Roaring into the ‘20s

We’ve roared into a new decade with devastating wild fires across Australia and tensions once again mounting in the Middle East. While this may feel like simply more of the same, it’s pertinent to consider just how greatly our lives have changed over the past ten years, and how much they could change over the next ten.

For instance, you may be one of the many people who now spends more of your time online than offline. If so, this shift has likely significantly changed how you spent much of your recent vacation time compared to a decade ago.

Consider, too, that your latest holiday pictures and home movies were likely filmed on your phone rather than on a camera, and that this content could be shared in real time via WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, WeChat and other social media. Additionally, remember that ten years ago Facebook absolutely dominated social media, which today is a substantially more crowded arena. And if leaps in technology aren’t enough to convince, consider that ten years ago Barack Obama was in charge of the world’s biggest economy. Since then, Trump has taken political charge and, if measured in terms of purchasing power parity, China has replaced the US as the world’s biggest economy.

Many technological advances, social trends and political moves seem gradual, but in fact can swiftly and materially change our lives in far-reaching ways without our full awareness of their impact. For instance, over the coming decade, we can expect to see substantial growth in driverless cars, virtual reality, 3D printing technology, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), renewable energy use and new generation batteries that change the way we live and work.

In the same vein, we can expect that some of these trends and themes will have a decisive impact on lifestyles and living over the coming decade:

Digitisation

We have experienced a paradigm shift in terms of how much of our lives – and our personal information – is stored and shared online, and we expect the lines between the real and the digital worlds to blur further. While it is impossible to predict the next Uber (2009) or Instagram (2010), that technology will become ubiquitous in every aspect of daily life is a given.

For example, while Tinder launched just eight years ago in 2012, a Stanford study, recently revealed that most couples now first meet online. And consider how, since the introduction of Siri (2010) and Alexa (2014), virtual personal assistants have advanced and multiplied. Next generation wearables – think the Apple Watch (2015) – coupled with more advanced AI capabilities, will ensure that we are permanently connected and constantly monitored.

As the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed, companies are collating, analysing and profiting from our personal information – even to the point of using it against us. An Oracle and MIT Technology Review recently valued such personal information to be worth US$8 trillion in the United States (US) alone. The financial, political and personal stakes are high, and we expect various interest groups to contest the collection and use of personal information more fiercely in the coming decade.

Displacement

The 2010s have been termed the “decade of displacement”, with the UNHCR reporting in 2018 that a record 70 million people were displaced over the preceding ten years due to conflict and climate hazards. This is the highest number in 70 years. From Venezuela and Syria to Somalia and the Sudan, the crises driving people from their homes show no sign of abating.

Indeed, we anticipate the incidents of conflict to rise. Over the past few years, across Asia, the Americas and Europe, democratic values have been tested – and in some cases taken to the breaking point. The decline in the US’s dominance has paved the way for Russia, China and other countries with more closed political systems to exert ever greater influence on the world stage. At the same time, we’ve seen a rise in indigenous and niche online identities, pitting various interest groups against each other within and across borders.

The nature of conflict is changing too. Recent US action against Iran in the Middle East cannot simply be viewed as a continuation of the counter-terrorism action of the past decade. From alleged Russian cyber interference in the US and British elections to Iran’s recent use of proxy militias across the Middle East, we have seen fresh fronts open in old conflicts that are materially changing the nature of engagement.

Environmental disasters

Time Magazine named climate activist Greta Thunberg its Person of the Year for 2019, and for good reason: the World Meteorological Organization reported that the past five years (2014-2019) were the warmest ever recorded. And the evidence and impact of global warming is becoming ever clearer.

While Australian wild fires currently dominate world headlines, South Africa’s own water crisis sees no end in sight. A prolonged drought which began in 2012, coupled with poor infrastructure maintenance and the mismanagement of water use, has left parts of the country without water and many others with limited supply, laying bare the inadequacies of our water infrastructure. South Africa faces a daunting task to improve its adaptive capacity to deal with climate change.

South Africa: a lost decade

It is likewise exasperating that a new decade has dawned in South Africa and the lights are dimmer than ten years ago. The energy crisis that has plagued the country since 2007 still sees no material relief or viable resolution. And in the face of the unchecked corruption and incompetence of the past decade, the greater crime is the lost opportunity for improving the lives of ordinary South Africans.

Nationalising healthcare in this context raises many concerns. This is not to suggest for one moment that improved healthcare is not a social imperative. Arguably, though, the job is to fix what is broken, before heading into the world of fresh promises.

We cannot know what the next decade holds in store, but the recent past offers important context. As CE Dr Adrian Saville highlighted in a recent article, ten years ago, South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup; former president Jacob Zuma was just a year into his first term, and we were ignorant of what lay ahead for his presidency; government boasted a strong balance sheet and economic growth of 3.5%; and the rand was double the value it is now (R7.50/$). At that time, emerging fresh out of the global financial crisis and with global markets still beset by lingering uncertainty, local investors were happy to invest in the JSE.

However, by the end of December 2015, Zuma had fired finance minister Nene, the rand had collapsed to around R16/$, and many investors had fled offshore, at twice the price for a dollar than just five years earlier.

The future is uncertain, but making investment decisions based on emotional reactions is not a sound strategy. And the fact remains that South Africa is stronger now than it has been for many years. So, while we are unlikely to see a rapid rebound in economic growth any time soon, our strong institutions, robust financial sector, resilient capital markets and deep pension pool are strong attributes in our favour.

With the right leadership taking tough decisions, the coming decade could see the remaking of South Africa, for all its people. To this we can add the social, economic and political forces of digitisation, displacement and the environment that will play their part in shaping the roaring ‘20s: a decade that no doubt will look entirely different at the end compared to the start.

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