, all those long-term trends, such as the transition from an industrial economy to a service economy, continue apace.
Each of these trends has implications for the future. No one should be surprised to see more and larger companies headquartered in Latin America and Africa, following the rise of the Asian companies. New uses of electricity, better batteries, and continuing miniaturization and thus portability can be expected.
Other aspects of human behavior seem to swing back and forth. In their book The Lessons of History, the great historians Will and Ariel Durant wrote of the pendulum-like nature of some parts of life. Possible examples today include:
- Attitudes toward “big business” seem to cycle, with peak opposition in the 1890s, 1930s, 1960s, and perhaps today. Those cycles are often synchronized with thinking about government’s role in the economy and the merits of socialism vs. capitalism.
- Sexual mores may cycle, with young people today perhaps more cautious than people in the loving 60s.
- Consolidations of industry – mergers and acquisitions – peaked in the 1890s, again in the 1920s, then in the 1960s and 1970s.
- American political power swings back and forth in the two-party duopoly that has held power since the Civil War.
Another phenomenon worth observing are convergences, where two previously separate things come together over time. In fact, we believe that combining two things in new ways is the most important source of innovation, as described in this post and this video. Examples that come to mind include:
- Restaurants and grocery stores. For the last century, American grocers have been losing share of the “meal market” to restaurants. Today, grocers offer deli departments and pre-prepared meals while restaurants offer pick-up, drive-thru, and home delivery. The overlap increases every year.
- At first, computers and the Internet were in one world while broadcast television and movies were in another. Now they are all coming together, with YouTube and streaming continually rising.
- Telephones and computers were very different things as recently as twenty years ago, but today they are one.
- Thousands of articles have been written about the battle between eCommerce and bricks-and-mortar stores, but today Amazon is opening more stores and the major retailers have websites, curbside pickup, and speedy delivery.
Changes like these shift our fundamental understanding of industries and their products and services.
It is likely that every trend, every technology mentioned in the above paragraphs, brings its own challenges with it. IF there is one thing we know about humanity, it is our ability to tackle such challenges and figure out ways to make things better, to innovate.
Some present-day challenges that strike us as especially interesting are:
- Sourcing energy. How fast can or should we move from the power sources of today to ideas of the future? How can we meet the current needs of people and industry while at the same time finding and commercializing new solutions?
- Migration. How do the wealthier nations cope with their need for more workers while at the same time preserving their needs for cultural assimilation and national borders? How can we bring prosperity and peace to more nations in order to reduce the rate at which people flee their homelands when they would rather remain there if they could?
- Artificial intelligence and the algorithmic world. Most people have noted the decline in human roles in some aspects of our world. Automated systems try to guide our phone calls, our advertising, our selection of products, and what we read, but many of those systems do not work. Perhaps too many people expect too much, or they are penny-wise and pound-foolish. Perhaps these tools are used by companies and people who do not really know how and when to apply them. Our society still needs curators and editors.
- How does the United States remain relevant in a changing world? How does our nation “age gracefully?” Might we learn something from history and other countries, even smaller ones like the Netherlands, which has seen a lot of history, been a world power, and still prospers today.
- In conjunction with that changing world, “global governance” takes on new importance. Companies cross borders but antitrust and other regulations are still nation-based. The European Union has one set of rules for privacy on the Internet, other nations have different rules. American movies are downrated for sex but not violence, whereas in other countries the reverse is the case. How do we regulate and legislate our more globalized world?
As you read the preceding paragraphs, we imagine you have thought, “But what about this? What about that? What about going into space? Biotech?” Those who think about history and about the future will have many more items to add to our lists.
We at the American Business History Center only hope that our work provokes more thinking on everyone’s part, more learning from the past, and hopefully ideas about how to shape the future. That future depends above all on us, our ability to understand change, and our confidence in our abilities to effect change, envisioning a better future for all.
American Business History Center
“The further backward you look, the further forward you can see.”
– Winston Churchill
Book recommendations for seeing the future: