Author Darrell West discusses his book about megachange
If you’re wondering why every week seems to bring some new disruption to your world, why once-solid institutions seem shaky, author Darrell West has some explanations. At the heart of them is the idea of megachange – itself rooted mostly in economics. Such periods of rapid disruption are cyclical, argues West, director of governance studies and the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. He explored these ideas in his new book, entitled Megachange: Economic Disruption, Political Upheaval, and Social Strife in the 21st Century. He joined the [email protected] Show on Sirius XM channel 111 to talk about the tectonic shifts society is facing and how we might manage them.
An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
[drizzle][email protected]: Given the current landscape, with all it entails and all the connection ability we have, realistically should we be surprised that we’re talking about a term like megachange?
Darrell West: We shouldn’t be surprised, because there is large-scale change taking place all around us. But it’s something people have not quite gotten used to. During a lot of our history, we existed in periods of small-scale and incremental change, so I argue in the book people need to adjust their expectations, because large-scale change is here and is likely to stay in the near future.
[email protected]: You write that megachange has had a historical line to it — that it varied based on what was going on in a country or in a portion of the world at a particular time.
West: It seems like once every one or two generations, we just have an explosion of large things happening. When you look at American history, in the 1850s and 1860s we were dealing with slavery, had a civil war, and resolved that. Then, as we moved into the 20th century with the transition from an agrarian life to industrialization, there were lots of economics and political consequences of that. Then we had the Great Depression, and then lots of policy changes that took place there. And then the 1960s were a period of great change in terms of culture and lifestyle. So we see that these types of eras happen periodically, and today we’re kind of in the midst of another example of megachange.
[email protected]: Are there any common themes on why these megachanges happen when they do? You’re talking about a variety of different things in the book — war, commerce, invention, terrorism, politics. Is there a common link?
“Large-scale change makes people nervous. If anything, this is an age of anxiety.”
West: The common link in a number of them is really fundamental economic transformation. Early in the 20th century, when we moved from an agrarian to an industrial world, it was just profoundly upsetting. People were moving from the rural areas to the cities, they were getting jobs in these large manufacturing plants, and so it changed the way people earned a living. Then there was a lot of wealth concentration, which had a lot of political consequences as well. Today, we are moving from that industrial era into the world of a digital economy, and we’re seeing a similar type of disruption. Jobs are changing, and people are getting anxious about the future and what life will be like for their children. We’ve seen a lot of that manifest in this presidential race, both in the form of the Trump campaign and the Bernie Sanders campaign — just people being nervous about all of these large-scale economic changes.
[email protected]: I think every year, we have some sort of strife on social issues. And obviously here in the United States, we’re seeing that play out in the intensifying debate about the frictions between the African American community and police forces. This is one of those periods of time that a lot of people are going to remember, and hopefully look back on from the future as a period of change.
West: There are a lot of big social changes taking place. Certainly, all the tension surrounding race — it’s obviously not a new issue in American politics, but sometimes that issue is more quiet, sometimes it’s more turbulent, and now is a turbulent time. But we’re also seeing lifestyle changes — the rise of the marriage equality movement, legalization of marijuana. There are a lot of things going on, and what I argue in the book is that large-scale change makes people nervous. If anything, this is an age of anxiety. People are nervous about the economic situation, the social situation, and then all of that ends up having political consequences.
[email protected]: You write that in situations like this, a particular move is made, but obviously, a countermove has to be made because of that nervousness, and maybe a countermove to the countermove as well.
West: Absolutely. Revolutions rarely are complete. What typically happens is some large-scale change takes place, but then people get upset about that, and there’s kind of a countermovement, a counterrevolution, and then out of that, you can get something completely different.
We saw that in the case of the French Revolution, where there was a revolt against the monarch. They guillotined him, there was a short-term democracy, but then there was a lot of turbulence, chaos, and out of that came Napoleon. So sometimes, large-scale change can end up with very unpredictable ramifications out of this fight of the revolution and the counterrevolution.
“Revolutions rarely are complete. Typically, there’s a countermovement, a counterrevolution.”
[email protected]: Especially in light of what is going on now here in the United States politically, what kind of impact do you think the current rapid changes will have on our country over the next four years?
West: This campaign has clearly produced a lot of anger and anxiety, just resulting from the economic changes, the rise of new digital technologies, the conflict among social groups. Even if Hillary Clinton ends up winning this campaign, Trump will probably get at least 40% of the vote. If you add the Trump voters and the Sanders voters together, they basically constitute a majority of the electorate. So whoever the next president is will have to deal with that. Even though Trump may not win, Trumpism is going to survive, and the anxiety about globalization, trade relations, the economic changes, the loss of manufacturing jobs. The next president is going to have to deal with all of that anxiety.
[email protected]: You talk in the book about how people and organizations really need to think about dealing with all of this megachange. What are some of the ideas that you bring forth?
West: Organizations and businesses have to understand that this is a period of large-scale change and lots of disruption, so people need to adjust their expectations. A lot of our memories are actually pretty short term. People have civic memories of maybe 20 or 25 years, so I argue in the book we need to pay more attention to history — and organizations need to pay more attention to history — because if we’re looking for parallels to understand the current situation, it may not be anything that has happened in the last 25 or