The megatrends still shaping our world

Afshin Molavi

The former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was once asked by a young journalist to reflect on the greatest challenge facing a statesman. His response: “Events, dear boy, events.”

Of course, what he meant was that even the most meticulous planning can be upended by events that require immediate attention. Long-term strategic goals must often wait until the fires are put out.

US and Western policymakers are currently trying to put out a tragic fire in Afghanistan that is occupying virtually all of their foreign policy bandwidth. Other nations are also engaged broadly in this effort. Good luck to any longterm policy planner seeking to get the attention of the US secretary of state or national security adviser today, or even the head of a major Middle East government. The headlines are too hot, the fires still scalding, the tragedy still unraveling.

Megatrends, however, do not have a timeline. They quietly and powerfully shape our world and our future — and often serve as the driving forces of the fires that we see today in the world. That is why it is vital to explore these megatrends to see where we are headed.

Let us start with urbanization, a megatrend shaping politics, societies, business, technology and much else besides. It is a megatrend with two centuries of history. In 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in cities, with the figure rising to 15 percent by 1900. Today, 55 percent of people live in urban spaces, a proportion that is likely to reach 66 percent by 2050, according to the UN. That is what you call a steady “up and to the right” chart of growth.

While the global pandemic — another “event” that is re-ordering our world — has led to some pockets of de-urbanization in advanced economies and a temporary return to rural areas of large numbers of city-dwellers in India amid shutdowns, the basic impulse behind the mass urbanization we have seen in the developing world remains the same. Cities offer the jobs and opportunities that people need. Even so-called knowledge workers crave the city’s dense networks and better internet bandwidth. Urbanization is here to stay.

What about demographics? As I have written in these pages before, more than 85 percent of the world’s population lives outside the Western world. Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East currently account for roughly 8.5 out of 10 people in the world today. While population growth numbers are never linear (after all, “events” can change course), we will still be living with this “85 world” domination for the next few decades.

According to the UN, Africa’s population could double by 2050, rising from 1.2 billion to nearly 2.5 billion. We will see more than a billion urban Africans by then. Sub-Saharan Africa is also young. The median age is 19. By contrast, the median age in Europe is 41.

There are tremendous challenges inherent in this population growth — as well as tremendous opportunities. Every government and business with longterm ambitions should be developing an Africa strategy.

There is also a migration challenge ahead for Europe. While the world today is focused on Afghan refugees, we can expect a steady flow of economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, trying to make it to Europe by whatever means available. Never underestimate the human will to seek a better life, and despite some impressive pockets of new growth and dynamism across African markets, a bigger jobs crunch looms. Factory automation does not help. Expect more migrants to seek a better life in Europe.

While Africa is young, other parts of the world — notably Europe, but also China — are aging. The Middle Kingdom’s decades-long one-child policy has left its population growth at Scandinavian levels. India will surpass China as the world’s most populous country within a decade. As China grays over the next few decades, India will continue to rise.

A third megatrend is connectivity. A British historian, shortly after the Cold War ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, once famously said: “All of the ‘isms’ are now  ‘wasms’.” While not quite accurate (note the lingering appeal of socialism, even in Western market economies), we can safely say that there is a powerful “ism” that has grown worldwide. Let us call it connect-ism. It is a view that has swept the world, though it does not come with a Karl Marx-like intellectual forefather. Its forefathers are global tech companies that prefer to hook you on their products, not announce their intentions in manifestos.

The pandemic has blown a heavy gust of wind into the sails of this megatrend. Consider how much more critical connectivity has become to how we work, consume and connect. Consider the record profits of companies such as Amazon and Facebook amid the pandemic, even as other physical and bricks-and-mortar businesses have faltered.

Consider India’s historic Internet connectivity push over the past year. At one point in the past few years, three Indians were experiencing the Internet for the first time every three seconds. Now, with tech evangelists promoting the “metaverse” — a world of 3D augmented reality creating new forms of connectivity and spawning online lives and identities — we are headed deeper into Tech-istan, with dramatic consequences for our future.

These, and other megatrends ranging from climate change to shifting economic centers of gravity, will shape our future in ways that the headlines may not always reflect. These are the tectonic shifts changing our future quietly every day.