Think back five short years — to another time and to another reality.
On the macroeconomic front, the United States has pulled itself out of the recession of the early 1990s, but there's little to suggest that a fundamental transformation is on its way. Productivity is improving slightly, and inflation is taking a small dip — the kind of modest adjustments that happen all the time. Nothing to get excited about.
Economists and business pundits suggest that these mild improvements might owe something to the cost-cutting going on in the nation's largest companies. Reengineering is a booming business, heralding a full-employment act for the consulting industry, a promise of addition by subtraction for corporate chiefs: outsource, downsize, rightsize, lay off, de-layer, restructure. It's a simple math exercise: Juicing your stock price and becoming more competitive is as easy as lopping off the parts that don't add value. Workers say it's the death of corporate loyalty, the end of the social compact that was forged in the crucible of the Industrial Revolution. But companies see it as just the Next Big Thing — the off-the-shelf technique that everyone's reaching for. And, the argument goes, if you don't do it and your competitor does, you're left out in the cold. When AT&T announces that it's cutting 15,000 jobs, it's pretty clear that Ma Bell has sounded the death knell of permanent employment in the United States. There's outrage and sadness and a tinge of regret, but there's no mistaking the corporate signals going out to employees across the land: It's time to accept the fact that careers are changing and that no job lasts forever.
The other big idea that's in the air is globalization. The same pundits who are taken with corporate downsizing are struck by the worldwide proliferation of economic models. Asian capitalism is looking particularly robust. Its combination of heavy-handed national-industrial policy, strict social control, and widespread literacy and education programs suggests that the Pacific Rim is claiming a larger and larger piece of the future. Meanwhile, the forward-looking economic forces in Europe are gathering strength to erase the increasingly obsolete boundaries of the past and to create a unified Europe — a market of unparalleled potency, with its own unified currency and its own set of rules for continentwide competitiveness. The future looks like a horse race among competing national economic models, three varieties of capitalism — each testing the others to see what blend of government policy, social understanding, and political freedom can produce the best results.
At the same time, there are these hints and suggestions — nothing too serious mind you, just something a little, well, different in the air: a batch of not-ready-for-prime-time ideas about information technology, new work practices, a generational power shift, and a growing gender parity in business and in the market.
But it's too soon to get excited. Despite the three competing models of capitalism, there's still only one economy, so there's no talk about the old economy and the new economy: It's just the economy: You know, the one where the laws of decreasing returns, perfect information, and rational decision making all apply. If some people are starting to communicate by email, and others are experimenting with the World Wide Web, and still others are trying to capitalize on satellite communications and the 24-by-7 world of telecommunications, well, that's all very interesting — but not yet revolutionary.
It's true that some new tools are showing up in the office: Things are getting digital, personal, portable. Some people are showing up at work with beepers on their belts, cell-phones in their pockets, and laptops in their briefcases. Come to think of it, PCs have become commonplace in the office — and even the boss has figured out that they're more than an electronic paperweights. In Redmond and in Palo Alto, in Dallas and in Austin, a few folks are talking about the convergence of software, hardware, and computing in a way that could dramatically alter, well, everything! And those folks have the personal wealth and the hypercompetitive mind-sets to prove it. But still, how different could things really get? After all, nobody's repealed the laws of economics, right?
Well, maybe they have.
Blink your eyes, and five years ago becomes today. Speed supplants stability; innovation overtakes predictability. Reengineering is ancient history; top-line growth is the order of the day. And the new economy is everywhere — so much so that there's even a new spelling for the dismal science: e-conomy. Those old, time-honored laws haven't exactly been repealed, but how exactly do you explain higher productivity, lower unemployment, and zero inflation, Mr. Greenspan?
It's not that the old economy is dead. Rather, it's fractured in two parallel realities that coexist. One piece keeps plugging away, firmly anchored in the habits, values, and practices of five years ago. It boasts a sense of order and rationality; it celebrates the merits of hard work and professional mastery. Think of the flagship industries of the Industrial Revolution — huge car companies, giant general contractors, coast-to-coast hotel chains, enormous industries employing millions of people — all of which still play by the old rules.
