That small business will dominate the future seems a fairly firm prediction, but envisioning the environment in which they will reign is a little more complex. Major issues include the maturing of the global market, the shrinking pool of qualified workers, even the lengthening of life itself--significant considerations for entrepreneurs, who are notorious for their shortsightedness.
"I think most futurists would agree businesses [typically] concern themselves with a future that's too short-term," says Bell. "They don't take into account the long-term consequences."
To help you start preparing for the long term, here are some top futurists' predictions for the year 2017:
*Longer life spans. Somewhere around 2020, Americans over the age of 65 will outnumber those under the age of 13. By the year 2030, Americans over 65 will total 69 million--almost double the number today. And, though by the year 2005 the number of Americans aged 100 years or older will be only slightly more than 100,000, futurists believe we'll soon live to be 150. "These will not be years of infirmity," says Bell, "but of vigorous, active middle age."
This dramatic change will affect the market, the labor force and businesses themselves. "There will be all kinds of opportunities, including the provision of new products and services, especially those having to do with lifetime education, personal satisfaction or self-enrichment," says Bell.
Regarding labor, Bell sees "the length of human life as a tremendous opportunity. Older workers tend to be more dependable and reliable than younger workers, more likely to show up for work every day, on time, and stay all day."
Even the face of businesses should mature, as business owners reap the benefits of more productive years and alter their companies' structures accordingly. "I see an increase in wisdom in the world because as people get older, their priorities change and their understanding of the world changes," says Bell. "Status and upward mobility matter less, and being a decent person matters more."
*The next generation of entrepreneurs. Today's youth have a few strikes against them--one of which, Birch contends, is the educational system. "It's the most backward part of American society today," he says, citing the slowness with which change in the system occurs.
But despite this flaw, Birch doesn't believe the trend toward entrepreneurship will wane in the future. "While I'm pessimistic about our education system, I'm enormously optimistic about entrepreneurs' ability to overcome [its flaws]," says Birch. "We're just blessed with a natural pool of entrepreneurs."
Gerald Celente, founder of The Trends Research Institute and author of Trends 2000 (Warner), has dubbed the younger siblings of Generation Xers "hippies 2000" and is optimistic that they'll overcome more than the educational system. "They will be the new revolutionaries," Celente contends. "Instead of boomers, who protested against Washington and the Pentagon, these children are going to protest against corporations, greed and materialism."
Young entrepreneurs will be "developing products and services with compassionate capitalism," says Celente, "which means they'll promote social responsibility and produce genuine quality-of-life items without plundering the earth."
This generation will "bring us away from the
one-dimensional philosophy of the industrial age, which relates to
finance," Celente adds. "People are going to realize they
have a greater purpose in life than
just economic gain. They'll be not just taking, but giving."
*Labor force. "The number-one problem facing small businesses today is the lack of a skilled work force," says Birch. By most entrepreneurs' standards, finding qualified workers is already a problem; by 2017, the labor shortage may be even more extreme. "Any time I run an ad [for a job opening] on the Internet, a quarter of the people who respond are from China," says Birch. "We have a global labor force now, and they're very talented, but I can't hire them because of anti-immigration legislation."
If the government maintains its regulations against immigrants, Birch expects a drastic change: More U.S. businesses will consider picking up and moving overseas. "The big difference between now and 20 years ago is that businesses can do that more easily," says Birch.
*International relations. The need to hire from an international talent pool won't be the only change spurring entrepreneurs to go global. "Twenty years from now, there will be a global middle class of such enormous size that we can't even imagine what it's going to mean," says Wacker, who estimates this market will reach 3 billion by 2017.
Besides the growing middle class, the hot market overseas will be women. In fact, Bell considers the worldwide liberation of women one of the most significant events of the next 20 years. "In most of the world today, women are not liberated; they are not living lives of their own choice," he says. "When they do, there are going to be tremendous opportunities to provide products and services for their needs, wants and hopes."
No matter how you slice the global market, you come up fruitful. "Today, a small business can do a deal with China and be off and running, and dominate the Asian market in that product or service. You couldn't do that 20 years ago," says Birch. "It used to be only the top 200 firms exported. Now 96 percent of all exporters are considered small businesses. And their share of dollar value is going up quickly. The trend of a tiny company becoming a global player has really only just begun."
In fact, by all accounts, the global market is where the serious players will be. "We're only 5 percent of the world's population, for heaven's sake," says Birch. "China's growing 9, 10 percent a year. If we can get out from this wall we live behind and get out there, this trend represents enormous opportunity."
*World peace. Yes, even world peace is on the agenda for entrepreneurs in 2017. "There is a move toward a global ethic, the spread of concern for human beings everywhere on the earth," says Bell. "The business world is central [to this movement] in many ways. Transnational corporations are responding to opportunities all over the world. All businesses have a stake in creating sustainable development, a world in which everyone is included."
With small businesses picking their employees, their customers and their business partners from overseas, global cooperation may be within reach. "The good news is that it's probably the best form of world peace known to man," says Birch. "If we're all investing in and trading with each other, we're certainly not going to shoot each other."