Beware the futurist who invokes the 40% rule, the headline-grabbing forecast that comes with a mere 40% probability, enough to grab attention, but wrapped in enough caveats to prevent later embarrassment. (“I only said 40%, not even half!").
To his credit, Wharton Professor Mauren Guillén’s presents his 2030 forecasts, not as probabilities, but rather as certainties. “I’m ready to bet my entire pension fund”, he says admirably, on one of his predictions (that international consumer products will carry regulatory marks for India and China, p. 82).
In fact, despite its futurist-sounding title, the book mostly covers subjects whose trends are so far along as to be “inevitable”, as the title of author Kevin Kelly’s forecast book claims. Population demographics, such as the number of kindergarten kids today, tells with near certainty the number of high school age kids in ten years. Seen that way, Guillén’s target date of 2030 isn’t terribly ambitious. The next decade has already congealed enough to allow some pretty firm ideas of where we’re headed, and this book is a good summary.
His big trends center around demographic changes, like those that will make Africa ascendent and Asia less so, as China’s population begins to quickly age. Businesses will discover that “gray is the new black”; conventional definitions of ‘young’ and ‘old’ will become obsolete as advertisers figure out that the over-60 crowd spends $15 Trillion annually, an opportunity rich with under-served markets, like fitness centers that previously were thought of as “young” products. Another surprise: half of all entrepreneurs may be 55-64 by 2030, up from 24% in 2016 and 15% in 1999.
Internationally, India will replace China as the world’s largest middle class, both becoming the focus for international brands (and the inevitability of those regulatory marks he mentions). In 2017, more people suffered from hunger (821M) than from obesity (650M) but by 2030 the obese population (1.1B) will far exceed the 200M who are hungry.
He spotlights technologies like 3D printing and self-driving cars, warning how the displacement of existing workers is likely to affect many aspects of society, including calls for a universal basic income that can lesson the economic pain for jobs lost to robots or new economic forces like the sharing economy. Each of these trends brings consequences that in retrospect will seem obvious, but Guillén highlights them with lively and entertaining facts that make the book hard to put down. (examples: About a third of the time that people spend driving their cars through the downtown areas of major U.S. cities is dedicated to finding a parking place, Truck drivers constitute the largest occupational group in 29 of the 50 states)
Meanwhile, “beware of aggregate statistics”, he warns repeatedly throughout the book. Millennials, for example, are not a homogenous bloc that can be stereotyped into a single market. But on the other hand, he notes, our constant search for contrasts between old and young, East and West, blinds us to similarities. This refreshingly nuanced view is ripe with business opportunities: for example, products with network effects (e.g. ride-sharing) may offer more not fewer local opportunities to entrepreneurs plugged into the specifics of their own region (Didi or Grab vs. Uber, Local social networks vs. Facebook)
While it is a good survey of fascinating, under-discussed trends, I found it focused too much on forces that can be measured: the quantifiable consequences of shifting populations, such as continued urbanization, increased women in the paid labor force, or lower poverty rates and its consequences worldwide. Although he discusses other major shifts, like global warming and technological trends like the sharing economy, he can’t resist bringing them back to the demographic consequences, to poverty, obesity rates, or mass transit utilization.
But past experience shows that the world of the future — even in a short span like ten years — will be more greatly influenced by not-so-easy-to-measure factors like violent conflict, political revolutions, or natural disasters. Chinese assertiveness at the Indian border, the South China Sea or Hong Kong is certain to have consequences as great or greater than its rising economic clout. Can you use the subtitle “today’s biggest trends” if you don’t mention Brexit or the election of Donald Trump, not to mention the COVID pandemic?
It wasn’t obvious in 2010, for example, that now-ubiquitous technologies like the iPhone or Twitter would gain the foothold they have today. Uber and idea of a sharing economy it spawned wasn’t on anybody’s list of trends back then — the company had barely been formed. Worse, a prognosticator from 2010, with Beijing Olympics and the Great Recession fresh in memory might have been overly optimistic about China’s liberalization or the Arab Spring, but too pessimistic about the upcoming long bull market.
Guillén is far too optimistic about blockchain, whose popularity has already begun to fade, and — in his biggest oversight — doesn’t mention biology at all. Breakthroughs like CRISPR, low-cost gene sequencing, microbiome-driven agriculture, and many others will only be accelerated by the world’s aging populations, not to mention the sharpened sensitivity to the importance of viruses.
But the future is, above all, uncertain. As a well-written summary of facts and trends that are already true, this book is an excellent foundation for businesspeople and others who want a peek at the next decade without the 40% rule.