Recently, I wrote a tribute to the late Futurist Alvin Toffler, who passed away last week at age 87. In many respects, he is considered the father of business futurism, and his notions (along with others such Michael Naisbitt and Faith Popcorn) helped to lay out the big trends that tend to influence events over decades.
In the comments section there, the question came up about what were the current active megatrends. This seemed like a good opportunity to try to figure those out, as well as to get feedback from my readers about what they feel are the dominant trends that will play out through the rest of the twenty first century. So, without further ado, my own list of trends that I’m watching.
1. Climate Change
Our society is becoming more, rather than less, sensitive to climatic change, regardless of whether it is human-influenced or not. This affects trillions of dollars worth of real-estate deals, land management issues, where cities get situated, agriculture practices and more.
The Trump administration has waged a war on Climate Change Science practically from the time Donald Trump came into office. After two years, the US has effectively lost any leadership position or credibility in this space as a consequence of it. May 2018 marked the 400th month (forty four years) that the year over year comparison of average monthly temperatures has increased unbroken and CO2 gas concentration in the atmosphere for the first time exceeeded 400 ppm. Scenarios that were considered unlikely even a decade ago (such as the total melting of Antarctic ice within the next century) are now considered possible.
2. Resource Depletion
In a related vein, the cost of extracting vital resources continues to climb even as the availability of such resources disappear. This affects everything — oil, water, natural gas, arable farmland, rare earths, noble gasses, etc. It pits Blacks — those people who want to use technology to build a technologically advanced and space-faring race — against Greens — those who want to preserve what we have and restore the environments already despoiled. This will, in turn, become yet another axis in the political calculation.
Two years in, the EPA is also under attack, and the Bureau of Land Management has effectively been given carte blanche to sell off US resources at well below market value. A growing trade war with China (and the imposition of tariffs by Trump) will very likely start showing up soon in the skyrocketing costs of rare earths, which directly impacts most electronics.
I see a growing struggle between those who favor the build out of unions vs. the rise of intrinsic tribalism. Brexit was a manifestation of this — while there were a few voters who did not expect it to happen and voted only in protest (guess what, your vote DOES matter!) there were a larger number of voters who felt disenfranchised by globalization, and who saw the primary benefits of such globalization going to a privileged few. I think the globalization trend has largely played out, and deconstruction will become the dominating principle, at least for the next few decades.
This trend has only exacerbated since 2016, though there are signs that it may end earlier than expected as well. The US has definitely taken on a more isolationist stance since the 2016 election, has raised tariffs (not done since the 1930s) and has walked (run) away from both treaties and trade agreements with abandon. At the same time, the promises that those who pushed for deglobalization have made have turned out to be mostly empty — corn and soybean producers are finding there is no longer a market for US agricultural products overseas, and in England, the transition to being out of the European Union has proven to be far more painful and far less beneficial than its proponents originally made out. As the challenge in areas such as manufacturing have been due far more to automation than either regulations or immigration, deglobalization is in effect attempting to solve a very real problem with the absolute worst potential set of tools.
4. The Disappearance of the 9 to 5 Job
This is actually a conflation of several trends that are all merging into a single trend. Automation is making its way into the boardroom, the marketing department, the IT back-end. Outsourcing, itself a form of automation, is increasingly being replaced by low-level AIs and robotics. The number of jobs that human beings can do better (read, less expensively) than automated entities is falling much faster than new jobs are being created. This affects income distribution and inequality, social issues, education, culture, politics, how cities are designed, agriculture, probably very few areas where this doesn’t become a factor.
There are more data points today, but the picture they paint is still the same. More on this in another article.
5. Visualization and Virtualization
This covers a broad area, and again, is focused on the convergence of several related trends. Gaming and entertainment are the most immediate areas, but it also covers telepresence, conferencing, engineering and design, social media, journalism, publishing, fashion, education, medicine. It’s more than 3D glasses, it’s the increasing presence that virtual worlds have within our daily lives. It drives 3D printing.
In the last two years, containers and kubernetes have been quietly rewriting our concept of operating system, even as the growth of cloud APIs (such as the Amazon AWS platform) has shifted how we think about application development.
6. Out of Africa
There are currently seven billion people alive on this planet. By 2050 that number will be closer to ten billion people. Of that three billion, most will come from Africa and the Middle East, with the rest coming primarily from India. The rise of Islam as a geopolitical force is driven in part by both demographic and climate issues — while Africa is large (it is in fact the second largest continent behind Eurasia), it also has an increasingly inhospitable environment through much of the region, which in turn has driven resource wars, famine and mass migration. By 2250, Islam will likely be THE dominant culture and religion throughout Europe. We are, not coincidentally, likely to see the largest percentage of migrating people ever, population-wise, during the 21st century.
