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Toward the Post Industrial Society:



Kirt Sechooler Dec, 1995

News Item: Nov. 1, 1995, U.S. Dept of Labor reports that American workers' earnings "rose by 2.7% in the last 12 months, the smallest amount on record." But, after adjusting for inflation, real wages actually "fell 2.3% in the 12 month period." (NYT)

We are on the threshold of a new historical epoch - the Post Industrial Age. Yet this development while representing one of the most heralded events to ever take place remains almost totally misunderstood. The reason for this lack of insight is comparatively simple - since almost no one really understands the nature of the Industrial Age, it is difficult if not impossible for people to contemplate the coming Post Industrial Age. Because of this, Americans now find themselves struggling to enter the Post Industrial period, an age that offers a golden promise for this country and its peoples.

It is absolutely essential for younger Americans to realize that understanding the Industrial Age (1) will make it possible to successfully enter the Post Industrial Age and (2) that they will live out their lives in this new age in any case. Thus it is more than worth while to examine the exact nature of the great age that is now ending.

The Four Cycles of Technology
The Industrial Age in America began in 1790, because of the actions in that year of a recently emigrated young Englishman named Samuel Slater. What made Slater so important was that before he had left England, he committed to memory the secrets of British textile machinery. Upon arriving in New England, Slater promptly put his knowledge to use. Then, capitalizing on Slater's knowledge and actions, the Lowells and the Lawrences on New England pioneered the Textile/Cotton Cycle, the first of the four cycles that taken together have comprised the Industrial Age in America.

1st & 2nd: Textiles and Railroads
The Textile Cycle, as all the cycles in the Industrial Period, had a life cycle lasting over the course of decades. The cycle in question began in 1790 and ended in the 1840s. Midway through the 1840s, a new industrial cycle started - the Railroad/ Western Expansion Cycle. This second of the four great industrial cycles in this country's history peaked in 1869, shortly after the Civil War, when the first transcontinental railway was completed. The Railroad Cycle lasted another two and half decades until it ended in the 1890s when in the aftermath of the Depression of 1893 all of the nation's major railroads went bankrupt.

3rd & 4th: Cities and Suburbs
With the end of the Cycle of the Railroads in 1893, the stage was set for the third greatindustrial cycle in American history. This was the Cycle of Mass Production/ Mass Urbanization, the period in which our modern cities were built. This cycle lasted from the 1890s until shortly before World War Two, when it ended in the 1930s. The fourth and final period of the Industrial Age has been the Automotive-Petroleum/ Suburbanization Cycle. Begun in the 1940s, this last cycle of the Industrial Age is now ending, even as we struggle to come to terms with that fact.

The Industrial Age
One of the most critical points to understand in regard to these four periods is that they represent more than just a series of random economic cycles. Taken together, these four periods compromise a systematic mechanism of economic development - the mechanism that this country employed to transform itself from a small rural nation into the world's greatest economic power.

In the first stage of that industrial development, the Textile Cycle, the United States entered the Industrial Age by mastering the mechanical skills required to construct and operate factories. In the second stage, the Cycle of the Railroads, America further applied those skills and created a massive transportation infrastructure. This transportation infrastructure physically united the country and made America's great reserves of natural resources available to the entire nation.

In the third great technological period in its history, and drawing upon the vast resources the Cycle of the Railroads had unlocked, the United States embarked upon an era of unprecedented urban expansion and development, becoming in the process the greatest producer of industrial products in the world. Then in the fourth cycle of the Industrial Age, the United States constructed a second great national transportation infrastructure, this time not with steel rails, but with concrete.

The national highway system, started in the Great Depression of the 1930s and expanded greatly after the Second World War ended, created the basis for a new economic cycle, one drawing upon the twin technologies of the automotive and petroleum industries. In this fourth cycle, the United States built vast tracts of suburban housing and created a system of mass distribution that brought unprecedented material wealth for the majority of its citizens.

The Generations
The four great cycles, or Cycles of Technology, just described constitute the Industrial Age in America. The Post Industrial Age is what comes next now that the process represented by these cycles of development is ending.

In this context, it is extremely important to understand that every one of the cycles described above represented a period of time in which a generation of Americans lived out their lives. For example, the G.I. and Silent Generations' lives were defined by the Automotive-Petroleum/Suburbanization Cycle. The parents of these two generations and the grandparents of the Boomer Generation, the Lost Generation of Truman and Eisenhower had lived out their lives against the backdrop of the cycle of Mass Production/Urbanization, and other still older generations had their lives structured by the Textile Cycle, or the Cycle of the Railroads.

Today and Tomorrow
In just such a manner the lives of today's younger Americans will be determined by how successful the nation is in making the great transition, from the Industrial to the Post Industrial Age, that history has now placed before us. For the Boomer Generation and the members of Generation X, the transition from the Industrial to the post Industrial Age is not something of interest merely to social historians, this transition will be the central event of their lives.

The exact nature of this transformation needs to be the subject of intense study and discussion. The best place to start is to imitate Samuel Slater and to commit to memory the historical structure of the Industrial Age. Once that is done, the nature of the Post Industrial Age can easily be discerned, and America can begin to successfully confront the greatest challenge in its history. mmm

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