Jul 182015
 
THE_BEAD_MAKER_--_Apprentice_Watches_the_Master_--_A_Rosary_Shop_in_Old_Meiji-Era_Japan

As the world worries about whether China is the next Japan, the Japanese themselves are getting on with life in a low growth economy.

One of the latest ideas is to convert disused golf courses into solar energy farms as manufacturing giant Kyocera proposes a solution to deal with the nation’s power shortage after the closure of the Fukushima power plants.

Japan’s golf course boom of the 1980s, which they exported around the world, was a classic case of overinvestment driven by easy money and lax lending standards. Something that China has certainly had in spades.

The aging nation isn’t doing a perfect job however with the Washington Post reporting that the country’s over 65s are convicted of more crimes than juveniles and the sad reason is seniors are shoplifting to survive.

One of the major mistakes made by Japanese governments through the 1990s was to pour money into corrupt civil projects to stimulate the economy. That money was largely wasted on bridges to nowhere and bullet trains to tiny towns which did little to add to the nation’s productivity or build a safety net for the aging population.

Japan may well be leading the way for other aging nations, we need to heed their mistakes before our societies follow them.

Jun 102015
 
now hiring happy workers

Last week in Sydney recruitment company Indeed sponsored a Future of Work summit to tease out some ideas about the what jobs will look like in the future.

While I wasn’t able to attend, being in Melbourne to deliver the Managing the Data Age presentation, I did manage to attend a lunch where Paul D’Arcy, the head of Indeed’s Hiring Lab, spoke about some of the trends we’re seeing in the workplace.

“One of the things we see is the change in the role of work over time,” says D’Arcy. “There was a period before the industrial revolution where work was where natural resources were. With the industrial revolution there was a shift to where the companies were organised.”

The interesting thing with that view is that the companies of the early industrial revolution gathered where the natural resources were easily accessed and finish products could be shipped as we saw when visiting England’s Ironbridge, one of the birthplaces of modern industry.

D’Arcy sees technology changing the idea that work goes to the companies, “where people with highly in demand skills congregate then that’s where jobs are created.”

The employment centres of the future will be the cities that attract those highly skilled workers, D’Arcy believes.

Spreading the developer love

One of the changes Indeed has seen in the workplace is how coding has now become a widespread skill with three quarters of all software developers around the world being employed by software companies. In the US it’s only 7% of coders are working for pure tech organisations.

Marketing is one field that has seen a dramatic shift says D’Arcy, “marketing has seen an enormous shift from what was predominately a creative industry to one driven by data.”

One of the constant questions confounding those of us writing and speaking about the future of business is ‘what will be the jobs of the future?’ While D’Arcy didn’t really have that answer one of the points is clear that programming and coding will be among the skills in demand over the near future.

In the longer term it’s still not clear exactly what jobs will be in demand in twenty or thirty years time, then again twenty years ago who would have guessed many of the technology jobs in demand today would have even existed.

While we’re still struggling with what roles will define the workplace it’s clear the location of the workplace is changing as well. The worker of the future will be a much more mobile creature than today and that has ramifications for the future.

Jun 092015
 
Telstra_consumer_insights_centre_insight_ring

The Twentieth Century was defined by abundant and cheap energy while this century will be shaped by our access to massive amounts of data.

How do managers deal with the information age along with the changes bought about by technologies like the Internet of Things, 3D printing, automation and social media?

Management in the Data Age looks at some of the opportunities and risks that face those running businesses. It was originally prepared for a private corporate briefing in June 2015.

Some further background reading on the topic include the following links.

 

May 172015
 
cheap robots cleaning computers

Once again the question of what happens to the jobs of today in the face of technology is raised in a Quartz story by Zake Kanter looking at how driverless cars will lost the US economy millions of jobs over the next decade.

Zake isn’t alone in this, just one study predicts half the US police workforce could be put out of work as autonomous vehicles take to the road.

Worrying about today’s jobs is understandable as it’s clear the news won’t be good for many occupations. However the discussion should be about what roles are going to be needed in the future.

Looking back

Should we go back a hundred years there were a huge number of people, primarily young boys, employed in cleaning roads of horse dung. The equine industries provided work for tens of thousands of workers ranging from skilled blacksmiths and buggy makers through to those unskilled street sweepers.

Most of those people lost their jobs and their careers became redundant as the age of the motor vehicle took over.

Yet those displaced eventually founds jobs – as mechanics, panel beaters, traffic cops and gas station workers – although for many the dislocation was tough.

