The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society, Charles Handy, Random House Books, £14.99

Charles Handy is 82 and can draw on insights from a long and successful career as a self-styled “social philosopher”. But one of the main themes of his latest book is that what has worked for much of the recent past — in business, in education, in politics and in society in general — will almost certainly not work in an uncertain future.

The Second Curve reads less like the self-indulgent reflections of a comfortably-off octogenarian than the bracing manifesto of a forward-looking radical.

For instance, Handy gently but forcefully airs the following ideas. The “giants of business and finance” should be dismantled into their component parts. Companies should be remade as “citizen organisations”, like universities. Corporate pay should be governed by a set ratio between the highest and lowest paid.

Britain’s adversarial House of Commons — with government and opposition benches facing each other — should be replaced with a horseshoe-shaped chamber.

Handy has long suggested that people should jump to the “second curve” of their careers, however scary the prospect, before the first one turns downward.

He began his own second curve just before his 50th birthday, when he leapt into a role as a freelance management “guru” (a term he claims to dislike even though it adorns his promotional material).

The Second Curve

He has since forecast how business and society will develop, using a series of striking metaphors.

The book, then, is a useful primer of Handy’s ideas for anyone who is unfamiliar with his work. But it is far more than that. Here, Handy extends the second curve idea from individuals to society, capitalism and government, all of which he believes require a rethink before it is too late.

Many of the institutional breakwaters behind which Handy and subsequent generations could shelter — schools and universities, companies, friendships, marriages and pensions — are under threat, he writes. While there will always be organisations of some sort, predicting what they will look like a few years from now is hard. Old authorities have lost their power.

“When there is no one to tell you what to do, the why and how of our lives is more than ever up for grabs,” he writes.

But the book is as much about the opportunities of what Handy calls “the DIY society” as it is about the risks. If people teach themselves the art of “self-responsibility” — how to take care of their own education, health and finances, for instance — they will flourish.

The Second Curve successfully channels the energy and enthusiasm of the younger generation, in whom Handy places great hope. Older readers may react to his ideas in the same way that their ancestors reacted to Victorian mail pioneer Rowland Hill’s proposal for a “penny post”: “The scheme was mocked for its impracticality and Hill for his impertinence for dabbling in matters beyond his concern,” Handy writes.

The difference is that Handy’s prescience over the decades has earned him the right to dabble and, given his record, you would not want to bet against some of his radical ideas coming true.

The writer is the FT’s management editor

Get alerts on Business books when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article