I first published a version of this article in 2015 and in the midst of our current crisis, I was reminded of it. The thought of a global pandemic didn’t occur to me when I wrote it, but my situation at the time humbled me in a similar way.
You may know what I mean. If you’ve ever been unemployed for reasons out of your control, it kind of puts you in your place, right?
You can work hard and make all the right choices, but moments like this remind you that hard work and smart decisions are not always enough.
Of course, you know at any moment the proverbial sh#t can hit the fan, but for the most part you put faith in the institutions and infrastructure that hold your world together.
You trust society will look the same tomorrow as it did today. And, you believe your efforts matter and make a difference.
But what do you do when the rug is ripped out from under you?
That’s how I felt in 2015 when I wrote this article.
The industry I worked in collapsed and I wasn’t prepared. It was a mistake I was determined not to make again (and because of that my family and I are relatively secure today, even in this situation we’re all going through right now).
The purpose of this post at the time, was to remind myself and others in similar situations that everything is NOT under control. That in a world uncertainty and disruption, it was better to think like an entrepreneur than an employee.
A Catastrophe Strikes
I said a moment ago that my situation in 2015 humbled me in a similar way. That doesn’t mean it was anything like this current situation.
Today (April 9th, 2020), it’s not just one industry that has collapsed. It’s dozens. The US weekly jobless claims were released this morning coming in at 6.6 million.
But that’s not all. More than 16 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last 3 weeks with many more expected to follow. Canada has lost a million jobs in March as well, and it’s the same story around the entire globe.
How many people were prepared for this? How many people were living paycheck to paycheck with maxed out credit cards?
How many people were steamrolling through life with all the necessary luxuries on the surface, but underneath… anxiety, mounting debts and sense that if anything went wrong their world could come crashing down?
I know that feeling because it was me 5 years ago. But again… my situation was different.
It was like a gentle roll down a hill. Hours and wages were being cut and financially we were in trouble. But I still had a some work and some money coming in. I also had little money in the bank.
For millions of people today though, it’s anything but a gentle roll with a soft landing.
It’s a hard push off a cliff, and few people saw it coming.
It Won’t Happen to Me
The future is lollipops and rainbows. Or at least we hope so. The problem, according to neuroscientist Tali Sharot is that we suffer from an optimism bias.
As she explains in her TED Talks presentation, people generally overestimate the positives in their future, and underestimate the negative. We have this perpetual belief that life will be better tomorrow than it is today.
This optimism leads to a naïve trust in the economy. We underestimate the negative and overestimate the positive.
It’s more common than many people think.
For example, despite figures showing nearly half of all marriages failing, people are still getting married. They’re in love and they fully expect to defy statistics.
In fact, many don’t think divorce statistics apply to them at all.
How about another burger and fries?
We all know eating garbage will eventually lead to serious health problems. Life threatening perhaps. And yet, we still picture ourselves living long and happy lives unhindered by the effects of not looking after our health.
Smokers underestimate their chances of getting lung cancer. Employees underestimate their chance of job loss. We buy things on credit, fully expecting we’ll have the means to make our payments.
Generally speaking, we expect the future to be awesome.
We plan our lives, take on debt and start families based on the assumption that the economy and the world will remain stable.
At least I did…
I Was Wrong… It Can Happen
This current crisis sucks. There’s no way around it.
Lives are being lost. Jobs are being lost. People are losing loved ones, and to top it off… they’re stuck in their homes unable to mourn with the people they need most.
Plans have been decimated. Imagine saving every penny for the last ten years to finally open up your own restaurant in the first couple months of 2020, and then having it shut down indefinitely. Probably for good.
If you were planning a big wedding this year, or a move to a new city, you’re most likely sitting at home disappointed.
But even without this pandemic, the world as we knew it was changing. The rules were being rewritten.
If the next 10 or 20 years is anything like the last 10 or 20 years, we’re going to see booms, busts, crumbling industries and entirely new ones not yet imagined.
Less than two decades ago few would have imagined billion dollar social networks and streaming movies in your pocket.
We’re entering an era unlike any other in history and our role in it is extremely uncertain. Virus or no virus. It doesn’t look good right now. In fact, for many these are extraordinarily challenging times.
Having said that, the intent of this post is not doom and gloom, but rather an awareness of possibilities… both good and bad. And using that knowledge to recognize trends and opportunities. To plan, adapt and be innovative.
The economy won’t crumble and disappear, but it will change.
Opportunities will arise and many are going to find themselves in a new era of prosperity. Some by luck, and others by being smart, planning ahead and developing an entrepreneurial mindset.
I can’t put in words how grateful I am for learning this lesson when I did.
