Davis, Stan

Stan Davis is an author and acclaimed public speaker based in Boston, Massachusetts. Some of his previous books include the best-seller Blur, the landmark Future Perfect (winner of the Tom Peters Book-of-the-Decade award), 2020 Vision, and The Monster Under the Bed. He is also an independent strategy and management consultant to both major corporations and fast-growing enterprises, and part-time Senior Research Fellow at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young's Center for Business Innovation. Stan Davis' most recent book is Lessons from the Future, but we are discussing Future Wealth.

tompeters.com asks ...

What's the thesis of this book?

SD: The thesis of the book is that every time the foundation of an economy changes, everything about wealth changes. More particularly, how it is created, accumulated, distributed, controlled and consumed. And that that is true for individuals, for business, and for society.

So who should be reading your book?

SD: Anybody interested in what I've just said.

And what are they going to learn from reading your book?

SD: They're going to learn some of the specifics about how WEALTH changes, about what those changes are, specifically, and what they mean to them.

I believe in your earlier book Blur you wrote about people treating themselves as a brand. We obviously have Tom Peters talking about that in Brand You. And you raise the issue here again in Future Wealth which is that even if you're working for a company, you should be thinking about yourself as an individual entity. You're passing through there, or you should look at that company as a way to gain skills, and to serve the company while you're there. But it's part of a long-term program.

SD: My guess is that the churn over a person's career has increased tremendously. In my father's generation, you worked for one company your whole life. In mine, you work for three or four. In my kids', you work for 10 or 12. It used to be, "What's wrong with this guy? He's worked for 10 companies in 10 years." Now it's, "What's wrong with this guy? He has only worked for one company in 10 years."

There is an encouragement to move, that the way you advance your career is not up through the ranks within a single company, but by changing companies. You move out in order to move up.

How many times do you have to change your job before you determine who you really work for? The Bureau of Labor Statistics will capture you in every one of these still photographs, as employed by a large company, or by a company. But if in every still photograph—and this is hyperbole—you're working in a different company, are you really working in a company? Are you really an employee?

It has as much to do with mind set and churn as it has to do with still photography, taking a static picture of you at any given moment in time and saying, "OK, you work in a company."

As we move into this brave new future, you suggest that we'll start trading in human capital, meaning some day I'll be trading Erik Hansen stock on the Free Agent Stock Exchange or some such. Is that right?

SD: Yes, and no. It's not that it's incorrect, it's a matter of where the emphasis should go. The problem that I think Future Wealth had in the marketplace is that people overreacted to the literal, extreme end of the spectrum where you literally create a marketplace for creating human capital.

But you say that in the book.

SD: That's correct. And I think that we are moving in that direction, but not fast in terms of months and years.

When I write any book, my frame is basically decades. I just had an article written about me in London, and it speaks about my oeuvre. And that body of work has always had the context that everything that has a beginning has an ending, therefore it has a life cycle. It's useful to know where you are in that life cycle so you know how to act appropriately. That's true for individuals, for businesses, and for the economy and society in general.

With regard to this economy I have always felt that it's about a 75- to 80-year lifespan. Our current information economy began in the early 1950s, it will come to an end in the late 2020s, and we are about seven years into the third quarter.

Now, with that perspective in mind, I see movement in terms of decades. So, yes, I do believe that within a few decades we will have developed a marketplace that exchanges human capital as some form of security, probably debt, but possibly more than debt.

But I don't think that's where the focus should be. Those are the long-term implications. In the short term, the more accurate focus, and please remember this is just one of the book's three themes, which is that when you put together the speed and the focus on intangible economic value, you are going to come to the primacy of human capital, and more efficient marketplaces.

And out of that, you'll get financial markets developing for human capital. But before that occurs, you're seeing things like outsourcing and downsizing that dumped a lot of people. These things were done for internal efficiency moves. But they had the consequence of getting people out into the marketplace, increasing the churn, developing a zeitgeist of free agent nation and the like. Then you got subsequent waves where, like electronic job postings, new technological developments of that sort, and 10,000 different companies that are variations on Monster.com, and somebody like Cisco hiring the overwhelming percentage of their people directly through electronic means—all of these are ripples. Some are waves. But the tidal flow is making more efficient use of human capital markets.

