Big change takes us by surprise because it doesn't fit the pattern of the past. Yet, like the images hidden in an Escher print, once we see the pattern we never look at the world in the same way.
What amazes me most when I talk to audiences and clients about the nature and the speed of change is that we are constantly blind-sided by the really big changes. It's as though we purposely turn away from the greatest shifts because they are just too disruptive to the way we currently do business and live our lives. We're fascinated by the future but we just don't want to rush into it; after all, the past is so much more predictable.
That's why most people and businesses are already missing "the next big thing," which is already rushing toward us, and has been for some time. It's the seismic demographic shift in global population.
In research we present in The Gen Z Effect: Six Forces Shaping the Future, my co-author Dan Keldsen and I found that by 2020, within the United States, every 5-year age band from birth to 69 years of age will be within 1.5 percent of every other band. This is not just a U.S. phenomenon. By 2060 the same will apply to the entire population of the world. That might not sound like a big shift but to put it in perspective, today the age group from 24-29 is nearly three times as large, globally, as the 65-69 age group.
Stop and think about what that means to every aspect of how we work, build organizations, collaborate, provide for social welfare, deliver health care, sell, insure, and educate. It's mind-bending because none of our current commercial, social, or political institutions have been built to handle that sort of demographic change. Disruptive? Absolutely! But this may also be the beginning of the greatest era of prosperity and innovation humanity has ever experienced.
The year 2020 is just a stone's throw away, which means that you really need to start asking the question now, "How am I preparing my organization to deal with and take advantage of that inevitable shift in population?"
One thing is sure: Ignoring it will not only disrupt your business, it will put you out of business.
Here are at least three things you can do today to get ready and prosper from this global redistribution of humanity.
1. Get ready for a truly multigenerational work force and marketplace.
I'm not talking about two or three generations working side by side but rather five generations. Boomers will still be in the work force in 2020, but so will Matures (in their 70s) as well Gens X, Y, and Z. And they will all be living and working longer. How will you leverage that? Or are you already struggling to get Boomers to understand Millennials? If you're not prepared, the friction will tear your company apart. See point 3 below for one solution.
2. Build a global business (not just multinational, but really global!).
Yes, I know we've all heard this before. Since Marshall McLuhan coined the term "global village" in the early 1960s, we've used it as though we're already there. But we still have five billion people who are not connected to the internet; three billion who do not have adequate access to clean water and adequate sanitation, and two billion who are living on less than $2 per day. I'm convinced that the single greatest opportunity and accomplishment of the 21st century will be educating that mass of humanity, getting them online, and giving them the means by which to participate in a truly global economy. Are you paying attention to how you can play a role in that transformation? Can you both enable it and profit from it?
3. Reverse mentoring.
One of most powerful yet most seldom used (less than 10 percent, according to my research) techniques to bridge generational divides and create organizations that can collaborate across them is reverse mentoring. Pioneered by Jack Welch in the late '90s, as a way to onboard his execs with the then-new internet, reverse mentoring pairs up new hires with older senior leaders to pass knowledge up the organization, rather than the traditional of mentoring that passes it down. Are you doing this? I didn't think so. What are you waiting for?
The patterns of the future already surround you. Pay attention and you, and your business, may just ride the biggest wave of change to ever sweep through humanity.