I had no idea what, when (or if) something would happen again (a global pandemic certainly did NOT cross my mind), but I knew I never wanted to feel helpless again.
And to make sure I didn’t become complacent, I wrote about that uncertainty. About the significant disruptions we’re most likely to face.
This is not an exhaustive list. It would be well beyond the scope of this post to take on in detail, issues such as political unrest, rising inequality and major shifts in economic power just to name a few (as well as pandemics).
But this virus won’t be the last disruption we see.
1. Another Billion People
When looking for evidence that our world is headed for unfamiliar territory, population growth is a good place to start.
In 1804, global population reached one billion people. By 1927, it was 2 billion. In 100 years and change, we matched what had taken millennia to achieve. But, we were just getting warmed up.
Between 1960 and 1974, we were multiplying so fast we pulled off that feat in just 14 years!
Our population odometer has been rolling past the billion mark nearly every decade since and is projected to reach 10 billion well before the end of the 21st century. At present there are more than 7.8 billion people on this tiny blue dot we call home.
(Note: It was 7.3 billion when I first published this article)
Is this a problem?
It could be. If everyone aims to achieve, or maintain the North American or equivalent lifestyle, then yes… it’s a big problem. But we’re smarter than that, right?
Well, according to statistics, no.
Among other habits that are not earth friendly, global meat consumption for example continues to rise, as does our use of fossil fuels. According to data from the Global Footprint Network, we’ll need a handful of earths to sustain all of us if this trend continues.
There are legitimate studies that predict our population will peak this century and begin to fall. In fact, there are now fears of a global population collapse which comes with it’s own problems.
At this time however, it continues to climb.
In many ways this will open new economic doors. With challenge, comes opportunity. But, a world approaching and surpassing 10 billion will force us to close a few of those doors as well.
People will demand change, and they will drive change. Many large industries and the millions of workers they employ will need a strategy to adapt to this new world.
Look around your home. From your couch to the picture frames on the walls, chances are they were all manufactured by a robot, and/or in an emerging country.
From the screen you’re reading this on to the coffeemaker in your kitchen, they were built in countries where labor is cheap, environmental regulations are slack, and with the latest technology aimed at eliminating humans altogether.
To be clear, I’m not opposed to jobs to parts of the world that can really use them.
But in many cases, these are jobs border on exploitation (not job creation). And even those jobs are being threatened by automation.
The truth is, there is a devastating economic reality here.
The 1980’s are generally recognized as the beginning of this trend. The export of jobs really picked up steam after NAFTA went into effect on January 1st, 1994, and then reached new heights in the late 90’s when information could be digitized and moved around the globe with ease.
In the first part of this century, the US has lost 5.7 million manufacturing jobs. In Canada, the manufacturing dependent province Ontario gave away 300,000 jobs.
In the last 3 decades, two thirds of the UK’s manufacturing sector withered away.
But who needs statistics?
It feels like a small victory when I look around my own home and find something that is not made my a company exploiting cheap labour. I have a blender… a Vitamix, which says made in the US with a minimum of 70% US content. I’ve also got a few tools that are made in the US and some made in Germany. I have books that say they are printed and bound in the United States.
Certainly, we still manufacture some things. I’m sure I can find a few more items if I keep searching.
But, finding products made locally shouldn’t be a scavenger hunt.
Sending jobs to cheap labor countries hasn’t stopped at manufacturing. A close relative of mine who handled corporate accounts for a supply company recently had her office shut down and the bulk of it moved overseas.
There is hope that this trend will stop. That manufacturing jobs will come home.
But the reality is that we’re dealing with supply chains that have been established over decades. It’s also not certain people can (or would be willing) to pay the prices that higher wage labour would demand.
At the very least, it would be a big gamble for companies to spend billions bringing their manufacturing home. And they would risk losing their consumer base in other countries as well.
There will likely be a shuffling of the deck and a move to diversify supply chains in the name of national security, but that doesn’t mean manufacturing is coming back.
It’s likely the trend will continue…
It started with shoes and clothing. Then the steel, automotive and electronics industries departed. Service sector jobs followed. Now that countries like China and India are producing record numbers of university graduates, higher-educated roles such as engineering are leaving us as well (soon to be replaced by artificial intelligence and automation anyway).
Is this bad? A legitimate argument can be made that global living standards have been lifted as a result. We enjoy the highest standard of living in history after all.
But in our current paradigm, we still need jobs. And whether they are moved to another country or given to a robot… it’s difficult to make the case that these types of jobs will be more plentiful and secure in future.
Combine that with the next item on our list and we’re entering a high-risk era.
