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A TCI Book Review

Shakedown - How the New Economy is Changing Our Lives

Angus Reid
Doubleday Canada Limited, Toronto, 1996

"The 1990s have witnessed a great stirring of the Canadian soul. Issues of national unity, anxiety over jobs, the emerging of the global economy, new technologies and fundamentally different demographic forces are rapidly changing our social space. Many Canadians feel marooned on what seems an alien landscape, confronted by seemingly contradictory paths to the future. I wrote this book because I'm convinced that the concerns and anxieties about the future expressed in recent polls need to be addressed. Canadians sense that something is happening - that powerful changes are coursing through their lives. And they're right." (p. xii)

The word that Reid uses to describe the collective effect of these forces is 'shakedown'. As the term implies, this is a period of major restructuring of the economy and of society overall. (The new (1996) ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary defines 'shakedown' as "..a period of appraisal followed by adjustments to improve efficiency or functioning".) Reid is singularly qualified to chart these trends: as President of the Angus Reid Group, he has been polling Canadians on various matters of economic, social and political interest for nearly 20 years.

His vision of the future is a very bleak one. He characterizes the change that we are living through now as having gone from a 'spend and share' era, which lasted 25 years from 1965 to 1990, to a 'sink or swim' era, which started in 1991. In the 'spend and share' era there was a general air of optimism: women were working, the economy was strong, jobs were plentiful, and there was confidence in the role of government as a generator of economic benefits. The labour force, government and the services sector were all growing and Canadians were benefiting from the 'trickle down' of household, corporate and government spending. In those times of growth, Canadians didn't mind so much sharing part of their wealth with others less fortunate - hence the development of our much-vaunted 'safely net'. The prevailing philosophy during the 'spend and share' era was, according to Reid, that Canadians had "...found a formula for what had never existed before: a society that allowed its citizens to be both selfish and generous at the same time." (p.66)

Now, however, we have entered a harsher time when our economic destiny is less secure than it seemed during the halcyon days of 'spend and share'. Reid maintains that this has shattered ten myths that Canadians fondly held during the 'good times':

Myth #1: Big is safe - This is patently no longer true when one looks at the downsizing that has occurred at large entities such as Ontario Hydro, the banks, the CBC, etc. etc.

Myth #2: Growth is good for everyone - In these times of record corporate profits (the banks, for example) yet very high unemployment rates and unprecedented need for food banks, the old idea that economic growth was good for all has little credence.

Myth #3: Science and technology will save us - Reid maintains that we are increasingly questioning the ability of science and technology to provide the answers that we will need in future, and points to the flurry of questions raised about the human genome project and the inability of science to develop a cure for aids as examples.

Myth #4: A good education means a good job - "There is no longer any surefire formula for translating education and training into the kinds of rewarding jobs baby boomers once had for the asking." (p.26)

Myth #5: Loyalty is all - see Myth no. 1

Myth #6: Location, location, location - Telecommunications technology has largely broken the barriers of location, and made possible new methods of doing business such as telecommuting. (Just how Reid sees this factor as creating a more challenging and difficult time for Canadians in the future is not clear.)

Myth #7: Time is linear - One result of the globalization of business is that there is no longer a linear flow of 'work time' (i.e. day) and 'non-work time' (i.e. night). Now we are on call 24 hours a day, if we want to keep up with the world.

Myth #8: What you see is what you get - With digital technologies that are able to alter any photograph or image to make it look real, we increasingly learn to distrust our senses, and question everything we see.

Myth #9: Canadian culture is a sacred trust - It is obvious when drastic cuts are made to the budgets of the CBC and other Canadian institutions, and when the Mountie image can be sold to the Disney Corporation, that Canadian culture is no longer seen to be worthy of protection and development.

Myth #10: The public interest still counts - The political mania towards increasing privatization of things once held to be the responsibility of government because they were in the public interest, such as hospitals, utilities, transportation, etc., shows that the public interest is clearly secondary to financial considerations.