The other piece is driving today's growth. Born of technology, propelled by technology, promising ever more technology, this new economy embraces discontinuities, exploits disconnects, thrives on chaos, creates new connections, and celebrates the secrets of creativity and mystery. It's the part of the economy that's migrated from the labs and the cubicles of a few companies to the front pages of every newspaper and into the living rooms of millions of workers. It's not about a few millionaire software geeks anymore: It's about us, about our future and everyone's future — a future in which a potent concoction of computers, a great idea, a small team, a line to the Web, a sprinkling of capital, and a willingness to take a leap of faith is enough to rewrite the rules of an entire industry. It's about a future in which the boundaries between industries are easily dissolved, where work makes all the difference, and where the clichéd advice to "follow your bliss" is only half a cliché — and half a business plan. Call it "irrational exuberance," but whatever the name, it's more than an inexplicable bounce that's attached itself to the stock market. The new economy today is alive, well, and, courtesy of the Web, changing everything it touches.
And now blink again, and it's five years from now — not so far into the future that it's unimaginable, yet far enough forward to allow room for imagination. Five years from now, what will the state of the U.S. economy be? What shape will careers have taken? Which institutions will have gained power, and which ones will have lost? And what of the new economy itself? Will it have disappeared — vanished like a mirage? Will we open our eyes five years from now to discover that everything has gone back to "normal" and that the days of fast companies and Net companies have passed into obscurity? Or are we just at the beginning of a ride that will take us to the next new economy?
This comprehensive Fast Company-Roper Starch Worldwide survey seeks answers to those and other key questions. We asked 1,004 employed, college-educated Americans to gauge their expectations five years from now — to take mental snapshots of their own future and of society's. Here's what we learned by going through the numbers:
The Future's So Bright . . .
The first and most immediate attitude that emanates from the survey results is an almost radiant sense of optimism about the next five years. Respondents are certain that the future will be very good to them. A whopping 91% characterized themselves as extremely or somewhat optimistic about the quality of their lives five years hence. And the better they are doing today, the more optimistic they are about the future: Among those currently making $100,000 or more, 53% declared themselves "extremely optimistic" — an attitude shared by only 33% of those with incomes of less than $40,000.
When asked about their financial prospects five years from now, respondents again cast a rosy economic glow. A remarkable 28% indicated that they expect to achieve most of their financial goals by then, and another 66% said that they expect to have made progress toward their goals, but not yet to have met them. Only 3% said that they are resigned to a future in which they will have to give up on some of their financial goals.
Another measure of sunny optimism: We offered respondents a chance to gamble on their incomes. Given the choice between an annual 5% raise in salary between now and 2004, or whatever salary the market would bear in 2004, 59% of the respondents opted for the guaranteed 5% raise — which isn't surprising. What is notable, however, is that 41% declared themselves open to negotiate the 2004 salary market at the going rate for their services. And nearly 50% of the high-income respondents said that they would be ready to take such a financial gamble.
That same spirit of capitalistic venturesomeness was revealed when we offered survey takers another wager on the future: Which would they rather have in five years: $100,000 in cash, or 100 shares of Yahoo! stock (which is currently valued at $12 per share)? A full 33% took the Yahoo! stock — in effect, gambling that the value of Yahoo! will increase 100-fold in the next five years.
Two more responses underscored just how bullish respondents are on their own future economic well-being. Asked to look back at today from a vantage point of five years in the future, 78% agreed somewhat or completely with the statement, "I'm glad I worked as hard as I did because it has paid off."
We then turned the question around, asking respondents for their expectations over the next five years. A full 85% replied that they expect to be able to support themselves and their families well, and 69% said that they expect new opportunities for personal challenge and enjoyment at work. These individuals are approaching the millennium with a sense of their own economic well-being and a profound feeling of opportunity.
