Things Can Only Get Better was a catchy 1993 song by pop band D:Ream that is famous for two things: being the theme song of the 1997 Labour party election campaign and featuring nuclear physicist and science populariser extraordinaire Brian Cox on keyboards. It’s also got a banging chorus (as we say in the music world) but unfortunately its optimistic message doesn’t seem to have turned out that way for the vast majority of people. In fact, if I were to record my own version now, it would most likely be a doom-laden, discordant ballad called Things Can Only Get Worse.
February’s Showcase, 99%: How We’ve Been Screwed and How Consultants Can Help with author, activist and former consultant Mark E. Thomas took that pessimistic view as its starting point. In an introductory poll question, over 70% of the audience were not confident that today’s younger generations would have the same opportunities they had had. On the other hand, the same number of people also believed that it was possible for the UK to be a society where each generation will have better opportunities than its predecessors.
That not-wholly-pessimistic view set up an interesting exploration of some of the themes developed in Mark’s book 99%: How We’ve Been Screwed and How to Fight Back and how consultants might have a role in the fight against what, in Mark’s opinion , is the unwinding of the post-war social order established in Western societies. The root cause of this is the devotion to what he terms “market fundamentalism”, in other words, the prevailing belief that the market is the best mechanism to ensure the best possible future for societies.
Mark’s analysis was initially prompted by research that he and his team had done for a discussion with defence clients on rising inequality. The disturbing findings led him to continue his research beyond the initial topic and, indeed, beyond his consulting job, which he eventually left to write the 99% book and set up the 99% Organisation.
This was a session grounded in data, and the data was compelling. Mark divides his analysis into two eras: the Golden Age of Capitalism (1945-1980) and the Age of Market Capitalism (1980 to present). Looking at the UK and US, the two most enthusiastic adopters of market capitalism, the only measure that is doing better in the latter era is inflation. However, the share of wealth by the richest 1% has grown during that era and median wage levels - in the UK - have declined and it looks like they will be declining even further.
Mark also shared analysis from the Financial Times that showed the median household disposable income tailing off and likely to be overtaken by Slovenia as well as 99%’s own analysis of measures of GDP, poverty and life expectancy versus the World Happiness Index. These show countries less wedded to market capitalism as outperforming the UK and US.
Like all good consultants, Mark ended with a call to action, urging attendees to apply their skills in two areas to help get the UK back on track: using their individual capabilities in project management, data analysis and other core skills, and also their professional connections to senior executives, media, politicians and so forth.
With a Q&A session that covered inflation (UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s got it wrong – interest rate rises just make things worse for many people), access to the right data and not misinformation (ownership of the mainstream media matters here) and common misconceptions about social media, attendees were, by the end of our discussion, given more than enough to ponder. So much so that we may well need to organise follow-up sessions to explore some of these issues further. Consultants definitely have the skills to help and the ear of influential people, but the key question is whether they will manage to disrupt the current approach to the economy which, according to Mark Thomas, will not take us to a very happy place.