By Tsvi Bisk

The 19th century was European; the 20th century was American; the 21st century could be the women’s century.

Originally posted: Apr 21, 2012 on The Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking

The 19th century was the European century; the 20th century was the American century and the 21st century could be the women’s century. This is a conclusion drawn from a combination of several factors: the nature of the global economy, the particular qualities of women and the requirements of world development.

The Nature of the Global Economy

The global economy is characterized by an ever-increasing rate of change. This is a reality that celebrates and rewards flexibility and speed of adaptation. It is a reality that rewards the ability to learn new skills and new ways of doing things, but especially the ability to multi-task. This reality of rapid change has drastically decreased the life span of businesses.

The life span of a successful Fortune 500 company (the 500 hundred largest companies in the world) is now 40 years or half that of a human being. One third of the Fortune 500 companies listed in 1970 had disappeared by 1983. Small American companies have an even shorter shelf life: 98% disappear within 11 years after their founding; 70% within 8 years of their founding and 50% within 4 years of their founding. The average life span of all companies in Japan and Europe is a little over 12 years.

These facts reflect the ongoing change in the character of work. According to the United States Department of Commerce, in 1820 approximately 80% of Americans made their living as farmers while today it is less than 2%. In 1947, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, approximately 35% of America’s workforce was employed in manufacturing. Today the figure is between 12% and 14%. Between 1995 and 2002 the world’s 20 largest economies lost 22 million industrial jobs. Of these America lost about 2 million industrial jobs and China (where all these jobs are supposedly going) lost 15 million manufacturing jobs. Despite the shrinking of America’s industrial work force, the country’s overall industrial output increased by an astonishing 50% since 1992. The key to continued prosperity does not, therefore, depend on preserving outdated industrial jobs but on shifting to ever more efficient and diverse services. These jobs are often better paying and more interesting than those in the fields or on the assembly line. As we shall see below they also offer more opportunity for women.

Requirements of speed and flexibility favor smaller economic units. There is now one company for every seven workers in the United States and the majority of companies employ five or less workers. Almost 70% of all new businesses in the United States are established in the home and “employ” the founder of the business and perhaps one or two other people. Current trends indicate that within the next ten to fifteen years there will be one company for every three workers. Companies with fewer than 20 individuals are responsible for about 90% of new work job creation. Many of these workers are not salaried and are part time or temporary. These trends are being replicated in other parts of the world, including Israel.

All of this has also revolutionized the way we make our livings. The 20th century will be known as the first and last century in human history wherein most people were salaried. Up until the last decades of the 19th century most people were self-employed: farmers, artisans, storekeepers, free professionals etc. By the middle of the 21st century most people will again be self-employed. This development is taking place at a rapid rate. In 1998 22% of all Americans were self-employed, in 2000 26%. 1955 in the United States was a turning point in the history of work. This was the first year that more people were employed in services and commerce than in primary production (agriculture and industry).

Somewhere around 2030 a similar turning point will take place and the self-employed will once again become the majority of the population. The rapid rate of technological innovation and decline of company lifespan has resulted in a situation wherein occupations and professions are dying and being born every day. It is estimated that 80% of college graduates are not working in the areas in which they received their diplomas. Young people entering the work market today can expect to have 5-7 careers in their lifetimes and 15-20 places of work (not jobs in the traditional sense of the word). Flexibility, the ability to learn new skills and to multitask are the attributes that will be rewarded in the developing work market.

A growing number of people have a portfolio of five or six income generating occupations, which change constantly. The “portfolio worker” may already be the fastest growing class in the work market. Portfolio workers must be flexible and have multi-tasking ability.

The Place of Women in this new Economic Reality

What does all this have to do with women? It seems that women are better pre-adapted to this emerging environment than men. Modern economies in general and small companies in particular require the ability to multi-task, and deal with stress. In addition, services of one type or another now comprise over 70% of the GNP of most developed countries.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that women are superior to men in multi-tasking and dealing with stress. Academic research is more ambiguous but some studies favor the view that women are indeed superior to men in multi-tasking and handling stress. Evolutionary theory also appears to support this observation. Hundreds of thousands of years of a human evolution in a hunter-gatherer society have rewarded the survival abilities of the single mindedness of men who hunt and the multi-tasking abilities of women who had to do everything else. While the man was out hunting the woman was nursing, cooking, taking care of the children and the elderly and in general cleaning up the camp site, all more or less simultaneously.

The modern service based economy also favors women for the simple reason that women have also been conditioned by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution to provide service, while men have been conditioned to receive service. Dr. Dov Yannai of the Adam Institute in Israel has divided the work market into four categories: Hi-tech, low tech, no tech and “motech” (the Hebrew word for sweetheart). “Motech” refers to very personal services geared to making us feel better.

Hi-tech of course gets the most publicity because it is dramatic and exciting and has profound economic, social and cultural impacts. But the simple fact of the matter is that it creates relatively few jobs. Most of the jobs being created are in the services: no-tech or “motech”. 
The hospitality industry is a prime example of “motech”. Tourism is the world’s biggest employer and biggest export-industry. It accounts for over 10% of the global work force, over 10% of the global GNP and about 11% of global consumer spending. Along with oil revenues it is the largest earner of foreign currency in the Developing World. Tourism also offers women from the Developing World greater employment opportunities in the money economy and thus indirectly contributes to an improvement in women’s status in these countries.

Women dominate other areas of “Motech”: alternative massage treatments, cosmetology, catering, gerontology services and others. This has radically changed their impact on the economy. Note the following statistics from the United States Department of Labor:

• From 1987 to 1999, the number of women-owned firms in the United States more than doubled.
• About 40 percent of all businesses in America today are owned by women.
• Women-owned businesses employ 27.5 million workers and generate annual sales and receipts of $3.6 trillion.
• Women start businesses at twice the rate of all business start-ups.
• More than 60 percent of women-owned small business start-ups are based at home.

Other developments have also swayed the pendulum to the side of women. For example, modern technology empowers women equally to men. Pure muscle power means nothing in a postindustrial society. Brains, discipline, flexibility and imagination are what count.

But it is in the areas of world development that women might have the greatest impact. Women are the Grand Strategic joint for world development and closing the gap between the developed and the developing worlds. The joint is a military term used by B.F. Liddell Hart the famous British military theorist. It refers to that point which if attacked will give you the greatest benefit for the least effort. The liberation and education of women might very well be the Grand Strategic joint of global development policy. Lawrence Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury wrote a detailed article in Scientific American in which he proved this assumption using economic (not feminist) arguments only. He wrote: “Educating girls quite possibly yields a higher rate of return than any other investment available in the developing world…(even more than) power generation…”

But the cultural context of the status of women is even more central than Summer’s quantitative analysis in regard to global development and the alleviation of poverty. The recent UN Report on Human Development in the Arab World (compiled by Arab professionals living in the West) referred to the low status of Arab women as being one of the major reasons why Arab countries are lagging behind the rest of the world. They wrote: “no society can achieve the desired state of well being and human development, or compete in a globalizing world, if half its people remain marginalized and disempowered”. This observation is a universal truth relevant for the entire world.

There have been Marxist and Capitalist theories explaining the backwardness of the developing world. Marxists blamed the economic imperialism of global capitalism. Capitalists blamed local corruption, incompetence and utopian social planning. Both theories can mobilize much supporting evidence. But a Feminist theory of development seems to be a more powerful explanation. In 19th century Europe it was said that the quality of a country could be determined by the way it treats its Jews. In the 21st century it will be said that the quality of a country can be predicted by the way it treats its women.