The first decade of the 21st century is over. Many people find themselves off to a bad start. The new century began with the Y2K scare - the threat of computers shutting down around the world. Then 9/11 came, followed by two long and expensive wars. The Nasdaq bubble and crash were followed by the real estate bubble then subprime crash, which led to the unprecedented printing of trillions of dollars in an attempt to prevent a global depression. The result is a lingering financial crisis that has expanded the gap between the haves and have-nots.
Most decades have their characters. In the 1960s, we had the hippies. By the 1970s the peace movement evolved into John Travolta and disco. In the 1980s, capitalists took center stage. Techies dominated the 1990s and suddenly geeks were cool.
The question is, what character will emerge to represent the first decade of the 21st century? Will it be the religious terrorists flying into tall buildings or the financial terrorists stealing our wealth from inside tall buildings? Will the first decade be known for Ponzi scheme notables such as Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford... or Social Security and mutual funds? Could it be known for odd couples such as Barack and Hillary or John and Sarah? Or will the first decade be known as the era of celebrity philandering with confessions from the likes of Tiger Woods, Elliot Spitzer, and John Edwards? (All three should get together to co-author a book entitled "Family First".)
The Century's Exciting Start
All in all, the first decade was an exciting start to the 21st century. What will the second decade bring? What new character will emerge if hippies, disco-ducks, techies, and philanderers are yesterday's news?
I believe there will be two newsworthy groups to emerge between 2010 and 2020. One big group will be the Dumpies, so named because life leaves them down in the dumps. Many in this group are old hippies who flourished during the '60s and forgot to grow up. Not all Dumpies were hippies. Many Dumpies became Dumpies simply because, like dinosaurs, they failed to notice the weather changing. They simply followed in their parents' footsteps, faithfully believing that all they had to do was go to school, get a job, buy a house, save money, retire on a company pension, collect Social Security, and live happily ever after at the country club. The formula worked for their parents - the WWII generation - so why shouldn't it work for them?
The problem is, the rules of money changed. In 1971 President Nixon took the world off the gold standard and in 1974 the predecessor to the 401(k) plan emerged. Suddenly savers were losers as inflation took off, debtors were winners, and people turned to gambling with real estate and in the stock market as the guarantee of a retirement check for life disappeared.
In the coming decade, I believe we will be hearing more and more stories of Dumpies - well educated, hard-working, successful, prosperous people who will find themselves out of time, out of money, and dependent upon government or family support in their golden years.
The New, the Young, the Prosperous
The second group you will hear more about is the new, young, global mega-rich. They are internationally minded plutocrats who are the beneficiaries of globalization and the technical revolution. They are being pushed along by the fall of communism, the spread of economic globalization, and the impact of the internet as technology makes information and communication free or almost free. Most are 40 or younger today.
This rise of the new global mega-rich is happening as established institutions are falling. The fall runs the gamut from the music business and traditional media to the Detroit automakers who find themselves obsolete, outmaneuvered, and out-priced by entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, Mumbai, Shanghai, and even Siberia.
We live in an era of unprecedented opportunity for the smartest, most persistent, and creative among us. Whole new businesses will emerge around breakthrough products as revolutionary technologies accelerate capitalism's creative destruction of slower industries.
In this second decade, you will see the middle class of the West being hollowed out, creating the Dumpies of the world...modern dinosaurs of the evolutionary process. Both globalization and technology will have a punishing impact on those without intellect, luck, or chutzpah to profit from the changes. Machines, technology, and cheap labor in low-wage countries have pushed down wages in the West, aggravating the financial crisis for the obsolete and ill-informed.
We live in an age of unprecedented openness. As stated earlier, technology has made information and communication free or almost free. There is more opportunity than ever before...yet that opportunity is largely theoretical: In America social mobility will reverse as many in the middle class become Dumpies.
Between 1997 and 2001 the gap was as follows:
1. The top 1% earned 24% of earnings growth.
2. The top 10% earned 49% of earnings growth.
3. The bottom 50% earned 13% of growth.
Until 2008 none of this seemed to matter. The wonderful inventions, such as iphones, ipods, Twitter, Google, and Facebook kept us entertained like kids at Disneyland.
At the same time, the expanding bubble of debt created a surreal environment of monetary nirvana. You could buy what you wanted, max out your credit cards, and pay off the cards with a home equity loan, as Santa's sleigh ride continued. Who cared if the bottom 50% were being left behind? Who cared if the top 10% earned 49% of earning's growth? Who cared if 10% of the population got richer while 90% were left behind? We had toys, we were hip, we had designer bling from China that made us look rich, and we could buy the house of our dreams for no money down. What could be better?
As this financial crisis lingers on, the gap between the new plutocracy and the new Dumpies is becoming a pressing political issue. During the 1960s, the hippies dropped acid and dropped out. Today, as Dumpies, the largest demographic group (a.k.a. baby boomers, approximately 75 million strong...of which I am one) may wake up and drop back in. If they do, who knows where the political process, driven by their hippie values, will go? This is why the second decade of the 21st century will be more important than the first.
Financial education is an important objective for this next decade. We cannot allow the gap to grow bigger. We must have financial education in our schools. Money will not close the gap - only financial education will. If we do nothing, who knows what creature will emerge as the mascot of the new decade?
To see the future, look to the past. Throughout history, political despots have emerged during times of economic crisis. Some famous characters are Mao, Stalin, Napoleon, and Milosevic.
In 1933, four years after the 1929 crash, two figures arose from the Depression. One was Adolf Hitler. The other was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Many people believe Barack Obama is modeling himself after FDR. Which leads to the question: Who will play Hitler?