In his recent book, 2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything, global trend expert and Wharton Professor of Management Mauro Guillen examines global economic and cultural transformations that are underway. We spoke with Mauro to understand the fascinating trends shaping our future. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.

Q. When forecasting trends in population, emerging markets, and technology, you reference the importance of “following the babies.” What does that mean?

MG: We can make forecasts about the future, at least in terms of five to 10 years, if we follow the babies because most of the consumers in the world in 2030 have already been born. We know how many of them there are in which parts of the world. And we also know, or can anticipate, to what extent those babies are going to get an education or not, and perhaps even what types of jobs they may take. For example, 89.5 million people in the US are going to be between the ages of 15 and 35 by the year 2030. And you know what? They're not going to be the same as the 90 million that we have today.

The biggest difference will be this half of these people, 45 million of them, will be what today we call “minorities.” They will be African Americans, Hispanics, or Asian Americans, or Native Americans. And these groups of people are very different as consumers. They're more than likely to get married and more likely to get married earlier in life. That's the most important financial decision we ever make in our lives — getting married. They're also more likely to want to own a car or a home. So consumer markets and financial markets are going to change here in the United States between now and the year 2030, because more than half of the young people between the ages of 15 and 35 are going to be members of what today we continue to call minority groups.

Another essential trend with babies is that, in general, women are having fewer of them. COVID-19 is intensifying this very important declining fertility trend, which has been declining for the last hundred years or so — not only in richer countries like Europe and the US, but also declining in Subsaharan Africa, although starting from a much higher level. When people anticipate economic problems ahead or when they lose their jobs, they postpone having babies. And the mere postponement of having babies has one very important effect, which is that it accelerates population aging. And this leads to a trend that I call “grey is the new black,” because one of the most important things that is going to happen within the next 10 years is for the first time in the history of this country, the United States, and many other countries in the world, we're going to have more grandparents than grandchildren.

Q. Why is it so important that we’re going to have more grandparents than grandchildren in the US in 2030?

MG: That's going to have many implications. One is that the consumer group of people over age 60 is going to be the largest consumer group in terms of purchasing power. Today, as we speak, many industries, for example, the clothing industry, ignore the population above age 60. They tell me that they don't want to carry in their stores, clothing for people above the age of 60, because they believe that could tarnish their brand image. They're going to have to change because no company by the year 2030 will be able to afford ignoring that segment of the market.

Another very important implication, is that here in the US, 80% of the net worth is owned by people above the age of 60. That doesn't mean every person above age 60 is rich, because that wealth is very unevenly distributed. But just do the math — this is going to be the biggest consumer segment in the United States and many other countries in the world by the year 2030. In the US, we're going to have 15 million more people in that segment by the year 2030. In China, they're going to have 114 million more people above the age of 60 by the year 2030. So consumer-facing companies have to pay a lot of attention to this demographic.

Q. Another key trend you focus on is how cities will evolve by 2030, and what this means for commerce and environmental sustainability. What are the key points here?

MG: Here's the problem with cities: they occupy 1% of the land area in the world, but they're home to 55% of the population, and they account for 80% of the carbon emissions. The implication of these three numbers is that there's no solution to climate change unless we fix the cities. Now, the pandemic is making cities much less attractive as places in which to live. But still, I would anticipate that most of the growth in cities across the world will continue — not in the US or Europe, but rather in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East, and in South Asia, including India. That growth isn’t going to slow down. If you look at maps of the largest cities in the world in 2014, red dots being cities that have more than 10 million people (in the US, that’s New York City and Los Angeles) the projections for 2020 show that cities in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and China are growing exponentially as these areas modernize, which is going to put a lot of pressure on introducing innovations to make life in the city more environmentally friendly.

One of the key adaptations here is that cities need to produce more of the food that they consume. It turns out that producing food and bringing us the food and beverages we consume accounts for about 30% of total global carbon emissions. That’s because the process of producing food, for example, beef, is extremely resource intensive and it contributes by itself to carbon emissions. But in addition, we have this habit of producing the food somewhere in the world and then transporting it in some cases, thousands of miles to the end consumer.

What’s more, according to the US department of agriculture, we waste about 35% of all the food that reaches the consumer because we don't finish what's on our plate, or because we let food go bad. So if we could be more mindful when it comes to food and beverages, we could actually drastically reduce carbon emissions in the world. How could we accomplish that? Frankly, through the sharing economy. We share many things — rides, Uber, Lyft, second-hand clothes, pre-owned cars. But we don't share two categories of goods: Clothes (except for companies like Rent the Runway) and food. And while there are companies helping restaurants share perishable food they don’t use, we need to do that as individuals too — and there are apps like Save the Food that actually allow you to share groceries locally that you would otherwise toss — say if you’re going away for the weekend.

Q. For cities that don’t have ample land to produce food, what’s the solution?

MG: So yes, the other big solution to this carbon emission issue is to produce the food closer to the consumer, because if anything, we would cut transportation costs. We would also reduce the amount of food that goes bad during the process of transportation. In the developing world, for example, Subsaharan Africa, about 30% of the food is produced in urban areas because these cities have invaded areas that were rural or food producing areas, but much of that food still continues to be produced still. This brings many benefits, because of their proximity and also because planting then recycles air and helps reduce carbon emissions.

In the developed world, the alternative is “vertical agriculture” — meaning you have successive layers of tomatoes being planted. These are specific, extremely well-designed, high-tech kinds of farms that are being installed in places like Singapore. Under those control conditions, you can produce tomatoes, for example, with as little as 10% of the amount of water that you normally need in order to grow tomatoes. And while we need to move in that direction, we should also remember that during World War II, when we had to economize on everything, produce as many weapons as possible, but also have enough food to feed the population here in the United States, we resorted to urban agriculture — Liberty Gardens. People were encouraged to grow whatever they could grow in their gardens in the cities, or even in pots. So I think that’s what we need to do now, but we need to do it with better technology, better water management techniques, and above everything else, with technologies that help us reduce our carbon footprint.

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Originally Published: September 18, 2020