Another year over and a new one just begun. Well, about to begin. What happened? And what does the new year hold?
Grieving for Christmas
I couldn’t write this post until I had finished grieving for Christmas. I know that sounds melodramatic but Christmas is a big thing for me. I haven’t missed a family Christmas in my entire life. Though we’re very close, we don’t actually see each other that much. We live a couple of hours apart. We all have busy lives. But every year without fail, we gather for Christmas. Drink too much bubbly. Eat too much of my aunt’s amazing trifle. Dance around the kitchen to Springsteen. Catch up with the neighbours and extended family. It’s just all the normal Christmas stuff, but it means a huge amount to me.
The thought of missing Christmas has been hurting me for weeks. And my wife. So much so that we put off discussing it over and over again because when we tried, we both just got a bit teary. But eventually, we had to have the conversation. Make the decision. And get over it. In my case, with the aid of half a bottle of red. OK, three quarters.
I know it’s the right decision, logically. One that perhaps should have been enforced, given the way the figures are going. And I recognise how lucky I am for this to be the sort of thing I have to grieve over. Many have faced much worse this year. Nonetheless, it hurt me.
So, now that crappy cap has been sat on the head of what has been – some notable personal high points notwithstanding – a fairly crappy year all round, what can we expect from the year ahead?
2020 was a powerful validation of my theory of change/foresight methodology, Intersections (find it in my book!). This theory says that the starting point for future change can usually be found by uncovering existing pressure points. Dramatic, disruptive change tends to come from the widening of cracks that already exist, rather than completely new fissures in an enterprise, organisation, or culture. Find those cracks and understand the pressures that might widen them, and you can see what’s coming.
And so it was in 2020. Take retail: 47% of retailers were already facing financial difficulties according to the Grimsey review at the start of the year. Trends towards digital goods and ecommerce were already widening that crack. It was no surprise when COVID-19 stuck a crowbar in that crack and cleaved the industry apart.
Or care: we knew our system was creaking. Understaffed. Underfunded. Under pressure from an ageing population. The cracks were there for all to see. They were already widening. COVID-19 just accelerated the process and brought about an early end for many as a result.
The COVID catalyst
This is the catalysing effect that so many experts have talked of this year. It does add a layer of complexity to the Intersections model. As I have written about before, the challenge with futurism is often not seeing what will happen, but when. Accelerants like a global pandemic can bring about years of expected change in a matter of months.
But this is why I preach agility. If you can see what’s coming but not when, your only choice is to be ready to move when it arrives.
Trends and pressures 2021
So what can we expect next year? In many ways, more of the same. We have not yet seen the full effects of the acceleration of trends on pressures in business or society. We’re clearly going into a period of financial turmoil. But what else? These are some of the talking points I’ve been using with clients and for media interviews:
I’ve been talking about extended adolescence for a while now. In the last 20 years, many of the key markers of adulthood have been pushed later and later. We now don’t learn to drive until about 27 on average. We find partners, get married and have kids well into our 30s. Likewise with buying a home. Thanks to COVID-19, in 2021 we’ll likely see all these things pushed back by a year, meaning people start careers later, live at home later, and have an even longer adolescence. This might be visible in the birth rate with maybe 100,000 fewer children born next year (based on some *very* simple maths extrapolating from a US study).
Robots rise (ahead of schedule)
While I’ve long believed that automation presents a material risk to employment across many categories, I’ve also believed its effects would be slower than many feared. But the pandemic has created an increased incentive for robots in a number of contexts. We may see more automation sooner rather than later.
Co-op recently increased its use of delivery drones, adding Northampton to the area covered by the Starship rolling drone. Retailers and logistics firms now have an increased incentive to shift to ‘dark warehouses’, replacing human workers with machines. And in the office, lots of companies are being forced to document and systematise things that used to be invisible when workers were just sat next to each other – a great opportunity to automate a lot of the drudgery of work. Lots of professional services firms (for example) are likely to stick with lower levels of staff as a result.
It doesn’t create a pretty picture for employment overall. But…
A nation of freelancers
In the last recession we saw a 10% jump in the numbers of self-employed. Over the last 20 years there has been a 50% increase in the total numbers of people working for themselves (it’s now around 15%). I think we’re going to see another big spike in 2021. A combination of people seeking work after redundancy, and people using the time they’ve gained from working at home to start up a ‘side hustle’ that goes on to become their career.
Some of these new ventures might be acts of desperation. But I do think there are new markets opening up to be served. Changes to our lifestyles accelerated by the pandemic will shift our needs. Efforts to jumpstart the economy should make both space and capital available. And with so much of our lives spent online, I think there will be a huge market for things that break us out of that digital life and give us a real, physical world experience. Everything from crafts and personalised goods to holidays and adrenalin sports.
Whatever you are doing this Christmas, I do hope you get to have a proper rest. I think we all need some time to reflect and recharge. And prepare ourselves to enter 2021 afresh.
Merry Christmas. And here’s to a happy new year.