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Business eras will dominate the new millennium. (USA Tomorrow).

WAVES OF ONCOMING activity that will dominate the advanced economies over the new millennium can be clearly foreseen. This succession of economic "mainsprings" defines new growth sectors and declining ones, suggests impending investment opportunities and dead ends, and pinpoints where the best jobs and livelihoods will be. Preparation for life's work consumes individuals' first 20-25 years. Therefore, mapping out livelihoods requires conscious forethought and planning. Gaining skills to advance one's life, let alone being able to contribute to societal advance, is a powerful and compelling reason for parents to consider options carefully. Pursuing potentially obsolete skills or ones with dead-end prospects is not in the best interest of individuals or society.

This changing landscape has a timing and tempo. At least nine identifiable waves of economic change have been, are, or will sweep across America: three in our past; another, the ongoing center of economic activity; and five more yet to come. Throughout the course of history, nations have advanced through three successive waves of economic development. Each of these eras centers around a different set of economic pursuits.

The Agricultural Era centered on wresting sustenance and livelihoods from nature's bounty. Employment based on food, fiber, forestry, and fishing accounted for well over 90% of all jobs during Colonial times. Currently, farming makes up just one to two percent of U.S. jobs. When farms ceased to employ a majority of workers in the 1880s, food processors and manufacturers became the biggest job segment within the sector. Years later, services took over. Initially, distributors (wholesalers and retailers) dominated all jobs in agribusiness; currently, it is food-service providers; and eventually, it could be e-business (communication era) providers.

Although seldom thought of as the nation's most technologically advanced activity, that characterization is an apt one. Production and productivity have become prodigious--so much so that 60-80% of key crops are exported, and Americans eat about 10-20% more than is healthy (with the result that well over 50% are overweight or obese). Production overwhelmingly surpasses domestic need. This pattern of providing far beyond needs and accomplishing that feat with fewer and fewer workers is typical.

Agriculture, although employing an ever-smaller contingent of workers, has not reached its final pinnacle by a long shot. Looking to the future, it is easy to see new twists and turns in each of the oncoming "Big Five" economic sectors that will unleash ever-increasing output using still fewer inputs. For instance, as consumers spend less time pursuing and satisfying food and fiber requirements, they acquire more spare time that can be devoted to leisure.

Further into the millennium, genetic engineering will boost yields, enhance nutrient content, enable plants to thrive in previously impossible conditions, and engraft genetic enhancements that will all but eliminate the need for agrichemical inputs. Megamaterials technologies could usher in food replicators, currently the stuff of science fiction. Ultimately, bioreactors will yield only useful and valuable components: orange sacs, for example, with no roots, trunks, branches, leaves, rind, or seed sapping unnecessary resources or effort. Robotics will continue to take over more operations in every agribusiness subsector. The new space age may see crops grown aboard orbiting space satellites or on other planets. Around-the-clock radiation, shorter crop maturation, and multiple crops could become part and parcel of this phase of agribusiness development.

Eking food and fiber from land could turn into a small-niche enterprise or a mere historical curiosity. Farmers may endure a similar fate to what has befallen horses. Previously a mainstay of transportation and brute work, horses now are mainly to be found on dude ranches, at riding academies, or on the race track.

The Industrial Era focused on mass production of fabricated goods. Jobs in the U.S. peaked in this sector during the 1920s and have been declining ever since. The pattern of prodigious output accomplished by fewer workers using fewer inputs applies to this sector as well.

Service Era undertakings, involving third-party providers rendering specialized expertise consumers could not or chose not to perform themselves, peaked during the mid 1950s. Service-sector dominance was short-lived. It came and went quickly as it was surpassed by the meteoric rise in communication technologies.

The Information Era. The fourth and present stage of economic development in so-called postindustrial societies includes in its sweep knowledge, education, entertainment, and information undertakings. Anchored on communication and computer technologies, U.S. employment in this sector has been dominant since the late 1970s. Still reaching toward peak dominance, this current wave will begin to wane in as few as 15 years. Soon thereafter, it will be supplanted by another surging wave associated with the advent of the Leisure Era. Less than two decades is a short-enough time span to start thinking seriously about what is in the offing.

What kinds of new economic activity will come next? Where are the new investment opportunities? What training should tomorrow's workers be pursuing? Currently on the horizon are at least five economic fields of endeavor that will dominate jobs, economic output, and Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Succinctly, the nature and timing of these impending eras includes the Leisure Era, centered on hospitality, recreation, and entertainment, on the way to becoming the dominant sphere of economic activity beyond 2015; the Life Sciences Era, acquiring dominance by 2100; the Megamaterials Era, achieving dominance between 2200 and 2300; the New Atomic Age, taking off between 2250 and 2500; and the New Space Age, commencing around 2500-3000.

Successive waves of economic activities, each in its own turn and time, will become the center of gravity of individual nations. These impending centers of gravity already are well along in early stages of development and the drive toward dominance. Each of these looming linchpins has been developing and gathering momentum for a long time. Roots of fundamental economic change typically begin to take shape centuries and even thousands of years before achieving dominance and eventually peaking.

