Back in the days when I was a business librarian, Charles Handy’s books on management — Understanding Organisations, Gods of Management, The Future of Work, and The Empty Raincoat to name just a few — were among the most frequently requested titles on the shelves.
Born in Co Kildare, Ireland in 1932, Charles Handy is a philosopher, author and management ‘guru’ whose views have changed the way many people view business and society. He makes no apology for being provocative: “If my suggestions seem outrageous, ill-considered or dangerous then so much the better.”
In his latest book, The Second Curve, Handy sets out his vision of how society, governments, business and economies will change over the next 20 years. He believes that many things that work today will not continue to work into the future and argues that now is the time to embark on a ‘Second Curve’.
“The Western world seems to have gone into retirement mode, settling for a cautious life after the financial scares of the last decade, hoping that the comfortable life we had become used to will soon return if we only keep our nerve. The reality, however, is that we can neither bring back the past nor prolong the present indefinitely. When the world changes around us we have to change as well…”
Change comes about slowly often triggered by conversations. The Second Curve — a collection of 16 essays covering themes related to society, the workplace, the market, democracy, capitalism, the just society and education among others — aims to trigger conversations in its readers. In each essay, Handy assesses where we are now, forecasts what the future may hold and suggests how we — individually and collectively — might set out to map the way forward.
“The Second Curve is our chance to make up for any shortcomings on the first curve, to redeem ourselves and to show that we have learnt …”
Handy challenges many prevailing attitudes. For example, on economic growth he argues that we need a better measure than GDP. He is a fan of the economist Diana Coyle who, in her book GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, suggests that policymakers should adopt a dashboard of measures. Growth, he suggests, is a simplistic goal. Instead, society should focus on measurements that take into account flaws as well as success and encourage the idea of “enough”.
“Better not bigger“, he says. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest dismantling some large organisations into their component parts and makes the case for “a new emphasis in business and government on becoming better without becoming bigger, by working together without controlling.”
Improved life expectancy means working lives — and retirements — are longer than ever. The lucky, Handy himself among them, have the opportunity to enjoy more than one career. Sometimes illness or forced redundancy trigger the individual’s second curve, sometimes individuals themselves look at their future prospects in a particular institution and decide that there is nothing to wait around for, opting instead to reinvent their careers before it is too late. Handy sees a bright future for individuals carving out new careers in an economy powered by what he terms, “fleadom” or self-employment and where the more successful of these small ventures then create work for other individuals.
Just as Handy challenges traditional views of the society and the workplace, so he also challenges the market — “an unquestioning belief in the power of the market to organise our lives is dangerous”. He is no fan of the bonus culture — “To me it seems demeaning to have to be bribed to do your best in your job” — arguing that the priority given to shareholder value in the 1970s distorted the priorities of managers and created a harmful emphasis on the short term.
Capitalism and democracy are uneasy bedfellows, he suggests and “if the former is to survive it must be seen to benefit all not just a favoured few”.
Handy believes that we can do better, individually and collectively if we rethink our various roles — student, parent, worker, voter —recognising that to make change happen, the starting point is ourselves.
[Disclosure: An advance review copy (ARC) of The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society by Charles Handy was made available by the publisher Random House UK/Cornerstone via Netgalley