And the waves toward the end may take the form of actual financial instruments that involve packaging and training and selling, monetizing people's future earning streams, and leveraging those.

I'm thinking of instances where I've done something good at work, let's say, and someone says, "Your stock is up." The words we use are already dealing with the concept of each of us as his own stock. So how far away can the reality be? I'm a great believer in the power of language to promote actions. Which means I wouldn't be surprised if these kinds of things actually happened sooner than you might think.

SD: Developments in the last year or so haven't caused me to back off the predictions. I think it will come in waves. Outsourcing was an early one. Next you get electronic job posting. Ultimately it will be things like monetizing and trading people on a retail marketplace. Beginning in sports and entertainment. Those are the two worlds where you're going to see these mechanisms articulated first.

And that has already begun. With free agentry. It has begun in terms of branding. It has begun in terms of monetizing your future earning streams. All of these have already taken place in entertainment and in sports.

That will continue. It will become routine. It will spread throughout those sectors of the economy, sports and entertainment.

And that's only the first wave. From there it goes on down to gold collar professionals, and then to middle class. I believe within 20, 30, 40 years it will even be for the ManPower folk.

It's happening in the music and entertainment world because those people have been talking in terms of talent for years, for decades, forever. And it's funny that corporate America, in the last decade or whatever, is finally—

SD: Onto it?

Here again, latching onto that idea. You talk about the war for talent in this book. Tom Peters is talking war for talent. I spoke with somebody from McKinsey not long ago, and they're working on a book that's going to be called The War for Talent. That's the hottest topic.

So there again, now you've got the business world talking about talent, so they're going to start acting like these early adopters from the music and the entertainment world.

It just seems to me what you're saying just isn't that far off, given that here again the language is already talking in those terms. It's just a matter of people having a different mind set about what they're doing. And I think they're going there already as well.

People working for companies are thinking of themselves as not an employee, but—

SD: Then we're singing from the same hymnal.

You say there are two other main points in the book. What are those?

SD: One has to do with how all markets are becoming more efficient, and therefore everything has a risk attached to it. Wherever you can measure that risk, you can create a financial instrument. That's happening more, and more, and more.

So our orientation towards risk and towards the financial dimension of the economy is becoming as important as our orientation to the real economy.

We make this distinction between the real side of the economy and the financial side. And that table at the end of the first chapter really lays it out.

The definition of a business is generally providing products and services in order to meet market demands. That's about the real economy. I think that every business is potentially also simultaneously its shadow, or the tail of the dog, or however you want to express it, is simultaneously about the financial dimension, which is to identify all the risks inherent in running that enterprise, isolating them, measuring them, packaging them, taking them to market, and trading them. And that that is something that is slowly developing as well.

What we're saying is that wealth creation has become a lot more financial than real. The stock market, even if it gets cut in half and stays that way for a decade, it's still growing faster than the real economy. The markets are growing faster than the economy is growing.

There are periodic corrections, but it's as Greenspan says. It used to be that the health of the economy determined the health of the markets. Now the health of the markets is determining the health of the economy.

That's a major shift in terms of the world of wealth. So that individuals begin to see that their unearned income, where their money earns money, rather than their labor earning money, that that is growing faster than the wealth that's coming from their labor—even if their labor is based on intellect, and smarts, and talent, rather than sweat and muscle.

That's a major, major shift that is important for folks to understand.

The third theme is that our sense of social capital, and how it was defined, is really becoming obsolete, and needs to shift. When you combine that with the notion of more efficient financial marketplaces, more risk, seeing risk as an opportunity, and the war for talent ... when you put all of those into the stew, countries and economies that encourage risk taking, that is to say, encourage creative destruction, encourage the things that American culture values in the world of work, then they must also have strong safety nets in place. And that speaks to social policy.

Our most recent presidential election, it had a few of these policy issues. The election dampened them because it was about tactics of winning. But they are there, and they're going to be important.

Examples are, "Should Social Security be used as a wealth accumulator or as a safety net? Should some of it be privatized and allowed to invest in the marketplace or not?" That's a huge, high wire, high-strung net, type of issue.