It's Bound to Cast a Shadow
For all of the personal optimism that respondents demonstrated, there is a shadow of doubt — a sense that not all will go well for the country or society as a whole over the next five years. For example, when asked to project the economic prospects for the United States in five years, 25% said that they expect the country to be starting a modest decline, and 65% said that they expect the economy to keep growing but not to break any records. Respondents cast additional doubt on the macroeconomy when we offered them another of our wagers on the future. Asked whether they would rather pay today's home-mortgage rate or the rate in 2004, 90% played it safe and chose the current rate.
Finally, we asked respondents to indicate how fearful they are of various social and economic conditions that may present themselves during the next five years. Almost across the board, respondents reflected a deeply troubled sense of the nation's future: 57% said that they fear widespread poverty, 81% fear the deterioration of public education, 64% said that they fear a widespread loss of spirituality, and — perhaps most telling — 62% said that they fear the outbreak of another world war in the next five years.
My Career Is in Gear
If survey respondents are glowingly optimistic about their personal economic futures, they are almost as optimistic about their workplace and the future of their careers. We asked them to evaluate the prospects and the well-being of the careers and the industries that they are in. A stunning 28% crowed that they are in the right place for a big payoff in five years — awarding both their jobs and their industries a rousing thumbs up. Another 55% expressed solid optimism, tempered by a practical realism that indicated moderate but not extraordinary expectations.
On another scale, we asked respondents to register their expectations for the next five years across a series of workplace dimensions. Again, high-spirited optimism was the dominant tone. For example, 30% said that they expect job security to increase in the next five years, while only 18% said they expect it to decrease; 42% weighed in with the expectation that the next five years will bring increased opportunity for career advancement, and a meager 12% reported that they expect less opportunity. Thirty-nine percent said that they expect more fulfillment and satisfaction from their work, and a paltry 11% anticipated being less fulfilled. An optimistic 46% believe that they will have more time for a personal life — while only 13% expect to have less time. These results suggest that respondents not only forecast a rosy scenario on all fronts, but also see no reason to expect to make unwelcome tradeoffs to achieve their desired outcomes.
That same sense of workplace well-being resounded from respondents when we asked them to offer advice to younger generations who would be following in the respondents' career paths. Respondents had five pieces of advice from which to choose. Significantly, only 7% selected the nose-to-the-grindstone option: "Find the highest-paying job you can get, and work your tail off." Instead, 38% counseled young college graduates to get as much education as they can afford, and 32% advised young people to follow their bliss — that what really matters is loving what you do.
And when we asked respondents to give today's 10-year-olds advice on becoming successful, the responses again confirmed the survey's larger expression of confidence in issues affecting careers and workplace performance. The top four pieces of wisdom were learning to use new technology (36%), adapting to change quickly (27%), developing your natural talent (17%), and having compassion and understanding for other people (15%). Finishing last was the dog-eat-dog advice: Only 3% of respondents recommended competing with other people as fiercely as you can.
Overall, then, on issues of careers and personal opportunity, survey respondents expressed a high degree of confidence in themselves — and in a high-road approach to work in the future. The clear implication: You don't have to settle for a future; you can make your own!
Warning! I Brake for Change
As optimistic as respondents were about their careers and work life, the survey results revealed a more conservative, change-averse attitude toward work in the future. For example, we asked respondents to speculate on where they will be working in five years: Will they be free agents or join a startup? And what will their work life be like? Will they be working harder or less hard — or not at all?
The results suggest a sense of satisfaction with the status quo, and a trend toward less risk taking in the future. A full 55% of respondents said that in five years they expect to be working in the same job at the same company. In contrast, 81% deemed it unlikely that they would leave their current job for a job at a startup, and 80% said that they thought it unlikely that they would become free agents. And despite conventional wisdom that says American workers are job hopping more frequently, 80% said that they doubt whether they would change jobs twice or more in five years. When it came to work style, the results were similarly conservative: By a narrow 51% to 49% margin, respondents said that they expect to work harder in five years, 66% said that they thought it unlikely that they'd be working less hard in five years, and an overwhelming 86% found it unlikely that they would not be working at all.