3. Highest Debt on Record
If your job vanished today, could you still pay your debt tomorrow?
Just about every debt graph you look at, whether its household debt, student debt or national debt… the trend is clear. They are all rising. Over the last few decades debt levels have gone up and down and the seemingly random jagged lines remind me of my daughter’s “portfolio” of crayon drawings.
But despite the peaks and valleys, every one of those lines eventually head in the same direction, towards the top right corner of the graph. Up.
And that was before the world collectively shut down their economies, bailed out industries, pumped trillions into the markets and paid people to stay home.
I’m not making a judgement. When your house is on fire, you don’t worry where the water to put it out is coming from. There will be time for that after.
And there will be an after…
Entire books can, and have been written on the subject of debt. Good debt, bad debt… books that predict debt will be the demise of us all, and experts explaining why society wouldn’t exist without it.
We won’t explore every angle on this topic here.
For now, it’s enough to recognize that debt can’t rise forever. When high debt is mixed with severe downward pressure on jobs, the recipe is volatile. A mortgage or car payment isn’t a problem until we lose our ability to pay for it.
There is another problem with debt. To get out of debt we cut back on spending. And, as it rises we spend more on servicing it. That leaves us less money to buy the stuff that stimulates the economy, which leads to further job loss, and a reduced ability to get out of debt. The cycle continues.
4. Exponential Technology
When was the last time you dropped a VHS tape into the return slot at Blockbuster, or brought a roll of film into Black’s Photography to get developed?
My daughters don’t even know what a roll of film is.
In a world of virtual reality, cloud storage and instant sharing it’s hard to imagine an era when we wrapped a picture inside a letter, licked a stamp and dropped it in the mail.
Recent advances in technology cannot be overstated. Entire industries have been upended. Empires toppled.
Technology has transformed our world in ways rarely imagined a few decades ago.
It’s absolutely crazy. We haven’t yet compressed space and time (that we know of) but technology has literally given us the same result.
We can’t yet teleport matter, but we can teleport information. We can send a blue-print by email and have a 3D printer create the physical product on the receiving end.
Our bodies can’t move instantly through space and time but with our phone, we can record a message and instantly share it with millions simultaneously to multiple places on earth.
What was once impossible can now be done in seconds with a few taps of our fingers.
Space and time, have been compressed.
What impact will this have on our global society?
From education to emerging markets, we’re headed for interesting times.
Technology has a dark side however. Convenience has come at a cost. Millions of jobs have been displaced by automation and traditional methods of commerce have been decimated.
The retail apocalypse is upon us…
Only ten years ago, Blockbuster had 60,000 employees, 9000 stores and was valued at $5 billion dollars. Today they are just a memory.
From publishing and music to film production and shopping, processes have been streamlined and in many cases eliminated entirely.
And we’re just getting started.
Alternative energies, nanotechnology, advances in biomedical engineering, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, artificial intelligence…
In the coming years, very little of our lives and our economy will go untouched by technology. The implications are staggering.
The future might be exciting, but the downside is real. And, to enjoy this future we’ll need to overcome our next challenge.
5. The Environment
Like squabbling siblings, our economy and our environment are at odds with one another. The rift is growing and soon one of them, or both of them will be seriously wounded.
It’s not yet clear if they can coexist at all, although in my opinion they can. Many politicians would argue otherwise.
What’s more though, is we don’t know how to survive without either. We need both our environment and our economy.
This could be the defining challenge of our lifetime. Well, once we get through this once in a century situation we find ourselves in.
There’s a problem though, and this pandemic is shining a light on it. The economy needs continued growth and uninterrupted consumption. When people stop buying stuff, it collapses.
It’s dominated by superpower industries that will not let go easily, or at all. Continued growth and consumption on our current trajectory can’t be sustained. It’s not about politics or ideology.
We’ve got soil, water and air pollution, dwindling fresh water supplies, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, deforestation and climate change.
In other words, we have a serious challenge. One that could ultimately dwarf the one that’s currently keeping us in our homes.
And we have habits and industries so entrenched that changing course seems impossible.
Certainly, we can build an economy around sustainable practices and renewable energies, but will we?
Part of the problem is that the economy provides for our immediate needs, while the environment provides for our long-term needs.
Let me explain…
Our environment is critical. We can’t live without it and if we don’t change our habits we’re in a whole heap of trouble and future generations are going to pissed to put it mildly
But here’s the thing, and I don’t care if this is a controversial statement…
People don’t care about the environment.
Oh sure, they care about tomorrow’s environment. But they don’t care about today’s environment, and that’s the real problem.
The actions we take today might be a problem, but the environment itself is not.
