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 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2009: Management

The End Isn’t Near

Given the current conditions, and the rise of new economic powers such as China and India, I can’t help worrying that there might not be time to build the kind of managers and organizations that Mintzberg and Bogle envision, especially here in the United States. So I was surprised in an airport bookstore when I found The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century and read: “The history of the U.S. will be the history of the 21st century.” Its author, George Friedman, is founder and CEO of Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting Inc.), a global intelligence-gathering company. A former academic whose geopolitical and economic analysis has been used by the Pentagon and Wall Street, Friedman makes a contrarian yet convincing case for seeing the future for the U.S. as a glass half full.

Friedman bases his case on what he cites as “the single most important fact of the twenty-first century: the end of the population explosion.” He argues that “the entire global system has been built since 1750 on the expectation of continually expanding populations. More workers, more consumers, more soldiers — this was always the expectation. In the twenty-first century, however, that will cease to be true.” Because advanced industrial countries will be losing population at a dramatic rate by 2050, and birthrates are slowing in most underdeveloped countries, Friedman believes that population growth will stabilize, and by the end of the century, technology and immigration will be the key ingredients of economic competitiveness and power. And in both of these areas, the U.S. has the advantage.

Assessing China’s current “economic dynamism” as unsustainable, Friedman sees other economic powers emerging at mid-century: Japan, Turkey, and Poland — for a number of fascinating and convincing reasons that I cannot do justice to in this review. But looming over them all, in Friedman’s assessment, is the U.S. powerhouse, despite the self-doubts and doom-filled predictions engendered by our current financial crisis.

The sense that this country is “approaching the eve of destruction,” says Friedman, is the same foreboding that was present during the Nixon presidency. In fact, the U.S. has historically been plagued by the nagging feeling that “the country isn’t what it used to be.” It turns out that American culture mirrors the dichotomies of the Dickens quote I used earlier. According to Friedman, it is “the manic combination of exultant hubris and profound gloom.”

But then, what else would you expect from a country still in its adolescence? Calling on history, demographics, and geopolitical patterns over the centuries, Friedman argues that the U.S. is experiencing an adolescent identity crisis, “complete with incredible new strength and irrational mood swings.” This will eventually lead to an adult nation that, he explains, will be more stable and powerful.

Thanks to factors like immigration (which will be welcomed as falling birthrates fuel an international labor shortage by 2020), the power of the computer (whose programming language is English), and U.S. military might (especially its sea power), Friedman foresees a United States that will continue to hold center stage as the century progresses.

To help make the case, the author offers a long summary of all the times over the past several centuries that the popular geopolitical forecast turned out to be dead wrong. The message: The future is never set in stone. So stay on your toes, fellow travelers. There is time to influence events in business and in life. All the more reason to use this opportunity to build the institutions — and develop the managers — that will help us create a mature society that we all want to live in.

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