We also probed more deeply into the question of generational conflict and competition. When we asked respondents whether they feared becoming obsolete in their work, a solid 64% said no — registering confidence in their own skills in the workplace. Then we asked a more general question, introducing a scenario in which people in their twenties and thirties would take over key roles in business and society, displacing baby boomers before they're ready to surrender power. A surprising 67% said that they thought such a scenario was accurate, and 64% said that if such a future did come to pass, it would have a negative impact on society. Even younger respondents, while more likely to believe that this scenario would come true, didn't view it positively: A notable 82% of respondents between the ages of 21 and 29 and 64% of respondents between the ages of 30 and 39 judged the scenario as accurate, but 44% between the ages of 21 and 29 and an astonishing 66% between 30 and 39 said that it would represent a negative development.
Our question about which institutions and individuals would gain and which would lose power in the next five years also yielded a somewhat surprisingly dark forecast. Respondents named big business, banks, the media, and the federal government as institutions that would likely gain power, and labor unions, small business, and people as those likely to lose power.
You Say You Want a Revolution
Just how new is the new economy — and how real? We asked respondents to go five years into the future, and then to look back on today: From that vantage point, how would they describe today's economic environment? A full 49% willingly took the radical stance that we are today at the start of a new economic era and that these are revolutionary times — strong words for respondents to endorse.
This sense of fundamental reinvention in the world of work was underlined by another future scenario that we presented: We asked respondents whether they felt that a future in which women made huge strides in the workplace — gaining access to the best jobs and winning equal pay — would be plausible and desirable. A full 30% said that they thought that this scenario was already true — a remarkable statement about changes that are already under way. Another 19% said that they thought that the scenario was certain to come true within five years, and another 25% believed it was fairly likely.
The evaluations of the desirability of such a future were just as optimistic, demonstrating a high comfort level with fundamental change: A notable 71% said that they thought that if the scenario did happen, then the economy would be productive, and 66% said that the change would not "cost" men anything. They disagreed that men would lose ground in the workforce as a result — a clear signal that respondents genuinely feel prepared to embrace a future that will be faster, fairer, and fundamentally different from the present.
Get Back to Where You Once Belonged!
And then there were the counterrevolutionary trends — the back-to-the-future instinct that the survey also tapped into. At the same time that 49% of respondents said that we are at the start of a new economic era, 29% said that, looking back on today in five years, they will wish that they could go back — in essence, that these are the good old days. Another 22% said that they would look back on today as "strange days," and that in five years, things will have gone back to "normal." Respondents who were in the lower-income brackets were more likely to think that these are strange times.
Much of the talk about the new economy focuses on the rise of smaller, more agile companies that are playing the game by different rules. To test this theme, we offered respondents a scenario in which the new century is all about "bigness" — huge companies dominating every industry, limiting consumers' choices to a few banks, carmakers, and pizza makers. Asked about the likelihood of this scenario, 54% of respondents said that they thought it an accurate depiction of the future — although 78% indicated that they thought it would be a negative development if it were to happen.
Technology Makes Everything Possible
Not surprisingly, survey respondents are comfortable with technology — but just how comfortable? To find out, we asked them to label a menu of technological changes as either friend or foe. With few exceptions, respondents felt very friendly toward future technologies: In fact, 83% embraced videophone services, 65% would prefer to shop on the Internet, 66% would rather do business on the Internet, 70% would want Internet access in nearly every room of their home, and 91% would choose computers that they can talk to. Questions about medicine and health care elicited similar responses: Remarkably, 92% welcomed medical advances that could replace damaged body parts, 81% wanted drugs and surgeries that could help them live longer, and 63% opted for drugs and surgeries that could help them look younger for longer.
