In my next post I discuss a new business book no major publisher would have touched 10 years ago. To set the stage for that discussion, I offer in this post an historical perspective to explain why this book gained a publisher’s confidence.
In 1776, two seminal events that changed the world occured: America declared its independence from England to launch the most democratic nation on earth, and Adam Smith published his seminal treatise on capitalism, The Wealth of Nations. Together, democracy and capitalism ushered in the first cultural era of the modern world, the Age of Empowerment.
For the first time ever, ordinary people became masters of their destinies by right of law. Many exercised this new power by turning skills formerly used to serve house and home toward business enterprises serving others. Eventually, small enterprises evolved into big ones.
Basic education became available to the masses. With pluck and grit even those born to poverty could get into college.
The foundation for universal education laid down in this era paved the way for the second cultural age of the modern world – the Age of Knowledge, which emerged c.1876, the year Alexander Bell invented the telephone.
Science replaced agriculture as the foundation of society in the Age of Knowledge. For the first time in history, the fruits of basic science moved from the laboratory to practical application virtually overnight to spawn great industries and establish the modern consumer economy.
Economic gains across society raised living standards to previously unimaginable heights. No realm of human activity was left unchanged.
The operating focus of business was improving productivity – getting more and more from less and less. For a long time, this perspective served society well: the quality of life rose steadily while the cost of living progressively fell. The material well being of ordinary people climbed to unprecedented levels. An ethos of materialism became the bedrock of both culture and business.
Eventually, preoccupation with productivity and cost cutting took its toll on the quality of experiences people had with companies. Work life became less secure and suppliers often seemed like indentured servants to the companies they served.
Customers were reduced to statistical targets devoid of humanness. They became “eyeballs” to TV broadcasters, “seats” to airlines, and “lives” to healthcare providers. Their importance in commerce seemed greater as “data sets” than as human beings.
The dearth of humanism in corporate dealings with workers, suppliers, customers and other stakeholders reached its zenith in the so-called “greedy ‘80s.”
Around 1990, two epochal events occurred that ended the Age of Knowledge. The third cultural age of modern times– the Age of Transcendence – took root.
The first event was the mainstreaming of the Internet, which shifted the balance of information power to the masses and began loosening the hegemony of business enterprise over society.
The second event was people 40 and older becoming the adult majority. The worldviews and values of people in midlife and beyond began shaping the cultural ethos.
The worldviews and behavior of people in midlife generally reflect ebbing materialistic influences that dominate the aspirations of the young and that throughout the Age of Knowledge were the dominant force in setting the directions of commerce and culture.
Society now increasingly reflects qualities of behavior that Abraham Maslow made famous with the term self-actualization, a transcendent state of psychological maturation that is the antithesis of materialism. He observed that once basic materialistic needs are satisfied, people begin depending less on materialistic sources for life satisfaction and more on experiential sources.
Today’s older adult majority is not only changing the rules of successful marketplace engagement, its influence is driving a moral transformation in business enterprise.
The moral collapse in companies like Enron, Tyco and WorldCom does not presage the future of business. Rather, more and more companies see that their survival and growth depends on mirroring the values and behavior of members of the New Customer Majority.
Provided basic materialistic needs are satisfied, in the second half of life people tend to be more nurturing, less competitive, more disposed to embrace win-win relationships than win-lose relationships, and more engaged with enduring life purpose. They become less self-centered and subscribe to a transcendent expression of love – the primary subject of the best selling business book discussed in the next post.