The Shockingly Prescient 1970 Social Theory That Explains the World Right Now

Why a 50-year-old bestseller may be 2017’s most relevant book.

Future shock—too much change, too fast—has arguably become the predominant societal force in the world, 47 years after author (and Fortune writer) Alvin Toffler coined the term for the title of his 1970 bestseller. Now that it’s here, no one knows what happens next—Toffler predicted darkly that society wouldn’t be able to handle it—but business leaders had better take ownership of the resulting problems because, fairly or not, society is going to hold them responsible.

The latest evidence comes from research unveiled at Davos this week. The Edelman communications firm’s annual Trust Barometer showed public trust in institutions worldwide plummeting more precipitously than in the five previous years of the research. Now look deeper: Among general populations worldwide, 53% say the pace of change in business and industry is too fast. They worry about losing their jobs—60% because they lack needed training or skills, meaning their skills haven’t kept up with fast-changing job requirements, 54% because of automation, which means the same thing.

Now examine PwC’s new survey of CEOs, also announced at Davos. This global group of leaders is worried most about uncertain growth and over-regulation, but ranking a very close third is “availability of key skills.” The CEOs are worried about the same thing as ordinary citizens—that job requirements are changing faster than people’s ability to meet them. Combine that finding with the results of our own Fortune 500 CEO poll: The CEOs’ top concern for the past two years has been “the rapid pace of technological change.”

Everybody is saying the same thing: Too much change, too fast.

Clearly the practical crux of this issue is jobs, which is why business leaders are in the crosshairs as people struggle with future shock. By traditional standards the phenomenon is bizarre. Even in the U.S., with unemployment at a rock-bottom 4.7%, 57% of the population polled by Edelman agree that “the system is broken.” That’s higher than the global average.

Business’s response will not be simple or obvious. Companies can’t merely employ more people who aren’t needed. But the Edelman research suggests other effective steps. For example, among respondents globally, and especially among those who think the system is broken, the No. 1 action a company can take to build trust is “treat employees well.”

This is a make-or-break issue for business leaders. IHS Markit’s chief global economist, Dr. Nariman Behravesh, told Business Insider yesterday, “The challenge for the Davos elite is this—how can you help these people in the developed world to get the skills to take on new jobs, and what policies can be put in place? If they don’t, Davos will become irrelevant. This is a call to action.”

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