We also asked respondents to gauge the likelihood that the future would revolve around information technology, offering them a scenario in which life would largely be organized around and facilitated by communications tools that would make it possible for people all over the world to transact with one another instantaneously. An overwhelming 73% said that our scenario accurately depicted the future. Finally, when we asked respondents to predict what would gain and what would lose power in the next five years, one category outdid every other: An impressive 98% of respondents said that the Internet will only become more important in the future.
Everything Possible Is Not Desirable
And yet . . . Once again, the survey detected a shadow overcasting the optimism. Responses suggested that, as much as technology has become a given, driving and shaping work and life in the new economy, the things that it makes possible are not necessarily desirable. Every bit as important as the firm embrace that respondents gave to technology was the stiff-arm response that certain technological applications received, emphatically showing where respondents would draw the line.
Respondents clearly began to worry when technology would replace, rather than enhance, the human experience. Respondents accepted technologies for working via the Internet, then rejected them for making friends via the Internet: A solid 80% of respondents labeled such a possibility as "foe." And 70% said that they would not favor replacing traditional hard-copy books with electronic ones.
The same respondents who happily endorsed the use of drugs and surgeries to live longer and look better balked at genetic engineering: Indeed, 87% objected to technologies that would allow parents to choose their baby's characteristics. And a remarkable 48% objected to medical techniques that would allow women to have babies later in life — suggesting that some aspects of being human are too sacrosanct to be tampered with by technology.
Perhaps most tellingly, respondents recognized both the promise and the perils of technology: Asked whether software that tracks your preferences and purchases on the Internet would be friend or foe, respondents said, "both" — a 50-50 split, as perfect a response as could be. And the scenario of a technologically driven future, which respondents overwhelmingly endorsed as plausible, was almost as overwhelmingly rejected as undesirable: A clear majority — 75% — of respondents considered that such a possibility would be unwelcome.
One Past, Two Presents, Many Futures
Ultimately, the survey, with all of its contradictions — its fluctuations between light and shadow — offers a powerful and telling commentary on the state of the new economy. The present is a hinge on a door that swings between the old and the new economies. In the old economy, there was a more unified sense of work, business, career, and economic principles — after all, there was only one economy. As recently as five years ago, common touchstones and common understandings offered guideposts by which we could all chart our futures. Definitions were easier to come by — and were more shared. The stock market made sense. Careers had order to them. Globalization was easy to understand. Companies not only had been around forever, but they also stayed put: You knew what industry they were in, what product or service they offered, and how they intended to make money. Making money was still more about cutting costs than growing new lines of revenue, and work was still more about making money than finding meaning.
Today, there are at least two economies, and both the old and the new have their upsides and their downsides, their social dimensions and their personal ones. The upsides are bright, vibrant, and self-evident: Most survey respondents gladly embraced the economic opportunities and career trajectories made possible by the new economy. They were emphatic users of the technologies that were transforming the workplace and, for the most part, confident of their capacity to make those technologies work for them.
Where there were doubts, they tended to be about issues further away from home — global matters of war and peace, social division and unity, deterioration of public education, a loss of spirituality, and widespread poverty. But shining through those concerns was an almost transcendent sense of personal well-being and a generosity of spirit toward those coming next: a nascent sense that work and business can be done by taking the higher road — and done well and done successfully.
And five years from now? If the survey is an accurate indicator, we are moving from a world of dual economies to a world of multiple economies — a virtual web of career paths, work styles, social structures, and competitive landscapes. No longer unified, no longer simply contradictory, the state of the new economy in the next millennium promises complexity and multiplicity for individuals, teams, companies, industries, and societies.
Keeping track will be as challenging as keeping score. Knowing what matters to you will make all the difference. And the advice from our respondents to young people may be the best advice of all, for all of us: Learn to use new technology, adapt quickly to change, develop your natural talent, and have compassion and understanding for others.
The full results of the Fast Company-Roper Starch survey are available at www.fastcompany.com/online/27/survey.html . Visit Roper Starch Worldwide on the Web (http://www.roper.com).
A version of this article appeared in the September 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.