The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society by Charles Handy

The Second Curve, Charles Handy’s latest book, looks at current trends in capitalism and asks whether it is a sustainable system.

Back in the days when I was a business librarian, 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, Handy is a philosopher, author and management ‘guru’. His views influence 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. Consequently, he 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. The Second Curve — a collection of 16 essays  — aims to trigger conversations. The themes it covers relate to society, the workplace, the market, democracy, capitalism,  and education. In each essay, Handy assesses where we are now and forecasts what the future may hold. He suggests how — individually and collectively — we can 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 prevailing attitudes.

He argues that we need a better measure of economic growth 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, Handy believes, is a simplistic goal. Instead, he argues society should focus on measurements that take flaws into account 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. He makes the case for “a new emphasis in business and government on becoming better without becoming bigger, by working together without controlling.”

Life expectancy

Longer life expectancy means longer working lives and retirements. Instead of a ‘job for life, in future, people will enjoy more than one career. Sometimes illness or redundancy may trigger an 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. These individuals opt to reinvent their careers before it is too late.

Handy sees a bright future for people who carve out new careers in an economy powered by what he terms, “fleadom” or self-employment. Where these small ventures are successful, they then create work for other individuals.

Just as Handy challenges traditional views of the society and the workplace, so he 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”

He argues that the priority given to shareholder value in the 1970s distorted the priorities of managers. It also created a harmful emphasis on the short term.

Capitalism and democracy are uneasy bedfellows, he suggests.

 “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. He suggests we rethink our various roles recognising that to make change happen, the starting point is ourselves.

[Disclosure: Random House UK provided an advance review copy (ARC) of The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society by Charles Handy via Netgalley