For 5000 years, land ownership was the symbol of power and success. If you owned land, you were a landlord and inherited titles such as “baron”, “duke”, or “count”. If born into the right gene pool, you may have even inherited the title of “king” or “queen”. Being the source of all food, and therefore life, land was the most precious asset, and tightly guarded. Much of our legal system today derives from millennia of laws created for families to protect their land.
In the last 500 years, with the industrial revolution, wealth changed from land to industry. Those who controlled the means of production, the industrialists, amassed significant sums of money quickly, and even bought much of the land out from under the kings and queens, diminishing their power. Names like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford became even more powerful and richer than kings and queens.
In the last 50 years, another shift of wealth has been taking place. In the information age, those who control information have been amassing even more wealth than industrialists could ever imagine. They are using that wealth to buy industries out from under the industrialists. Just last week, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com purchased the entire grocery chain of Whole Foods. In addition to Bezos, names such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and the like have built empires on the management of information, and are now using that wealth and power to acquire or reinvent industries, putting the former owners out of business.
5000 years, 500 years, 50 years. Each passing phase sees a greater concentration of wealth to fewer and fewer big winners, and it occurs in a shorter period of time. We are still in the information age, and the winners in business will be those who acquire and manage information the best. Usually, through the use of information technology.
If the pattern holds, 5000–>500–>50, one might expect that in the not too distant future there will be another rapid shift of wealth to yet even fewer people and in a shorter period of time, perhaps 5 years. I cannot say what this period will be called. Will it be the age of intelligence (artificial intelligence)? Will it be an age of light, where we discover an unlimited source of energy through the use of solar energy? The leaders who uncover these world changing technologies will certainly amass incredible wealth, beyond that of those who came before them. If history is a guide, they will purchase the assets of the information age, industrial age, and the land age. The financial, political, and economic changes will be unlike anything we have seen in history.
Perhaps such a shift in wealth is already taking place! In politics, we see upheavals happening around the world. People who were never expected to win elections have indeed won. We see technology stocks rising to unprecedented highs, into what some call “bubble territory”.
Nonetheless, as threatening as these trends can be for those failing to adapt, they can also be opportunity for those who recognize them, and ride and help drive them. Food for thought: What will be the next thing our human race considers and values as wealth?