The other one was about inheritance tax. If there is any money left over in my estate when I die, I would like to pass it on to my children and not have the government eat or tear away at it. That's at the level of me as an individual.

At the same time, viewing the society that I would like to see left behind in the long run, a total passing on of inheritance is really not good for a society because it creates an aristocracy of inherited wealth, and there is not enough churn.

Both of those feelings are true and real, real and accurate, and they are at odds with each other. Part of my intent was to address issues of social and public policy, as well as issues that pertain to the individual and her career. And there was also a focus on what you could do for the corporation. For the corporation, there is an entire shadow enterprise around the financial dimension, besides the real products and services that you create.

So I feel Future Wealth was about all of those things, not merely about securitizing talent.

We are in this huge state of flux, socially, globally, and yet we all have to begin at the individual level. You follow that progression. You begin with the individual, and you move to the company, and then you move to the society, right?

SD: That's true. That's an arbitrary progression. The only thing I would change in the entire book, were I to do it over, would be that I would reverse the progression. Because they are just nominal categories.

But the book reviews—and Tom's take—over-focus on securitizing people, and then rail against it, against it in the sense that no it's not going to happen, and against it in the sense that no it's not good if it does happen. That is just not the focus.

I understand that, but there again you're dealing with the zeitgeist that you referred to earlier. Though I did like the very last line of your book, where you write "use wealth to breed greed and we're diseased, use wealth as a form of fitness to emancipate individuals and world society takes another giant step forward."

Which I thought, in a way, had grown out of a quote from de Tocqueville who stated that he wearies of hearing Americans talking about their progression towards great personal wealth. I'm curious about your take. You've got a book that is about wealth, that's about money, but you talk about it from getting it, growing it, distributing it. You talk about the life cycle of money, and it's not about what money can buy, though you say this is a mark of how we achieve our desires.

SD: That was never my personal goal. It was always just a way to keep score of how well you were doing, it wasn't why you were doing it. And with regard to that, the one piece of advice I gave my kids, to the degree that I advise them at all on wealth, was find what you love to do, and then figure out how to make a living from that. Not the other way around.

Near the end of the book you talk about the Swedish economy. You mention that it is, in fact, a welfare state. But you say, "The Swedes have trimmed their national budget deficit to 13% of GDP, and that grows at a rate comparable to that of the United States. This model seems to combine the best of high levels of business risk with low personal risk, and it bears watching. Assuming it succeeds, might it work in the United States?"

Can you talk more about that?

SD: The point is that men do not live by money alone, and we need to balance the social good with the economic. Europe in general has always looked towards a more balanced model. Sweden went to an extreme, but seems to be doing a reasonably decent job of it.

If we go into a recession, we're going to be hearing a lot more about how really terrific the European and Swedish model is.

My parents came from Norway, and I've been back there a number of times. As in Sweden, there is a seriously huge safety net for people. On the other hand, I was always glad I grew up in America, because I felt that nobody in Norway would have ever designed a '57 Chevy. The issue that's always raised is that you've got this American individualistic frontier spirit that's very innovative and inventive, and a society like the Scandinavian welfare state that may in fact stifle all that. Do you think there is any truth in that view?

SD: Yes. (Laughter) Yes. I do think that it went too far and is stifling. It depends on who I'm talking with. If I'm wearing a hat called American and talking with a European, then I come across as this much more business-oriented, wealth-concerned prognosticator. If, on the other hand, I am talking as an American to Americans, then I will come across much more as a moderate person who is much more concerned about balance, and not only about money. So it really depends on who the conversation is with and who the audience is.

We're now in an information economy. We've passed through an agrarian and an industrial economy. Those earlier economies dealt with humans as disposable items, meaning it didn't matter which person was standing there on the assembly line tightening the screw—as long as someone was there. Our current economy values the input of individuals and allows people to create work that is valued. You suggest that we're in the later stages of a 70-year information economy that actually began in the 1950s. What's next? Do things continue to get better for humans, or do we start backsliding somewhere down the line?

SD: There are a lot of ways of picking up on that. The book after my next book is focused explicitly on the question of what's the next economy after the information economy. So I'll address it that way.

