The pandemic has brought the future forward by a full decade, and businesses that aren’t ready for it could be left behind, according to futurist Michael McQueen.
From the emergence of artificial intelligence and changes in the way labour markets operate, McQueen believes the 2030s are effectively playing out in the 2020s and this will deliver radical game-changing shifts to the economy over the next few years.
Addressing the opening event at Gold Coast Business Week, a business breakfast hosted by the City of Gold Coast in Surfers Paradise, McQueen said the biggest shift was already upon us with Millennials getting older and Generation Z set to take over as the dominant demographic in the work force. They are also an emerging well-heeled consumer group that can’t be ignored.
“Within six years, Generation Z will be 31 per cent of the Australian labour market," McQueen said yesterday.
"In a market like the Gold Coast, which has a lot more industries with younger staff, they will be something like 45 to 55 per cent of the workforce. So, you really have to get your head around what makes this group tick.”
With $143 billion of combined consumer spending power, McQueen described Gen Z as the ‘most cashed up of any generation at the same age’.
The dynamics of generational shift is among three significant ‘tidal changes’ identified by McQueen as recasting the post-pandemic economy. These include the fast-track adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and the new era of ‘reworking work’.
“We’re seeing the use of AI in a whole lot of areas of society that are absolute game-changers,” McQueen said.
He sees driverless technology as the field where this technology is effecting the greatest change with its use becoming mainstream in some countries. While the Gold Coast is trialling an automated driverless bus at Main Beach, new technologies such as Google’s Waymo are now in general use in the US.
“In 2019, we expected that this technology would be eight to nine years away, but that changed in the middle of the pandemic,” says McQueen. “I was stunned by how intuitive and how clever this technology is. It is way ahead of what most of us think.”
In October 2020, US regulators gave the green light for fully autonomous rideshare services to begin operating in Phoenix, Arizona.
“We’ve seen other cities get involved in this in the last four months. This just the tip of the iceberg.”
McQueen noted that three weeks ago Chinese internet giant Baidu secured permits for a driverless taxi service in Chongqing and Wuhan using the company’s autonomous ride-hailing unit, Apollo Go.
Autonomous travel is also heading for the skies with US group Joby Aviation signing a government deal with South Korea to launch the world’s first air taxi service over the next three to four years using passenger drone technology.
“This is not science fiction,” McQueen said. “This is likely to become a reality and it could become a reality (in south-east Queensland) first through the launch of the first air taxi service on the north side of Brisbane. This could be up and running and at scale before the Olympic Games.”
However, it is the transformation of the work environment where McQueen said the future had been brought forward the fastest. While businesses have toyed with creating a more flexible working environment for their staff for years, the pandemic forced many to put their talk into action.
According to the futurist, the most surprising statistic from the work-from-home movement is that it is not being led by Millennials. And while he describes the ‘great resignation’ as a ‘media beat-up’ in respect to Australian workers, there are emerging trends that he says may be creating unhealthy working environments between employers and employees.
“The whole discussion about the end of the office has been massively overstated,” McQueen said. “I think offices and physical proximity is going to play a key role but in a different way.”
McQueen noted before the pandemic, most workers, or about 60 per cent, said they would prefer to stay in the office rather than adopt a hybrid arrangement of sharing their work environment between home and the office. After lockdown, only 37 per cent said they would like to work at the office full time and 52 per cent wanted a hybrid work environment.
Surprisingly, it is older workers who prefer a hybrid work environment.
“The generations that struggles the most with remote work are Gen Z and Millennials,” McQueen said. “They’re the ones who felt most disconnected by this, whereas boomers and Gen X find it a lot easier.”
While it remains a balancing act as to how to entice more workers back to the office, McQueen said one of his biggest concerns at present was a ‘lack of humility’ in the work environment.
“It’s not about a whole lot of staff walking out, but it’s about staff making demands about how they want to work and much they want to get paid. The posture is all wrong - it doesn’t honour the business and it’s not a healthy way to start an engagement between an employer or manager and an employee, but that’s what we are seeing a lot of now.”
McQueen’s advice for businesses to survive the changing work environment is to be ‘far more loyal to the future than the past’.
“There are some fundamental elements of human nature that have never changed. The fact that we want to be together is a human need, a part of human nature.
“But the mentality I see right now (from businesses) is that fundamentally nothing has changed and there is a real danger in this.
“No matter how best practice our systems are, we can never stand still for long. It’s amazing how things atrophy as the pace of change marches on. As humans we love to do the same things over and over again; we love precedent because we are creatures of habit.”
As for where businesses can readily find agents of change, McQueen said the answer could be in their newest recruit or youngest employee.
“Those with the freshest eyes are the most valuable people in your team,” he says.
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