Charles Handy warns that the global market will become an uncomfortably competitive place in which only service sector entrepreneurs will thrive.
Country Life recently celebrated its centenary in some style. They got headlines for their photograph of a lady wearing nothing but her pearls, so tastefully done that few would have noticed anything unusual, but they also distributed a copy of their first edition, dated 8 January 1897, and commissioned a book, A Vision of the Country AD2097, edited by the economist and environmentalist David Fleming.
The combination of past, present and future, spanning 200 years, is unusual outside the fantasies of science fiction. Have these exercises any value except to entertain, because visions of such a distant future can only be fiction themselves? Country Life admits that this particular vision makes for uncomfortable reading. People will be eating algae when conventional food sources fail to cope with a doubling of the world's population. They will watch athletic 90 year-olds competing at the Gera-Olympics. Yorkshire might become the British Provence because of climate change, but our winters will be more severe and our summers too hot and the sun too dangerous.
The rich will be very rich. Global communications and a global economy will bring global fortunes to those few who can succeed in a fiercely competitive world. It is a world in which the best are everywhere and the rest are nowhere, rather like sports stars today. Since much of this money will be generated in cyberspace it will be difficult to tax. The state will not, therefore, be able to support the growing numbers of old and unemployed beyond the most basic of subsistence levels. The bands of the dispossessed will wander the land like the beggars of Elizabethan England, threatening the private oases which the very rich will create for themselves, protected by their private armies.
Democracy may crack under the strain, giving way to new systems of power and patronage where the rich decide on behalf of the rest. Offices will not be needed and cities will develop into urban wastelands. We have seen the future and it is the Middle Ages.
It is tempting to dismiss it all as fiction. After all, looking back at that first edition of 100 years ago, the changes are not as dramatically different as the future is assumed to be. There have been social and technological changes, certainly, but in spite of two disastrous world wars most of the country is better off and its citizens are at least as happy as they were.
To think that way would be dangerously complacent. Change may not be as violent as a world war but demography, climate and environmental decay can be much more potent although less obvious, because they creep rather than erupt. The global market is not going to be a comfortable place.
The sorting of the business wheat from the chaff will be much more brutal and any talk of national sovereignty is futile in the borderless world of cyberspace. As a country we will need all the friends we can get because we won't be able to protect ourselves.
The point of future scenarios, however, is not to trade exotic fictions of how we might be living but to distinguish those features which are probably inevitable, and to prepare ourselves for them, while identifying those elements which we could prevent if we were to act in time. We could and should do something to correct climatic change. Because this requires global unanimity it probably won't happen in time, but we could at least stop polluting our own space. The divided society and the dependent society are, however, two things that we can do something to prevent, if we start now. To help, there are some good things on their way to offset the glum news.
Many of the goods for which we will be shopping in future are set to consume less of our environment. A CD-Rom, for example, which can contain on one disk all of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, leaves the forests untouched, takes up less shelf-space in the shops, needs no sweatshops to produce it and no huge lorries to transport it. More money, however, will be spent on services of one type or another than on goods. Health, education, financial and personal services, leisure and tourism are the likely growth sectors for employment in the decades ahead. They consume people rather than natural resources.
Services are low-entry cost businesses. It doesn't take much more than an eye for an opportunity and some marketing savvy to make money out of something which you can offer and others want. Nor is there likely to be any limit to the potential opportunities for ever more services yet to be invented. There could be work for all. The problem is that you have to be an entrepreneur and you have to like serving people not making things. For many a young British male these are skills and attitudes that are even more difficult to acquire than a professional qualification. It is no surprise to find that it is women who are making all the running in the new, small service businesses.
If we want to prevent the kind of social and economic desert that Country Life foresees, we shall have to make the service sector respectable and macho, put marketing, self-promotion and communication into the National Curriculum and persuade all those heading for retirement that they have a new career ahead of them. Only then will the bulk of the people be able to support themselves. It will cost money now, but save us all a lot of money later. Business would call that a good investment. Governments, please note.