The only caveat I would see to this is that the effects of climate change in this region are getting worse faster than people projected. The equatorial regions of Africa may be uninhabitable by the end of the 21st century. This will put pressure on sub-Saharan Africa. Expect that China will continue economic development in this region.
7. The Aging Out of the OECD
Conversely, the populations in most of Europe, Russia, China, Japan and Anglo-North America now have inverted distributions, with far more people in the final quintile of life than in the first. This is the end-game of the first megatrend predictions back in the 1970s. In 2018, half of all Baby Boomers will be retirees. By 2050, all but a small percentage will be dead, even with life-prolonging technologies. This is part of what’s driving up health care costs. Financials are in for a thirty-year drought as investments are replaced with fixed fund outflows, and in general, succeeding generations have far less disposable income for investments, partially because they will be supporting 2–3 times as many people on social security as the Boomers did.
2017 continued a trend where the birth rate has dropped — it is now below 12 births per every 1000 (bkp), down from 16 in 2007 and half of the 24 bpk in 1960. Historically, falling birth rates usually correlate to diminished lifetime earnings for those born during those periods, which suggests that demographics will continue to be a major tailwind through mid-century.
8. The Disintegration of the Corporation
This is a corollary to #4. Corporations won’t go away, but nor will they need vast numbers of people to perform their operational functions. This is actually the continuation of the trend that started in the 1960s, and in many respects the economy that Millennials and Digitals (genZ) inherit already looks like the end-state of this trend — large numbers of small micro-corporations, with even the behemoths looking like smallish mid-sized corporations from fifty years ago. In both real and relative terms, the true economy of the US and most OECD corporations has been shrinking since about 1980.
There have been a few attempts at countering this, most recently with IBM attempting to consolidate its workforce into workcenters, a move that is now seeing a massive outflow from the company as workers are examining cost of living rates and realizing that they will be facing not only disruptions but reduced salaries factoring in moving costs. IT departments are fading away, and corp-to-corp contracts are becoming increasingly the norm. Another subtle equalizer: git, which makes distributed application development (where application moves beyond code to any kind of IP) feasible. It’s also worth tracking commercial vacancy rates, which hit a low in 2015, but has been growing dramatically in the last couple of years.
9. The Materials Revolution
The last fifteen years has seen a breathtaking rise in the material sciences space, from 3D printing to whole new classes of materials based on graphene to revolutionary photovoltaic surfaces using photosynthesis to metallic foams. Most of these are now moving from lab to commercial production, and will most certainly impact areas as diverse as transportation, architecture, manufacturing, supply-chain management, logistics, food preparation, energy production and storage and so forth.
One area specifically to watch in this regard is tissue printing, which has become the runaway tech success story of 2018. Skin, bone,livers, ovaries and even brain tissues are now being grown in the lab, and synthetic kidneys may be on the market by 2020, filling a huge need as diabetes becomes a nationwide epidemic.
10. Autonomous Vehicles and Drones
The first fatality in a mad rush to become the dominant autonomous vehicle company occurred recently, and it remains to be seen whether this will force a damper to this field (my belief is that it won’t — the accident likely would have occurred regardless). Regardless, autonomous vehicles and drones — remotely controlled vehicles with semi-autonomous capabilities — are here for the long haul. This is an extension of the telematics work done (primarily on trucks) during the early 2000s, and will transform the car into another home-space / workspace rather than simply a vehicle. Drones are becoming flying eyes in the sky, delivery platforms (for everything from books to missiles), and sport. That they will also contribute significantly to #4 should not be overlooked, however.
The stage is set for a showdown between the massive transportation logistics companies and their workers and contractors. Management claims that they can’t hire enough workers, and so are going to autonomous trucks. Truckers claim that these companies are refusing to pay reasonable wages, and are using the threat of automation as a bargaining chip to keep wages low (too low to live on, according to those same truckers). I believe that this may be a boiling point in the next three years that could turn into a general workers’ strike.
I do not believe there are only ten such trends, but these are certainly the ones I consider important to track. I welcome other people’s thoughts about this, however — what do you see as the major drivers of events in then next ten, twenty, fifty and even hundred years?
Kurt Cagle is an author and blogger, and writes regularly about past, present and future on Linked In.
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