“Bystanders have no history of their own. They are on the stage but are not part of the action. They are not even audience. The fortunes of the play and every actor in it depend on the audience, whereas the reaction of the bystander has no effect except on himself. But standing in the wings — much like the fireman in the theater — the bystander sees things neither actor nor audience notices. Above all, he sees differently from the way actors or audience see. Bystanders reflect, and reflection is a prism rather than a mirror; it refracts.
To watch and think for yourself is highly commendable. But ‘to shock people by shouting strange views from the rooftops is not.’ The admonition is well taken. But I have rarely heeded it.”
–Peter F. Drucker
Peter Drucker’s book Adventures of a Bystander comes as close to an autobiography as anything he wrote. What astonishes me is how many important trends he identified and described in advance of others. He was often ignored and then proven right. When he wrote The Unseen Revolution in 1976 and analyzed the implications of the demographic time bomb, not many people paid attention. As Peter saw it, bystanders are people who see things that others either don’t see or choose to ignore. Policy makers willingly chose not to see this one. The result: Previous generations in the U.S. have robbed future generations—the unseen robbery!
[EXPAND More]Drucker identified the emergence of the knowledge society and discussed it for 50 years, and some now understand it. Citizens of Wisconsin and Ohio are dealing, however contentiously, with the reality that their economies have changed and that competitiveness for individuals, organizations and states will be based on productivity of knowledge going forward. Productivity and salaries are, in time, linked to each other. Unions can block market forces but only for a time and at great damage to the welfare of citizens. Why? States are in competition with each other to attract the most desirable employers.
The growing Hispanic population raises still other issues such as bilingual education, cultural integration, employment and healthcare. This population group has low college-graduation rates and must deal with health issues such as predisposition to diabetes. If we as a society don’t tackle these issues head-on right now, we are going to have a significant number of people who are not suited to participate in the knowledge economy and who are going to be dealing with serious health complications like blindness, heart problems and kidney disease. This will further exacerbate problems in our healthcare system.
I remember as a graduate student at NYU when Drucker wrote about certain market trends in his 1968 book Age of Discontinuity. I did not believe him—that is not what we were being taught in our graduate classes. Years later I saw that every one of his observations materialized. We would have been better off studying that book than some of the others we studied. His advice was not heeded.
Very early on, Peter was observing how all of these things were headed our way. He spent a lot of time working alone, and I think in this passage he is reflecting on the idea of being a loner — an outsider, observing the world outside his window — and becoming frightened by the implications. Peter Drucker was a social prophet, and the advice of prophets is often ignored. We would do well to pay attention to it.