Each of these waves of economic activity will enjoy a brief predominance, similar to the previous four. Looming changes brought about by these Big Five enterprises will promote as they destroy jobs and earnings as well as reshape economies. Dominance will mark from the time the particular economic undertaking becomes the nation's largest provider of employment. Soon thereafter, that sector will account for the biggest share of GDP. Eventually, it too will wane as a new center of economic interest takes center stage.

Changes in sector dominance do not mean that previous economic activities will disappear. Relative importance ebbs and flows between sectors. Organized activities involved in eclipsed sectors simply may become less important, as the onus of leadership shifts elsewhere. Planning focused on where things are headed and assessing how to deal with massive change that accompanies such transitions is essential to help minimize dislocations. Sudden surprises swelling out of these impending economic centers of gravity shouldn't catch informed persons unaware. Long-term perspectives, despite popularly accepted ideas about them, rarely include discontinuities.

Agriculture, for instance, can be traced back to the emergence of our earliest ancestors. Food always has been and always will be essential to survival. Our ape-like ancestors operated at basic instinct levels by scavenging for food. Advance beyond that basic primitive stage was slow in coming. Not until eons passed, about 2,400,000 years ago, did organized foraging, gathering, and hunting begin. The onset of the agricultural revolution started with cultivation of crops around 10,000 B.C.; domestication of animals by 9,000 B.C. The genetic revolution can be said to have commenced at this turning point--cultivation and domestication of crops and animals. The current changeover in agriculture is edging into genetic-engineered cropping. Numerous defining modes or emphases punctuate the course of agriculture development.

Manufacturing, by the same token, began with crude fashioning of hand tools about 2,000,000 years ago. Production of garments, furs, and textiles to meet personal needs emerged around 10,000 B.C. Eventually, craftsmen with unique and well-honed skills who could do jobs faster and better performed specialized tasks. The division of labor, often touted as an accoutrement of the industrial era, actually was under way long ago. Services, following this line of development, commenced with local bartering and exchange. Around 10,000 B.C., these included organized efforts at trade expeditions and discovery of new areas.

Epochs of major economic change not only take a long time to build, even longer periods are required for social systems to accommodate and adjust to impacts. More than 100 years were required to develop technologies that took the Industrial Revolution to its high point. Working out the social and political problems wrought by these changes took much longer. Over 250 years have been occupied in identifying these secondary effects, understanding the full import of their significance, and taking steps to contain or minimize socially and politically undesirable impacts. The point is that major economic epochs do not emerge suddenly as a "bolt out of the blue," nor does the subsequent societal adjustment.

The impending Big Five major technologies soon to engulf advanced nations, reshape entire economies, and drastically alter human life and social conditions include:

The Leisure Time Era (commencing by 2015). Hospitality, recreation, entertainment, travel and tourism, gambling, and all manner of diversionary experiences and pastimes comprise the core of this impending sector. Leisure time pursuits, it must be stressed, have been a part of human activity from the very outset. The significant turning point about to occur follows as "free time" accounts for over 50% of total lifetime activity.

The Life Sciences Era (2100) will encompass biotechnology, genetics, cloning, designer babies, genetic engineering, transgenics, immortality, elimination of disease, and "pharming," among others. Theoretical underpinnings trace back centuries, even thousands of years. The pace accelerated with the human genome project, and reached a dramatic turning point with animal cloning.

The Metamaterials Era (2200-2300). Quantum mechanics/electrodynamics/chromodynamics, particle physics, nanotechnologies, isotopes/allotropes/chirality, microscopic imaging, and particle-resolving systems constitute the major core technologies. Modern-day "take-off" followed the development of plastics, bullet-proof Kevlar, ceramic engineering, high-strength alloys, composites, silicon, super-alloys, fullerenes, high-temperature superconductors, sonoluminescence, superfluidity, crystallography, semiconductors, cryogenics, time/temperature/pressure-variable materials, nanotechnologies, antimatter, "bio-factories," and designer materials of every sort imaginable. This array of new technologies enables manipulation of physical matter. It involves the power to deconstruct and reconstruct matter to specification. While biotech empowers human manipulation of "designer" life forms, metamaterials does so for inorganic or inanimate matter. Designer materials of any sort made possible by understanding and manipulating these "blueprints of matter" add new versatility to human conquests over nature. In many cases, it entails the ability to surpass the limitations that create "natural" forms of matter found on this planet. Because matter, fundamentally, can neither be created nor destroyed (it simply changes form), Malthusian-style hand -wringing concerning running out of resources could finally be put to rest.

The New Atomic Age (2250-2500). Thermonuclear fusion, hydrogen and helium isotopes, and photonics (mainly lasers) constitute the key technologies upon which almost every energy-dependent activity will hinge. Paramountcy of these activities looms ever closer as finite fossil fuels are depleted--first petroleum (within 40-50 years), then natural gas (in about 50 years), and finally coal (not until another 230 years or so). This oncoming era reaches a critical turning point less than a century into the future. Within this century, new energy sources become imperative as petroleum scarcity drives prices sky-high. Theoretical foundations of these technologies were under way thousands of years ago, and came of age over a half-century ago with splitting the atom. Early experiments that led to atomic fission were followed by development of fusion and thermonuclear explosives. Breakthroughs essential to harnessing fusion center on advances in magnetohydrodynamics, inertial confinement techniques, laser-induced implosion, and quantum physics. Work on all these breakthrough areas has been ongoing for more than 40 years. We're edging closer.