Automotive transformation

The motor car also stimulated a transformation in society as it made travel easier and wide scale logistics viable. Those changes allowed supermarkets, drive-in theatres and fast food chains to develop, all of which were unthinkable at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

Industries like fast food and the drive-in theatre were also driven by the demographic and social changes of the mid-Twentieth century as concepts like the teenager and the consumerist society were developed.

Demographics and economy

Those changes to demographics are important as well, the developed economies’ aging populations and shifting income patterns are going to determine the shape of society and the workforce even more so than technology.

For businesses and governments assuming the mid Twentieth Century consumerist economy is the future the next wave of change could be a difficult time. Even more so given that model of growth and employment was allowed to continue far beyond its natural life by the 1980s credit boom.

Credit, and banking, will be one of the challenging fields for the next decade as governments struggle with the consequences of guaranteeing institutions during the Global Financial Crisis along with the disruptions of higher frequency algorithmic trading, Big Data analytics and startups with new payments platforms.

Disruption everywhere

The disruptive effect on the banking industry by new technology will be repeated across sectors with startups and new business models challenging everyone from retailers to window cleaners, it’s not just the automotive industry that’s challenges.

While it’s difficult to predict exactly what the world is going to look like in 2025, it is clear that many industries and occupations will be struggling with a very changed world. The task for managers and business owners is to be aware of unexpected threats and opportunities.

Some of the opportunities are going to lie in studying statistics – essential in a world of big data – and learning the basics of software coding. Design is another area that is going to need many new workers.

For today’s workers, it’s more important than ever to be grabbing the skills required to be employed in the industries of the mid Twenty-First Century.

Apr 252015
 
Courtesy of Wikipedia

can Wellington become a global tech hub? raised an interesting question, how big does a city need to be in order to be successful in the new economy?

Does a compact city with a few hundred thousand people have an advantage over several million inhabitants sprawling across a huge metropolis?

The romantic view is the smaller cities should prevail but history, particularly given the wide sprawl of Silicon Valley, indicates the opposite.

While Silicon Valley, and most of the other Twentieth Century industrial hubs like Detroit, were sprawling conurbations it may be this era’s centres are more compact with towns being walkable.

Certainly this is what we’re seeing with the tech industry’s shift into San Francisco as workers find they’d rather walk or cycle to work than spend hours on freeways each day.

So it may be the newer breed of businesses and industries that don’t need massive infrastructure also don’t need to sprawl.

If that turns out to be true then cities like Wellington could do well.

Apr 142015
 
Skilled workers are essential to building industries

Yesterday this site looked at the shortcomings of the Australian government’s Inter Generational Report and criticised it primarily for its failure to imagine how society and the economy would look by 2050.

While no-one has a crystal ball, making projections on how government spending will look in the future without having some basis for the assumptions on revenues and expenditures renders a document like the IGR somewhat useless.

So what might Australia’s economy in 2050 look like? Here’s a quick list of thoughts.

Rethinking retirement

The obvious is most western societies, including Australia’s, are going to be older. This has a number of consequences, particularly with the retirement age.

In 1909 the old age pension was introduced in Australia with eligibility starting at 65 for men and 60 for women. At the time, life expectancy was 55 years for men and 59 for females.

Today age pension age has barely moved with it becoming 67 for those born after 1952. Life expectancy today 91.5 years for men and 93.6 for women, this expected to increase by 2055 to 95.1 and 96.6 respectively.

More importantly, life expectancy at age 60 will move from 16.9/19.3 years today to 21.3/23.1 in 2055.

Quite clearly the superannuation assumptions of being able to get a tax free pot of gold at 60 are doomed, few people will get enough from their lump sum to see themselves through twenty years retirement.

That throws them back on to the state. Given these numbers it’s clear the eligibility age for the old pension is going to have to be increased.

Coupled with a declining birth and participation rates seeing fewer taxpayers contributing to government coffers, the need to reform the pension age is going to become more pressing.

A healthier population

One of the differences between 1909 and today is that we’re far healthier. A fifty something today is generally in better shape than a thirty year old of their grandparents’ time.

Coupling that with the changing nature of work where most workers of a century ago were employed in exacting physical labour, today’s employees are far more likely to be sitting on a computer. This means the working life can be extended.

While the population is going to be healthier, an older population is going to mean more people with chronic conditions and those with serious issues like dementia are going to be an increasing drain on medical services, not to mention increased incidence of cancers and possibly diseases related to sedentary lifestyles.