In the 'sink or swim' era, Reid contends, two major forces impact on the workforce in Canada. One of these is technology - jobs will be replaced by microchips. The other is globalization, as companies outsource production to a much cheaper labour force in the third world (and decisions that impact on the future of companies operating in Canada are increasingly made in Washington and elsewhere). This shakedown in the jobs market will have ripple effects - less consumer spending, lower demand for services, fewer job opportunities for young people, and a general malaise regarding the prospects for the future.

Fundamentally this situation is confusing to Canadians because many sectors of the economy are growing at the same time as they are cutting back on their workforces. In addition to reduced labour costs through downsizing, this is a result of productivity gains through technology, and the pursuit of global markets. The resulting paradox of strong economic growth (read profits) in some industries without a commensurate increase in the number of jobs available in those same industries has frustrated and maddened Canadians. Growth in the economy used to mean growth in jobs, but now the era of the 'jobless recovery' is upon us. Thus we read of record-high bank profits and stratospheric salaries paid to CEOs, while the ranks of the unemployed and homeless swell and the lineups at the food banks get longer. Reid hints darkly that these may, finally, be Marx's 'internal contradictions of capitalism' coming to light.

The result of all this for Canadian households is that, not surprisingly, they are cutting back on spending, and becoming increasingly value-conscious in their purchases. However, Reid also sees a positive side to this in terms of a return to more spiritual and community-oriented values, as Canadians realize that they simply cannot be as materialistic as they had been in the past.

Turning toward public institutions, though, Reid does not see this greater sense of community displayed. Instead he notes the swing to the right in many recently-elected provincial governments, and the emphasis on downsizing, privatization, decentralization and deregulation that has accompanied them into power. In many respects, he notes, governments have abandoned their traditional roles of protecting and supporting sectors of society and the economy, and points to welfare cutbacks, health care reforms, and the withdrawal of support for Canadian culture as examples. These trends threaten the very essence of Canada's uniqueness: "I therefore think that the greatest risk inherent in the sink or swim era is that its central proposition - unrestrained self-interest - will drown some of the most important attributes of Canadian society." (p. 277)

This situation bodes particularly badly for the prospect of Quebec remaining in Canada. A Canada that is no different from the U.S., Reid holds, is meaningless to Quebec, and there will be no compelling reason for Quebeckers to remain part of it. He sees a very real danger of Quebec leaving the Canadian fold.

Is there any hope? While he may have diagnosed the problem well, Reid doesn't offer much by way of solutions. He envisages an emphasis on entrepreneurship and small home-based businesses that will create some jobs that may offset to a small extent the job losses that we have suffered. He talks about the building of a society founded on trust, civility and fairness. He says we must recognize the legitimate role of governments in creating benefits for us all, and allow and enable them to do that. But he offers no specific program or action plan to achieve this.

"I began this book by stating the obvious: there are powerful forces arrayed against us. Let me conclude by observing that we can swim against them if we see the opportunity, but as so often when facing powerful forces, opportunities for true confrontation will be scarce. In most case, we are likely to have more luck if we can ride those current forces the way a canoeist navigates a stream, accepting the inevitability of their strength without letting them gain complete ascendancy. And whatever we do, we must do everything in our power to resist becoming victims.

To achieve this, Canadians are going to have to look inside themselves for entrepreneurial spirit, and outside themselves for the communal spirit that has sustained this country through its most difficult times. We can get through this if we are determined to grow, rather than shrink, as a people. We must change. But, no matter how dark the clouds, we cannot abandon who we are." (p. 312)

Such platitudes and home-spun advice, though do not a program for action make. Reid's dark vision of the future cannot help but leave one with a sense that not much can be done when we're up against the monstrous and overwhelming forces of technological change and globalization. It is a very bleak and depressing vision, and unfortunately, it may well be right.




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