A Modest Proposal: All Companies Should Shut Down at Age 18

November 20, 2015, 3:00 PM UTC
Illustration by Guy Shield

This is truly a great time to be in business. Almost 2036! So much has happened in the past 20 or so years. We all have cranial implants that make handheld electronics unnecessary. And none of us knows how to drive, of course. We just sit there in our identical cars and trundle along at 44 miles per hour in complete safety, staying in touch with the hive mind. From San Mateo to Sri Lanka, there’s nothing we don’t share. It’s a terrific feeling. When somebody we don’t know has a baby 10,000 miles away, we all peek at the hologram together. What a cute little sprout! One world, one feed. That’s us.

There are some downsides, though. I went to visit my friend Walter, for instance. He was watching his personal robotic assistant pack up his workstation and feeling very depressed. His corporation had just aged out at 18 years. Didn’t you know? If you don’t, you should. It probably has personal implications for you.

You must’ve heard the story. Sometime back in late 2015, the powerful mogul-types who used to attend nonvirtual conferences and wield their power by propagating the latest shared wisdom came to the realization that the life span of successful corporations was shrinking. The average age of companies on the S&P 500 had fallen from 90 to 61 to 18 years. And surely it would only go lower in the future.

The interesting thing was, they were quite jubilant about it. They viewed it as progress! They all chuckled about how much money could be made from the continual deconstruction of things people had constructed. But why not go a step further, they wondered, and require companies to shut down at age 18? And because they were all immensely influential and mega-rich, they said it—and it was so. Since then, no corporation that wants to preserve its reputation for excellence and innovation can dare to live longer than the mandated 18 years and maintain a decent growth curve on Wall Street. And really, the best companies never make it past 14.

Which brings us to Walter, whose middling firm just hit 18 and now must be disrupted to death. “It doesn’t seem right,” he said, as the robot put his last few personal effects into a cardboard box. He stared across the communal space that had once been shared by hundreds of fellow employees. Off in a corner, a relatively young woman was sitting and staring at a dead workstation, weeping silently.

“That’s Bollinger,” said Walter. “She’s been here since we were a startup. Climbed the ladder to management. Had a whole team. I heard she was on the brink of something.”

“That’s tough,” I said. “But isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Mustn’t we disrupt employees out the door periodically so that companies can remain relevant in this ever-changing, highly competitive marketplace that rewards innovation and creation of wealth?”

“Yes,” said Walter sadly, “there was wealth created. Just not for anybody in this room.” He stared out the window, where a self-flying helicopter was warming up on the roof of an adjacent building. We watched as three relaxed-looking VCs in open-collared shirts climbed in and got comfortable. The chopper lifted off and disappeared into the afternoon sky.

“There they go,” said Walter. “Back to Stanford.”

“Stanford?” I inquired.

“Hosting another virtual conference on the future of disruption,” Walter replied.

The robot handed him his box, and we walked together in silence to the elevator. “I know it’ll be a good thing in the end,” he said philosophically. “I’ll be okay. Eighteen years is a good long run for a corporation. We had our shot.”

The elevator dinged. We got in. Then we went out for a whole bunch of beers. I ended up paying. He tried to pick up the tab, but for some reason his credit card was declined. I guess that had been disrupted too.

Follow Stanley Bing at stanleybing.com and on Twitter at @thebingblog.

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A version of this article appears in the December 1, 2015 issue of Fortune with the headline “Disrupted to Death.”

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