50 Years On: How Business Has Changed

Greek philosopher Heraclitus is quoted as saying “change is the only constant in life” – that certainly applies in business as the last 50 years has seen change on a colossal scale.

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The changes in the way businesses operate, the types of businesses now trading and the way people work and do their jobs has been radical and the march of technology has accelerated change; the Internet – still a relatively young technology – has revolutionized commerce.

Sophisticated facilities, previously the preserve of big businesses, are now in the hands of companies of all sizes. Even a one person enterprise can communicate worldwide and run their own accounts including printing off secure, fraud proof checks.

Growth explosion

From 1954 to 2003 the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the US grew from about $380 billion to nearly $11 trillion. Even allowing for inflation that’s a huge increase, and business historians would say the development of the computer is mainly responsible for this economic growth.

In 1954 computers were huge and very expensive and not many people ever saw one. The development of the microprocessor changed everything and by the 1970s personal computers first appeared and soon after computing power was in the hands of mainstream business.

Globalization

From a position of less than $14 billion in the mid 1950s, American exports grew to nearly $730 billion by 2001. 

This turned the US from pretty much an island economy 50 years ago to a global trading nation and meant businesses were increasingly trading abroad and not just at home.

Communications

It’s easily possible for a one-person business to trade worldwide and communicate cheaply – or even for nothing – with customers virtually anywhere in the world thanks to inexpensive phone calls, FaceTime, Skype and conferencing software.

It’s hard to believe back in the 1950s you’d have to make a reservation to call someone abroad; now it costs less to call someone in London than it did to make a local call 50 years ago.

This has revolutionized business in that contacting customers and working with people such as outsourcers the other side of the world is possible.

The Internet

Along with the ease of communications, the Internet has had a profound effect on business; many business types have come into existence thanks to the Internet, and it means businesses of all types can reach their market anywhere in the world so long as they have a connection.

It’s relatively cheap and easy for virtually anyone to set up an online presence and means companies can grow quickly without necessarily having to spend large sums of money on staff and premises.

The trading landscape for many businesses has changed; the obvious one being retail as online behemoths like Amazon make shopping online easy and quick – often to the detriment of some traditional bricks and mortar businesses.

The Internet has forced certain business types to change their approach; for example, service businesses such as travel and estate agents have, in some cases, added an online element to serve those who prefer the convenience of conducting their research and transactions online.

The US workforce

In the mid 1950s many married American women were stay at home housewives; now some 60 per cent of them are in the work force and some hold top jobs such as being a board member or CEO of a major corporation.

Women’s roles in the workplace have coincided with the change of rigid working hours; while in some industries the working day may be longer, features such as flextime and home working (thanks to advances such as the Internet and communications tech) are becoming more common.

Also, mainly thanks to tech advances, using outsourcers elsewhere in the US or even the other side of the world is more common among businesses. This has helped companies make the most of certain skilled people as and when they’re needed rather than having to ‘take the plunge’ and recruit staff possessing skills not in constant demand.

This helps businesses become more ‘agile’ and be able to compete in different markets and respond to spikes in workloads quickly.

The future

Bearing in mind how far business has changed in the last 50 years, and especially the last couple of decades since the Internet revolution, it will be fascinating to see what happens over the next 50.

Huge tech advances already upon us such as developments in Big Data, AI and connectivity and those predicted to arrive means it will certainly be interesting.