This means the nature of medical treatment is going to change, a lot more is going to be spent on early identification and intervention of chronic and debilitating conditions.

Changing the workforce

While the workforce is going to get older, it’s also going to become more precarious. This is already clear in the long term trends since the 1980s and with the rise of ‘collaborative economy’ businesses like O-Desk, Mechanical Turk and Airtasker we can see jobs becoming more casualised.

Today’s children will not have a steady career path and governments have to plan for extended periods of unemployment. This too affects the participation rate and the levels of household spending.

A precarious income also means workers are less likely to take on large debt commitments. This trend is already apparent and is the main reason why companies with a 1960s consumer spending model are struggling in the economy of 2015.

Property stagnation

The Australian middle class model that depends upons highly indebted householders paying down mortgages is likely to be unpopular by the middle of the century as people will be reluctant to take out a huge loan to buy a property when their medium term job prospects are uncertain.

This one aspect is where the Australia government projections go badly awry. It’s understandable not to consider this given the political poison of telling the population their assumed property gains aren’t going to happen but it damns the IGR to failure.

A society with lower levels of property ownership means a dramatic shift in the tax mix and government expenditures. Assuming that today’s normal will also be tomorrow’s is very risky.

Changing technologies

The technologies themselves are changing the revenue and expenditure streams for government, just rolling out diverless vehicles might eliminate the need for half the US’s police force while reduced registration fees, taxes and fines will hit state and local government budgets.

Similarly the global nature of digital businesses is going to challenge governments as the locations of where work is done, goods are delivered and profits made becomes less certain. Right now tax officials are struggling with the revenues of multinationals but increasingly smaller companies will present the same problems.

The other changing nature of work is going to be its composition, just as a hundred years ago nearly half the workers in western countries were in agriculture, a number that’s below one in twenty today, we can expect changes in employment sectors as robots and algorithms take over many of today’s jobs.

All of this means a very different society and workforce to today’s. While it’s difficult to envision what it looks like from here, just as the current economy was almost unimaginable in 1975, it’s necessary to give some thoughts on the shifts to make informed policy choices rather than the opportunistic populism displayed by most of today’s political leaders.

So how do you see the economy of 2015 looking? And where are governments going to raise their money from? I’d be interested to hear what you see in the crystal ball.

Apr 132015
 
Does the digital divide really exist

“If you don’t know where you are now, you don’t know where you’re heading” says science presenter Karl Kruszelnicki – aka Dr Karl – in the publicity for the Australian government’s latest Inter-Generational Report.

Doctor Karl is part of a glossy campaign based around the report with the grand title of The Challenge of Change. The problem with the report is that it barely identifies any of the changes, let alone the effects, that might affect the economy over the next forty years.

The aim of the IGR is to identify the long term trends in the Australian economy and provide a basis for policy development. The first was delivered in 2001 and one has been produced roughly every five years since, making this the fourth.

An aging population

Much of the 2015 IGR hangs on the observation that Australia’s population is aging; stating the bleeding obvious that became apparent when the nation’s post World War II baby boom came to an end in 1965.

While the fact Australia’s population is aging despite massive immigration in recent years is undeniable, most of the report is a mish mash of motherhood statements that expose the key contradictions – dare one call it schizophrenia – lying at the heart of Australian politics and society.

The motherhood statements are all quite valid; the nation needs to develop better infrastructure, build a more skilled workforce and develop new industries as the mining boom sputters to a messy end.

Cutting education

Sadly the actions of Australian governments at both state and Federal level are in direct opposition to these laudable aims. The discussion on training and education illustrates the contradictions;

Under the ‘proposed policy’ scenario, Australian Government spending on education and training is projected to decline to 1.0 per cent of GDP by 2054-55. However, these figures do not take into account the significant increase in lending to students through the higher education and vocational education and training loan schemes.

Despite recognising the importance of training the workforce in order to keep the nation competitive the Federal government is actually forecasting to reduce spending on education and worker training.

Given the typical government education spending among developed nations is around 5% of GDP – in Australia total government spending is 5.1% for 2014 – this indicates a lot more cost to be pushed onto states to make up the shortfalls, if it is being made up at all.

A lack of investment

Particularly notable in the report is the scant talk about what industries are going to develop over the next thirty years or where the money for investing into them is going to come from.

The little discussion there is around private sector investment revolves around the superannuation system – the Australian equivalent of the US 401(k) personal pension accounts where workers are compelled to contribute into private schemes.

