A curious thing happened through the course of the 20th century: companies shifted their focus from making things to making money. This shift is important and still misunderstood.
In 1900, American homes did not have running water, electricity, a car, a radio, telephone, TV, computer, store-bought clothes, frozen food, takeout, aspirin, a refrigerator, microwave oven, canned goods, sneakers, safety razors, shampoo, or credit cards.
Fortunes were made by the various companies able to produce those goods at affordable prices. And people were largely focused on buying those things.
And then our curious thing happened: given these companies had gone public, they rather inadvertently created a new product. They created wealth. If you owned shares of a company that became successful, you could have one of the more curious products of all: financial independence.
On 23 October 2001, you could have been the first on your block to buy an iPod for $399. Call it $420 with tax. Apple was selling a product that made it easy to enjoy all your favorite songs on one slick device. (And of course, you’d have to pay another $1.29 for each song, so the $400 was just the admission price.)
On 23 October, 2001, for that same $420 you could have picked up 1,500 shares of AAPL – Apple’s stock. As I write this in early April of 2021, those 1,500 shares would be worth $194,325.
Apple was selling products that let you have private concerts at a whim. If you’re not amazed and delighted by that, you probably aren’t that impressed by music. The iPod was a fabulous product. But it likely pales in comparison to the other product for which Apple was becoming famous: its stock.
The person who spent $420 on Apple’s stock instead of Apple’s iPod back in 2001 has wealth to use for any of millions of products and services. The person who bought the iPod probably doesn’t know where it is now. Apple has made a lot of very impressive products. Perhaps none are as impressive as having made people rich.
Between 1900 and 2000, life expectancy rose from 47 to 77. (And no, this was not all due to infant mortality rates dropping. Your odds of dying at any age - from six months to 20 to 50 to 70 - steadily dropped during the 20th century.) People had always gotten old but old age was popularized in the 20th century and retirement was invented.
Pension plans and 401(k) accounts took advantage of decades of compound interest over these newly long lives to create enough wealth to fund retirements. People no longer had to work until they died or rely on the generosity of their children. And in 1900, that is what happened. The bad news is that people worked until they dropped dead. The good news is that they didn’t live that long. (Hmm. Or maybe that’s bad news too.)
At a certain point, more goods have less appeal. Your closet has more clothes than you'll wear, your freezer and pantry have more food than you'll eat, and your garage had more things than you can find. Eventually you realize that it is momentum from previous pursuits of happiness that are driving the purchase of more things. You realize that of all the things that corporations make, you are probably more interested in their ability to make you financially independent than you are whatever goods they’re selling. In fact, with the intense interest in startups, people are increasingly buying the stock in companies before those companies are even selling products. "What are you selling?" "Well, for now it's just stock but we do have a product launch planned."
An amazing, unprecedented economy emerged in the 20th century, providing goods that past generations could not have imagined. Of all the goods it made, though, perhaps the most alluring was its promise of financial independence. Of all the things that companies could make that people were eager to buy, the promise of wealth ranked highest.
It is difficult to properly understand modern companies if you still understand them as institutions focused on making things. That was largely true a century ago. Now, they are largely focused on making people rich. (What does Google "make?" Well, they've made a lot of people rich.)
Henry Ford became famous for making cars affordable for normal people. Previously, they were something only the very few, very wealthy could afford. The challenge of the early part of this century is to do something similar with companies' most interesting product yet: make ownership of wealth more widespread, more common. One of the keys to this will be creating more mechanisms that allow employees to use the company as a vehicle for creating wealth. As with the church and state before it, the corporation is to become a tool for the masses and not just the elites. The popularization of wealth will be a signal that we’ve overcome the limit of entrepreneurship and with it have moved beyond the limit of economics.