An Age of Social Transformation

Management guru Peter Drucker has set out the theory that the 20th Century has seen more frequent and radical social transformation than any other time in history, and that work, the work-force and politics of the developed countries at the beginning of the second millennium are completely different in terms of processes, problems and structures from any previous era.

He claims that in the past smaller transformations have caused major crises - wars, rebellions etc, whereas the massive social change in the latter half of the century has passed with little friction. The change of the structure in society, he says, has not resulted from, or led to, the major political events of the century, but has been present as an undercurrent separate from these events.

Is this is true, and if the major wars to the century spring as he claims, not from social unrest, but from the destructive influence of men such as Hitler and Stalin, what has kept change peaceful?

The Rise of the Industrial Worker

We know that prior to World War I, agricultural workers were the largest single group in every country in the world, making up nearly 50% of the workforce. Now they make up a maximum of 5% of the population in developed countries. Even so, with the exception of Japan, none of these countries are heavy importers of food from 2nd or 3rd World nations. The second-largest working group in every developed country around 1900 was live-in servants, a group that has all but disappeared in the First World in the current day.

This shift in working patterns didn't result from, or lead to, any major civil unrest. Instead, it came from the rise of the blue-collar worker after WWI. Though this group made up only a 6th of the population, and were probably less exploited than either farm-workers or domestic servants, they were more visible, living in large clusters in urban areas rather than isolated groups in individual farms or houses.

At the turn of the century, workers rights were virtually non-existent. However the large concentration of the blue-collar workers allowed them to organise into a powerful group - rather than needing to rebel violently, the industrial worker could affect the means of production by simply withdrawing their labour. By the 1950s unionisation had resulted in a class which enjoyed high income, good job security, reduced working hours and extensive benefits. For agricultural workers and domestic servants, industrial work offered the chance to substantially improve their lifestyle without emigration, leading to a drift from farm and domestic work to industrial employment.

They also achieved political power. In Britain the unions were, for a while, considered to be the "real government," with greater power than the elected government. The same was true in the U.S., Germany and Italy and, in Japan, the Toyota and Nissan strikes of the late forties and early fifties almost led to the unions overturning the system and taking power themselves. However, by 1990, the dominance of the manufacturing worker was in decline as automation and technology replaced the mass-production worker with the 'technician' who requires theoretical knowledge in addition to manual skill. The blue-collar class is falling as swiftly as it rose.

The improvement in income, benefits and working hours arising from the rise of the industrial workers were all very good reasons why this change was peaceful, but will their fall continue to be equally peaceful?

The Rise of the Knowledge Worker and the Emerging Knowledge Society

The newly emerging dominant group, the technicians, Drucker calls "knowledge workers" and the society that is evolving is "The knowledge society". It is the first where 'ordinary people--and that means most people--do not earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow.' It is also the first, he says, where the majority of people do not do the same kind of work.

Knowledge workers are not the majority in the knowledge society, but they give it its character, its leadership, its social profile. And they are substantially different from any group which has occupied the leading position in the past.

This new class is paid better than industrial workers, and has much greater opportunities. However, taking advantage of these opportunities demands much higher qualifications. Formal education is essential to the knowledge worker. Whilst many knowledge jobs require manual skill in addition to education, manual skill alone is insufficient. What's more, knowledge work requires a mind-set of continuous learning which is largely alien to the industrial worker the class is replacing.

Therefore, education will be more central in the knowledge society than ever before and increasingly knowledge will be acquired well past the age of formal schooling and through educational processes that do not centre on the traditional school. Knowledge workers will be educated people, and an educated person will be defined as somebody who has learned how to learn, and who continues learning, especially by formal education, throughout their lifetime. Those of the industrial class who do not become knowledge workers will, rather than being central to the means or production, have to provide the support services that go along with it.

It will not be possible for industrial workers to simply drift into knowledge work the way farm and domestic workers drifted into industry. It will require a concentrated effort of learning to make the shift, and will prove impossible for many people in industrial work to achieve, if they do not have a solid educational background behind them already.

This is a particular problem for specific social groups. A substantial proportion of African-Americans work in mass-production jobs, for example, as the greatest economic advantage in the post war years was to be found in leaving school and moving into a well-paid factory position. The same appears to be true of other minority ethnic groups such as Maori in New Zealand. As a result, the fall of the industrial worker has hit these minority groups disproportionately hard.

If the shift to the knowledge society is to be as peaceful as the shift to the industrial society was, the key challenge will be managing the productivity of both groups of workers. The productivity of knowledge work will determine the competitive position of industries and countries. The productivity of the non-knowledge, services worker will determine the ability of the society to provide non-knowledge workers with the income, benefits and lifestyle they expect, and thereby avoid class conflict, and social unrest.

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