What I mean is that we have a pretty good idea of the impact our current actions will have, but unless it affects us today, we usually put a pin in it. We tuck it away in the storage closet of our brains. We know we’ll need to do something, just not now.
And I’m guilty too. I work from home so I don’t drive often, but when I do drive, it’s a loud car with a big engine that goes much faster than the law allows anyway.
When you look outside though, the environment is not a problem today, tomorrow, next week, or the week after that. In fact, in most people’s minds, it’s not a problem for many years to come.
But you know what is a problem? What people are concerned with today?
They are concerned with their ability to pay rent, to buy groceries, to make sure their kids are raised in a decent neighbourhood. They’re concerned with putting fuel in their car so they can get to work.
Our immediate needs revolve around money, and people are so busy earning it that the environment, as serious as it is… is tomorrow’s problem.
Maybe even the next generation’s problem.
I do believe most people are concerned about the environment… but right up the point it affects their wallet or lifestyle. Then they back off.
Not everyone, but most.
(Note: I think people’s attitudes are changing since the original version of this was written 5 years ago. Maybe not a lot, definitely not enough… but they are slowly changing.)
And while there are gradual shifts towards a cleaner, more energy efficient world, you can be certain that tomorrow, the world will still be full of cars, trucks, factories, and waste.
There is no doubt about it, the challenges facing our environment are real. They will bring significant disruption to our way of living. It will affect employment, in both positive and negative ways.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2012 there were an estimated 570,000 people directly or indirectly employed in the oil and gas industry.
Mining, oil and gas in Canada employed nearly 232,000 in 2014. Natural Resources Canada estimates a similar number are working in the forestry sector. More importantly, millions more depend on the economic activity generated by these industries.
Around the globe, the Australian Bureau of Statistics report 187,000 people employed in Mining, Oil and Gas. If we continue adding up statistics from every country it’s clear that millions of families depend on these “dirty” industries.
But wait! Stop the train! New jobs will be created in wind and solar right?
Yes. But a new job opening up in Nevada building solar panels does nothing for the pipefitter in Alberta Canada or Texas who’s been laid off due to a collapse in oil demand.
Ten thousand jobs in one place does not solve the problem of ten thousand people being laid off in another.
During the rise of Silicon Valley, laid off factory workers in the rust belt found little comfort that programmers in California were in high demand.
Environmental issues will force a shift in markets. If the environment itself doesn’t get us, the new economy it ushers in might. It’s critical for us to be at the leading edge of these trends and prepared to capitalize on them.
6. It’s a Perfect Storm…
Overpopulation, outsourcing, automation, rising debt, disruptive technology and an environment under stress… any one of these alone is a game changer.
But, all at once it’s a perfect storm…
It’s not enough that technology is competing with you for every job that exists. If your job isn’t being automated, someone is looking for an effective way to outsource it. Meanwhile, we’re accumulating record levels of debt.
It’s not enough our population is swelling to uncertain levels. At the same time, our way of life is putting severe pressure on our land, oceans and air.
In that context, the picture seems grim.
And now we’re sitting at home with a global economic shutdown and no idea when the simple act of shaking someone’s hand will be safe again, if ever.
Is there anything good here?
Think Like an Entreprenuer
These challenges are real, but they are also driving change in a positive direction. They are opening up opportunities.
A new generation of entrepreneurs are satisfying demand for alternative energies, efficient living, and sustainable design. Advances in technology will further enable us to reduce our footprint so to speak while raising our standard of living. Entirely new industries will arise.
A growing population and emerging markets are fantastic for commerce. Global awareness is leading to positive movements and proactive governments.
The gig economy and work-at-home industry are also seeing tremendous growth as people take back control of their lives and no longer put all their eggs in one basket.
I know you don’t want to feel helpless, trapped in a situation you have no control over. I get it. I was there too and determined not to let it happen again.
When a single technology can profoundly affect several industries at once, or the frequency of major advances are moving at break-neck speed… the comfortable “wait and see what happens” approach is too risky.
I got caught, and this time I was prepared. Millions were not…
We don’t know the future, but we can prepare ourselves by taking action. By diversifying our incomes, expanding our skills, and developing better habits.
In other words, think and act like an entrepreneur. That doesn’t mean quit your job or give up your career. It does mean you shouldn’t count on them though.
Plan for uncertainty, don’t ignore it. Challenge yourself and don’t be complacent. Act as though everything you’ve been working for could fall apart tomorrow, not because you’re not awesome… but because sh#t happens.
If you could step outside your comfort zone and do one thing that would help you prepare for the unforeseen, what would it be?
Whatever it is, today is a great day to get started.