Total Australian superannuation assets have increased strongly since compulsory superannuation was introduced in 1992. At the end of 2013-14, total superannuation assets were $1.84 trillion, around 116 per cent of GDP. As the superannuation system matures and wages grow, total Australian superannuation assets are expected to continue to increase and make a growing contribution to national savings.

This statement ignores how the pool of superannuation funds is going to decline as baby boomers and Generation X reaches retirement age and starts to draw down its savings.

An even more important aspect missed by the authors are the risks Australian workers are exposed to as the only thing guaranteed by these funds are the rich fees charged by the managers.

During the global financial crisis of 2008 both the returns and asset bases of superannuation funds were hit hard with some funds suspended from trading and withdrawals restricted. The risk of similar event happening in the next forty years and its impact on household savings and business investment is simply ignored.

Ignoring the elephant

The key to understanding the Australian economic miracle of the last 25 years lies in the property market where housing lending has been boosted at the first sign of economy trouble.

As a consequence Australian households have become amongst the most indebted in the world and the bulk of domestic savings are in housing assets. Housing is the cornerstone of the Australian economy and the source of its middle class wealth.

Remarkably in the entire document the words ‘housing’ and ‘property’ only appear twice and three times respectively.

In ignoring the effects of housing on both state and Federal budgets, the bureaucrats have ignored the single most important factor in Australia’s wealth.

Given even in the most favorable projections, baby boomers and Generation Xers will be selling down their property portfolios to fund their retirements during the IGRs forecast periods, it is nothing short of amazing there is little mention of such a critical factor.

A flat line future

An important feature of the IGR is its focus on government spending with a strong ideological bent supporting the Australian political obsession with privatisation and currying favours from the deeply discredited and corrupt global ratings agencies.

This blinkered view of the world makes it hard for the authors to give a balanced analysis of the risks presented to the Australian economy and this weakness is exacerbated by poor analysis.

Each of the reports has featured ‘flat line’ projections for growth, unemployments and trade. For example here are the terms of trade projections from the current report.

Australian-terms-of-trade-projections

Such analysis is effectively useless and, because of each of the reports features such lazy forecasting, the projections in each time period end up being distorted by the circumstances of the day; forecast economic growth for the 2020s across the four report has varied between 1.6 and 2.8% over the reports.

Indeed the latest report is possibly the most optimistic with a 2.8% forecast growth rate which is at odds with the comparatively pessimistic view of 2.3% in the halcyon days of the 2002 report.

Lazy analysis

The IGR’s forecasters justify the flat line analysis by claiming long term trends will be due to underlying changes in the economy which will smooth out business cycles.

It is also important to keep in mind that the long-term projections look through business cycles and assume a smooth growth path through to 2054-55. In reality, it is almost certain that any economy will go through such cycles over a 40 year time period. However, the outlook to 2054-55 will not be driven by these cycles, but by the underlying trends in population, participation and productivity.

While this is to an extent true as short term cycles oscillate around the longer term trends, the forecasters do nothing to identify what will drive growth in the Australian economy for the next thirty years.

The IGR’s greatest failure is in not considered the structure of the economy and the workforce over the next three decades is its greatest flaw. How people are working and where they are working is going to shape the nation and government revenues.

Compounding the report’s failure to at least attempt to forecast the workforce’s changing structure, the authors’ projection of unemployment are almost an insult.

estimated-australian-unemployment

As this blog has pointed out constantly over recent years, the workforce is undergoing fundamental shifts in the face of automation, robotics and intelligent systems. While it may turn out five percent is the average rate of unemployment over the period we can expect major fluctuations in the workforce as industries are dislocated.

In turn those fluctuations are going to affect government revenues and expenditures, not to mention their influences on home prices and the superannuation balances of those facing extended periods of unemployment.

A flawed roadmap

Ultimately the Inter-Generational Report is of little use in helping policy makers and the community plan for the challenges and opportunities facing Australia over the next thirty years.

Like the Australia in the Asian Century report it’s a curiously selective document that fails to consider most of the external factors that are going to shape societies over the upcoming decades.

Just as the Australia in the Asian Century paper is a dated and discredited document a mere three years after its release shows the calibre of advice being given to the nation’s leaders.

While Doctor Karl is exactly right that we can’t know where we’re heading unless we know where we are, this report fails to acknowledge how Australia came to be in its privileged position and what the opportunities are in a radically changing world.

It may well be that The Lucky Country stays lucky to the middle of this century and caps off two hundred years of good fortune. If that does happen though it will not be because of this flawed and shallow report.

The authors of the Intergenerational Report ducked the challenge of change.