Build or burn?

50 years from now

It can take a while for revolutionary changes in society to get noticed by the general public and just as long afterwards before the full impact is felt in terms of changed behaviour; 50 years, by my reckoning.

Look at the USA.  Its economy overtook Britain’s some time around 1900, but it wasn’t until World War II that the full impact became apparent.  Even then many people refused to accept the new reality, and it took the Suez crisis of 1956 to hammer the message home.

Similarly, the contraceptive pill.  Invented in 1952, the unprecedented control over fertility eventually led to greater female participation in the workplace and, some time soon I expect, full equality in the workplace. This has not yet translated into female versions of Jack Welsh, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs but when that does eventually happen regularly, the full impact will be realised.

Computers is another example.  The early prototypes were developed in Bletchley Park to decode Nazi communications during the war.  The Apple Mac was launched in 1984 and the world wide web in 1989.

The Internet has rather given the impression that technological innovation is rapid, but look more closely.  I first used the World Wide Web in March 1996 and was amazed, and so taken with it I organised a web building course for every member of my finance department.  Today that sounds like being so taken with driving a car that I sent my department on a car mechanics course, but at the time I wanted the web demystified so it could be rapidly adopted.  The infrastructure behind the web had – little did I know – been around since the seventies and e-mail had been easy to use since the nineties.   But it was only until broadband technologies became more readily available after 2001 that using the Internet at home became anything other than pain and suffering.  After that things started changing but even then, firing up a windows computer took so long that it wasn’t until I bought an iPad in 2010 that using the internet became quick and easy.  The change in my behaviour only became complete when in 2012 I bought a 3G enabled, high-res screen iPad.  I stopped buying printed newspapers and download them instead.  But I still read the newspapers every day in precisely the same way, so my behaviour hasn’t changed all that much.

Where did we get the idea that we live in times of accelerating change?  Things are constantly changing, yes, but the way we live changes quite slowly.

Unilever, the consumer giant, once gathered together 40 of its best and brightest managers from around the world, split the group in two, and sent each group off on the same three month mission: to look into the future and predict key trends that should inform its business strategy.  Quite a hoo-ha was made about the coming insights that would shape the future direction of the business.  Both teams had great fun but when the results of their deliberations were shared within the company, the six key trends they emerged with were not a big surprise.  Any moderately well informed person could have come with the same list in an afternoon.  The company learned nothing new, except perhaps that predicting the future is best done by mavericks acting alone instead of sensible people in a committee.  The problem is that no one listens to the predictions of mavericks.

Here then, are some obvious predictions of big changes that will occur in the coming century but, based on my ‘50 Year Rule’, their less obvious impact on the booms and busts of the stock market.  My maverick prediction?  Buy in 2020, sell in 2028.


‘Environment’ is the dog that might not bark.  That the earth has been warmed by mankind seems beyond scientific doubt, but there’s been a pause in the last 15 years.  Most scientists believe it will get going again and I’ve been around scientists so long I’m inclined to believe them.  If it does, we’re in trouble.  If it doesn’t, it makes sense to hesitate before pressing the panic button.  Hence the weasily dotted line.

China’s economy will overtake the US in the coming decades.  There’s no reason why this should not be a benign development if it wasn’t for the fact that China seems to have a political chip on its shoulder over historic grievances.  I can’t believe it asserting its new power won’t create a nasty tension somewhere down the line.

If the 20th century was marked by population explosion, the 22nd century will be marked by population decline: which will be the full expression of the trends started by the invention of the pill and the improvements in medicine that have happened already and are yet to happen following the unravelling of the human genome in 2000 (the structure of DNA, by the way, was elucidated in 1953.  The impact of a healthy, experienced workforce having been reached its fullest expression in the 2070s, we will then start worrying about a declining workforce in the 2090s.

Eventually of course, all these trends just fade into the normal level of background productivity.  Hopefully in the next 100 years we’ll invent some sort of space technology which will give us the next big wave of innovation to get excited about.

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