Not Listening to Peter Drucker Was a Huuuuuge Mistake

A few days ago, my mentor mentioned that she had been thinking recently of an article by Peter Drucker, the revolutionary business thinker considered the founder of modern management. In the article ("The Age of Social Transformation"), Drucker speaks at length about the end of traditional labor, the rise of the knowledge economy, and the impact this will have on education specifically and society more broadly. He writes, for example, that:

"In the knowledge society, clearly, more and more knowledge, and especially advanced knowledge, will be acquired well past the age of formal schooling and increasingly, perhaps, through educational processes that do not center on the traditional school. But at the same time, the performance of the schools and the basic values of the schools will be of increasing concern to society as a whole, rather than being considered professional matters that can safely be left to "educators."

It's an amazing read, highly pertinent to our contemporary world. He notes, for example, that a society dominated by knowledge workers faces a class conflict between the knowledge workers and those who make their living in more traditional ways (e.g., manual labor or service work). If that doesn’t sound a little on the nose, congratulations for avoiding all social media and news for the last year.

And that’s actually part of what makes the article so amazing. Though it seems so much about 2017, it was actually published in 1994. Incidentally, that’s the same year I graduated high school and began my transition into the professional world. In other words, Drucker essentially wrote the forecast for my generation’s professional experiences.

The Transformation Generation

We saw – faintly – the end of the traditional industrial economy in the 1970s and 80s, and we have lived – viscerally – the realities of a knowledge economy. We have known no other world than one that requires us to navigate between its perils and promise. We are a generation that feels guilty at our success (our privilege) if we have thrived and resentment at our struggles if we have not. And we all share a sense of uncertainty, that the only permanence is impermanence. The in-demand knowledge worker of today – the programmer, the marketing exec – may be the underemployed skilled laborer of tomorrow.

It can be easy to get overwhelmed by it all – especially now. Whatever a person’s political views, it’s hard to deny that what’s happening in the world today is transformative. We’re seeing people around the world actively challenge the social contract, asking what is fair, who should be in charge, who should win, when is enough enough. In 1994, Drucker wrote “we do not have even the beginnings of political theory or the political institutions needed for effective government in the knowledge-based society of organizations.” In 2017, we’re feeling the consequences.

Our Work Ahead

So what to do? In part, we have to take Drucker at his word and commit to crafting the political theory and institutions needed for the 21st century. We have acknowledge that our world is changing and that many people want to have a really hard conversation about it. We’re also going to have to revive those hoary, pre-Instant Gratification concepts of careful deliberation, thought, and rhetoric and apply them to the underlying issues

  • NOT just how to define the future of work but what a post-work world does to a person’s emotional state
  • NOT just how to make schools better but what the purpose of schools actually is
  • NOT just how to create an equitable society but how to convince people to willingly give up something now in exchange for the promise that, in years to come, we’ll all be better off.

These are not easy questions, and the process of answering them will, I suspect, be painful and stretch our nation to its very limits. But ignoring the challenge is not an option. It’s going to happen – with or without our voices. Let’s not ignore the writing on the wall again.