Severe polarization in U.S. could end in 5-7 years

What are the reasons behind our polarization? When will it end?

These are the questions that have bedeviled the futurist in me for more than a year.

I have concluded that the roots for this can be found in the changes in our economy and the shifts in power that many sense, but find difficult to express.

Timing has to do with the technological changes and the speed at which these changes have been adopted.

These social and economic changes are immense. They often are understood directly by some, and subliminally by many. And that understanding of future trends has been the generator of polarized positions. The objective, stated and unstated, is to stop perceived changes in status, power and wealth.

This is my thesis. Let me list a few of these changes.

1. The shift from a hierarchical to a collaborative management style, which favors women over men.

Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute projected that by 2018, women-owned small businesses will create one-third of all new jobs. (They account for 16 percent of U.S. business now).

Another study projects that by 2020, 30 percent of the 1,000 top firms will be headed by women (currently it is 3 percent).

Manufacturing is more productive and requires fewer workers. Forty years ago, manufacturing made up 28 percent of the workforce; now, it is well below 10 percent. Our economy has shifted to service and communications.

In short, the new way of managing business is to use contractors, to outsource, to work collaboratively. Women by their nature are better at this than men.

2. The racial complexion of the U.S. is undergoing significant adjustment.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 46 percent increase in the U.S. population by 2050.

Whites will be 47 percent of the population, down from 67 percent. Hispanics will grow from 15 percent to 30 percent. Asians (which includes people from India and Pakistan, as well as China) will grow from 5 percent to 9 percent. Surprisingly, blacks will only increase from 14 percent to 15 percent.

Yes, we have deep racial divides in our country, but much of this has to do with age. Young people, defined as 40 years or younger, do not care about race, religion or national origin. They are more likely to see the divide between left and right, which describes values.

For many, these racial trends are frightening, as the status quo will change.

3. Abortion views have shifted. As the Christian Science Monitor said, “For the first time since 2008, more Americans favor abortion rights than not. While the abortion rights position has not returned to the highs seen in the 1990s, the trend is now in that direction.”

Importantly, abortion clinics will be out of business in 10 to 15 years, not because of divisive regulations, but because technology will be able to end an unplanned pregnancy at home, in private, with pharmaceuticals. This is, I estimate, five to seven years out.

4. Young people also have a different view on homosexuality than older folks do.

Ireland’s approval of gay marriage illustrates this (although I suspect that part of this arose from the negative approach to the sexual and other abuses of the Catholic Church.)

In the case of homosexuality, race, religion and gender, younger people have been exposed to people who are not like them. They are comfortable, or to phrase it another way, do not care how other folk live or act.

5. Pew surveys also pointed out that we are becoming less Christian (or religious). In 2007, 78 percent of Americans practiced some type of Christianity. Now, it is 70.6 percent.

White Evangelicals make up 25 percent of our population. Black Protestants make up 7 percent of the population. These segments have remained steady.

But those with no religion rose from 16 percent to 23 percent, making this segment a close second.

And as Philander Johnson once quipped “Cheer up! The worst is yet to come.”

Look to the millennials as did the Pew Survey. Only half identified as Christian. More than one-third do not affiliate with any religion.

Some millennials have been turned off by the emphasis on politics in their churches, and they cite this as one reason they have left their churches.

6. We are entering into a labor shortage that has much to do with demographics and which has been “hidden” by the extended work lives of those who lost savings in the 2008 depression. Yet the numbers and trends are apparent.

Here is a chart listing past and projected workers coming into the labor force:

Decade                          New workers

1980s                            1,007,000
1990s                            882,000
2000s                            702,000
2010s                            3,000 (yes that number is correct)
2020s                            218,000

We have shortages in medical care and skilled workers, clerks and sales people. This is occurring despite the shipping of jobs overseas, the increased productivity in manufacturing, and immigration.

One reason unions have declined has been changes by politicians, but sadly, a greater influence has been productivity gains in industry which have reduced the need for workers. Yet, there is a negative feeling toward legal and illegal immigration, partly through anger and partly through ignorance.

The Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff, had a theory there were waves in our economy of 55 to 60 years. When I first started talking about his theory some four decades ago, I added that society needs to embrace new technology. This was probably assumed, but not stated by Kondratieff. Part of his long cycle were periods of great turmoil, such as what we are experiencing currently in changes of status, adjustment to technological innovation, and economic empowerment.

I believe we are five to seven years away from an end to the polarization we are witnessing. We have begun to see signs already in the greater acceptance of the change and by compromise to accomplish collective ends that have been absent in our dialogues.

Bob Chernow is the former vice chair of the 10,000 World Future Society. His predictions include the subprime crisis in 2006 and the S&L/Mutual Savings Bank crisis, as well as the future of women in business (2000). He is a Milwaukee businessman and the CEO of The Tellier Foundation.

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