But before I do, some of what you said made me think about how you had the first wave—it was in the early 50s that industrial manufacturing reached its high water mark. It began shrinking as a percent of the total economy after '53 in terms of GDP, employment, and the like.

Then you had these waves where in the 50s and 60s the shift was from manufacturing to services. In the 70s and 80s the shift was from hardware to software. In the 90s and in this first decade of the 21st century, the shift is this focus on human talent and intellectual property, human capital.

All of these are consistently in the same direction in terms of intangible economic value. And they will occupy that whole information economy when you look at these successive waves.

I deal with the question of the next economy in my current book. It's called Lessons from the Future. It's published by Capstone. It's divided into five parts. Part I is How I Get My Ideas, and it's a personal statement. Then Part II is Economy, Part III is Business, Part IV is Lessons from the Past, and Part V is Lessons from the Future.

All of the essays in Lessons from the Future in Part V are focused on your question, which is the next economy. And the book that I am working on now, whose working title is Alive, will definitely focus on the next economy, in which the great investment will be in biotechnology.

The probability is that that will provide the infrastructure for the next economic wave. If you want marker events, Crick and Watson published their discovery The Double Helix in '53. [James D. Watson and Francis Crick [see article]. Craig Venter and Solaris announced in June of 2000 that they've completed reading the human genome.] That's 47 years.

That's the first quarter, the gestation first quarter, and the life cycle of that next economy. It will be followed by several decades more, in which those newly developed technologies will pass from research into development. You'll see the increasing commercialization and development of these biotechnology-anchored industries. The early adopters—adopters is the wrong term—the early utilizers will be firms in pharmaceuticals, health care, food, agri-business, life science type businesses.

But ultimately, just like computers, their applications will spread into retailing, banking, tourism, all kinds of industries and sectors of the economy that one does not think of as being related to biotechnology.

That will occur in the third quarter. I believe that the information economy is going to be the shortest economy. The one following it, which will be more a bio-economy, will be a much longer economy than 75-80 years. We've already had the first gestation quarter and that was 47 years, five decades let's say.

So the next quarter of this commercialization will fill several decades. And it will only be three or four decades from now that you'll begin to see just how it's going to impact all of these other sectors.

What I'm writing about is intended to show how that's going to unfold and what that's going to mean. For example, the industrial era and the first half of the information era was really based on economies of scale, top-down hierarchy, the science was basically physics. That has shifted. The science will be biology, of course. Biology operates at four basic levels: DNA, organism, species, and ecology. And unless you are a creationist, the world didn't begin as a level of ecology and then evolve DNA. It began from the bottom up.

And if you look at where all the investment in biotech is, it's all in the DNA. It's not in the level of organism or species or ecology.

So that leads me to predict that in the economy of the future, economic value will be created at the molecular level. And that is a notion that I now take as axiomatic. I feel it is worth mining for a decade worth of thinking about. What does that mean? What are the implications of it? How do you leverage that? How do you get the power in that?

In 1987 when I published Future Perfect, it was based on a very simple syllogism that said time, space, and mass are the fundamentals of the universe, and your business is part of the universe, therefore it's got to be fundamental to your business.

Now today we know that speed is intrinsic to the business model, but 13, 14 years ago, we didn't.

In the next economy, economic value will be created at the molecular level. I see it coming in waves, and I think the first wave will be in biotechnology. The next wave will be in material science. And I think the wave after that will be in nano-technology. Each of these are about 20 years ahead of one another. Or certainly 10 years ahead of one another. So you're seeing early nano-technology, but nothing compared to what's happening in material science, which is nothing compared to what's happening in biotechnology.

So that's a kind of riff on your last question.

I like that. I recall reading about this propeller that's the size of an atom. People are making these bio-engines that are as thin as a human hair.

SD: That's the kind of stuff that you'll see more, and more, and more of. But it isn't going to propel your car or hair dryer in 2001. But it's coming, and it's changing the model. So that more and more of the model is bottom up, not top down.

Thank you.


Future Wealth
Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy
Future Perfect
2020 Vision
The Monster Under the Bed: How Business Is Mastering the Opportunity of Knowledge for Profit
Lessons from the Future