There is a new constituency in America that is changing the way we think about politics. In the long run, whatever party or politician gains the allegiance of that constituency will determine the country's future. In the short term, whoever can appeal to it will win the upcoming presidential election. The formula is simple: whoever carries California is elected president. Whoever carries this new constituency wins California. This new constituency will decide everything. And neither Bill Clinton nor Bob Dole even knows it exists.
The new constituency is knowledge workers, men and women who use digital technology to work with others to solve problems. In California, knowledge workers already comprise 25% of the workforce. The state has as many knowledge workers as blue collar workers. For Democrats, the numbers must be chilling: the most reliable constituent element of the Democratic New Deal coalition — the Industrial Age coalition that controlled Congress for most of the past 60 years — is about to be outnumbered by the most important constituency of the Information Age. For the Republicans, the news is no better: knowledge workers despise the intolerance of the religious right and simply don't believe in the kind of limited government that traditional economic conservatives support.
No one knows about this new constituency, because no one has looked for it. Despite all the talk about the Information Age, despite the fact that management guru Peter Drucker started talking about knowledge workers 25 years ago, no one has ever identified exactly how many knowledge workers there are and what they believe. Until now. According to our survey, knowledge workers are distinguished by three factors:
1. Information Age Technology. All knowledge workers use a computer on the job, and a full 85% of them do so all the time. For that same percentage, their computers are part of a network.
2. Unstructured Environment. Knowledge workers work in positions and organizations where their judgment and independence is a critical component: 77% decide for themselves what to do on the job, rather than being told by someone else.
3. Teamwork. Knowledge workers function on the job as part of a team. Almost 85% work as team members; 96% work with a team to solve problems that arise at work.
Knowledge workers, it turns out, are acutely aware of the new ways of working — but they are not yet aware of themselves as a separate group. Unlike blue collar or white collar categories of the Industrial Age, few knowledge workers refer to themselves by that name. But they do share a core of attitudes, beliefs, and characteristics that suggests the political movement that is about to emerge. Once a political party tells the members of this constituency how important they are, they'll begin to think of themselves as a single group. Someone soon will win the support of knowledge workers by staking out positions that respond to their beliefs. Here's what knowledge workers told us they really want:
1. Economic opportunity for everyone; individual responsibility for economic success. A full 75% of knowledge workers believe there should be strict limits on welfare. But it's not because they agree with Republican conservatives that if it weren't for welfare, everyone would be working. It's because they believe that the welfare state designed by liberal Democrats has failed to give the poor the necessary tools to find work in the new economy.
Fundamentally, knowledge workers are interested in solving problems by working together and sharing information. They don't believe in political rhetoric that blames others for problems. They certainly don't believe that the solution to poverty is first to blame the poor and then ignore them. Knowledge workers are convinced that the only intelligent approach to welfare is to equip welfare recipients so they will be able to work — and then insist that they do it. In fact, 66% believe that not only those on welfare but also those working for minimum wage should be given a chance to get training in new technologies, even if government has to pay for it.
2. Economic freedom and social community — together. Democrats and Republicans keep insisting that you have to choose between the two. Democrats want government involved in the economy to provide a more equitable distribution of income — but they don't want government telling anyone how to live or what to believe. Republicans want government to stay out of the economy — but they believe that government must intervene to protect against the erosion of traditional values and the fragmentation of the family.
The line dividing Democrats and Republicans on the issues of liberty and community is drawn most clearly on the question of school choice. Conservative Republicans, particularly those who are evangelical Christians, argue that parents should have the right to choose where their children are educated and support a voucher system that could be used to send kids to public or private schools. Liberal Democrats and their supporters in the teachers' unions claim a voucher system would destroy the public schools and the common values they teach.
Knowledge workers view this debate as just another example of the false dichotomies of Industrial Age politics. They oppose the bureaucratic monopoly that dominates public education. They want competition and choice — but they want that competition to take place among schools that teach the values of citizenship. They favor publicly chartered schools because this new approach introduces competition without threatening the common values of the community.
3. Do more and do it with less. The underlying premise of Industrial Age politics — the one thing that both Democrats and Republicans have always agreed on is that the more government does, the more it costs. Knowledge workers simply do not believe this is true. Their experience with new technology has convinced nearly 62% of them, compared with only 46% of other Californians, that computers and other technology can eliminate government bureaucracy without reducing public services. They've seen it happen in their companies, and they expect to see it in government.
Knowledge workers don't want a government that regulates everything or a government that does nothing to affect the free market. They want an Information Age government that sets the rules within which the market operates so it will achieve desirable results. They would prefer, for example, a system of job retraining in which individuals are free to choose the kind of training they need rather than a system in which government decides what the training will be and where and how it will be given. In other words, they favor a job-training market in which demand is created by government money provided to people who need it, and supply is filled by those who demonstrate that they're best at providing the services people will pay for.
The new constituency of knowledge workers has a consistent and coherent set of beliefs that cuts across the traditional frameworks and formulations the two major political parties offer. Whoever understands this first and gives the new constituency what it wants will not only win the next election, but also become to the Information Age what the New Deal became to the Industrial Age: the dominant political force in America for the next 60 years.
Dudley Buffa is president of the Institute for the New California, based in Lafayette, and co-author with Morley "Winograd of Taking Control: Politics in the Information Age" (Henry Holt & Co., 1996). Michael Hais of Frank N. Magid Associates, based in Los Angeles, conducted the survey for the Institute.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 96 issue of Fast Company magazine.