The New Space Age (2500-3000). Astrophysics, cosmology, spacecraft development, exploration, travel, tourism, and resource gathering are among the pivotal activities that ultimately will propel this stage of development. Beginnings for this sector trace back to gunpowder and rocket developments over 2,000 years ago. World War II rockets and jet aircraft accelerated the pace. Sputnik, spy satellites, manned space missions, extraplanetary probes, and telescopic arrays that pierce outermost limits of the universe are among the activities adding to the conquest of space.

One after the other, each one of these looming eras will enjoy a brief period of predominance during which its importance to the economy ranks it first and foremost. With history as a guide, every nation sooner or later seems destined to follow the general pattern of successive developments described above.

Focusing on impending developments involving the changing composition of economic undertakings in advanced nations frames new conquests. Dimensions and pace of change are gauged by tracking leading-edge innovations and work of key researchers engaged in new frontiers, following start-ups pursuing cutting-edge ideas, perusing patent applications and grants, and keeping abreast of venture capital investments.


Many companies already have begun to transform operations in anticipation of these oncoming waves of change. DuPont, for example, long ago shifted from being an explosives manufacturer to become a chemical/petroleum feedstock-based business. To assure crucial petroleum supplies, it acquired Conoco (then the ninth-largest oil producer) in 1981 during the OPEC energy crisis. Currently, DuPont is transitioning into a chemical/biology company. Its goals include increasing profits based on life sciences from 15-20% in 1997 to 30% by 2002. Responding, in part, to impending exhaustion of petroleum resources, the company's new emphasis on renewable phytochemical and life sciences technologies seeks to assure sustainable feedstocks. An added benefit is that biofeedstocks also are "environmentally friendly." Eastman Chemical, in like manner, to assure fuel for selective chemical outputs, has been shifting away from petroleum to coal, which may not run out for another 230-500 years.

Downstream petrochemical manufacturing--such as polymers and plastic production that are dependent upon petroleum feedstocks--face wrenching changes as those supplies are depleted. Monsanto long ago moved away from polymers and plastics. The company's new emphasis turned headlong into life sciences. DuPont and Monsanto recently acquired or affiliated with firms focused on the very beginning point for agribusiness production--seeds. The overall redesign involves turning seed, plants, and animals into efficient "bio-factories" of the future.

Sating essential needs--food and fiber, for example--has radically shifted and will continue to do so. Agriculture still makes contributions to humanity and the economy. Producing foodstuffs simply responds to more-efficient ways of satisfying them. The shifts outlined indicate the kinds of change involved in providing for goods and services needs. Keeping up with the times is the name of the game. The onus of jobs in agriculture moved from farms to beyond the farm gate, as previously noted. Patterns of change in other business sectors involve similar shifts and successions. Business activities do not remain static. Goods and services providers must respond to changing business environments or get left behind.

Economic sectors require foresight to remain visible. Successful management must anticipate and take steps necessary to accommodate change. Awareness of radical changes, especially in these fast-paced times, is imperative. The pace has accelerated to the point that forecasting change is becoming more than a "nice-to-have" function. Staying abreast requires a keen sense of where economic undertakings are headed. Changes of an increasingly scientific and hi-tech bent require new kinds of expertise within companies.

Carefully plotted historical timelines, such as the ones covered here, date back far in history. Comprehensive timelines, carefully interpreted, are powerful indicators of continuing developments. Projections based on assessing lengthy timelines tracking the past to the present are not fatalistic. They are, however, strongly deterministic and driven by enormous momentum. Current accomplishments are overwhelmingly predicated on the past. Most important, the trajectory of these trends, coupled with a knowledge of impending breakthroughs, clearly illuminate potential directions and developments, as well as their probable timing.

We can foretell the future--if we look carefully and fully to the past. Linear progression is not equivalent to straight trendline extrapolation. Historical sweeps reveal few yawning gaps. Long-term timelines typically involve short-lived aberrations involving collections of twists and turns, ups and downs. There are cyclical phenomena that propel many developments. Over short durations, there are exponentials--doubling rate phenomena--that do not (and cannot) continue on endlessly. Application of foresight principles helps to assess and anticipate the twists and turns of wrenching change. Whether change intrudes fast or slow, the past and present point to impending events that facilitate decisions to optimize the good and minimize the bad. In short, sharpened perspectives on change suggest opportunities for keeping up and getting ahead of the game.

Graham T.T. Molitor, president, Public Policy Forecasting, Inc., Potomac, Md., is vice president and legal counsel for the World Future Society and author of The Next 1000 Years.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Society for the Advancement of Education
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Author:Molitor, Graham T.T.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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