In 1990, the world was, by most measures, a smaller and simpler place. Much of the planet was organized into clear and differentiated political, economic, and geographic areas and the options for a young engineer with an MBA were fairly straightforward and stable.
The global economy revolved around what happened in Europe, North America, and Japan. Beyond this, the area called “The rest of the World” was thought to be of little significance and was even less well understood.
The Soviet Union still dominated Eastern Europe and had client states across the Middle East, Asia and Africa. China was just emerging from its own internal struggles after the death of Chairman Mao and the Union Jack still flew over Hong Kong.
India was burdened with an outdated political and economic system and locked into a geo-political struggle with Pakistan and China while dealing with its own internal security problems and widespread poverty. It had little information systems capabilities.
Latin America was experiencing a profound shift from military to civilian rule in several countries but was still suffering from extreme inequality and sluggish economic growth.
Africa was collectively problematic as a number of different countries were still immersed in post-colonial struggles for power by different groups which were often linked to cold war geo-politics. South Africa alone was fairly prosperous but still committed to the system known as apartheid.
The industrial fabric of the advanced economies had, in hindsight, only begun its digital transformation and Apple had just launched its ground breaking Macintosh personal computer a couple of years before. The internet, such as it was, existed only in the world of scientific research and using email or lotus notes on a regular basis was considered advanced.
The environmental movement had achieved unprecedented protection for air and water quality in the western world but was still considered a relatively technical issue by most business leaders. Beyond the western democracies, many countries still had no environmental laws on the books or if they did, had woefully inadequate or incomplete inspection regimes.
30 years ago it felt like the world was something one could understand and choices could be made with some degree of certainty about what the future was likely to bring.
In hindsight, it is clear today that things were already starting to change although the changes were hard to see. Today, it appears evident that we are at an inflection point in human history. In this context my advice to is think through your own view as to what the future will look like and use that understanding to help in choosing the space, role and place that is right for you.
The good news is that we are living at the most prosperous time in human history from a global perspective. In my lifetime the world population has more than doubled and world GDP has increased about 15 times in terms of constant dollars. In 2018, 650 million people are still considered to be living in poverty but they only represent 8.7% of humanity. As a whole, we are wealthier than ever and live better, longer, and possibly even more meaningful lives.
The rise of global prosperity has, unfortunately, left many people in the industrial economies either where they were or even slightly behind as hundreds of millions of people have moved into the global middle class around the world and the very rich have gotten even richer.
The world also faces enormous challenges as we consolidate these gains and continue to expand in terms of wealth and sheer numbers of people. Issues include air and water pollution as well as the consequences of climate change, fractious politics and geo-political tensions, and a number of other social and economic issues such rising inequality and the rising cost of health care.
At the same time, potentially transformative digital technologies offer promise and hope for many of the problems facing the world but can also cause disruption to industries, companies and individuals as they affect the industrial and social fabric of society.
Given the unknown nature of the future some people might either despair or simply ignore the trends around them and hope things will somehow work out. In my view it is better to look at the trends think about how they may impact you and your friends and family.
While there are a number of issues facing the world, the three trends that I believe will have the most significant impact on our future are changing geo-politics, digitalization and automation and the largely negative evolution of the natural environment.
The one thing we can be sure of is that the future will be different than today. In many aspects of our personal and professional life, things are changing faster and faster. In this context, the choice of not even thinking about the future is, in my view, irresponsible especially if you have significant family responsibilities. The question is really how can you develop a view as to what the future will look like which is sufficiently solid to make real plans with respect to your professional life.
Peace is an essential pre-condition for human development and there may be serious problems in different parts of the world over the next five to 50 years.
Digitalization, automation and the massive introduction of artificial intelligence will have an enormous impact on the nature of work and the your professional choices.
Air and water pollution, resource scarcity, and climate change will impact the industrial fabric of the world as well as the quality of life in many places.