The beginning of a new year brings the familiar ritual of breathless prognostication. What will be the top political stories of the year? What will stock markets do? Who will win at the Oscars? Which sports team will triumph? And on it goes. Mostly good fun, marginally useful, profoundly obsessed with the present.
It is also symptomatic of the growing tyranny of short-termism in North America. For business, the quarter dominates and the year is an eternity. For the news media, the present dominates and the day is an eternity. For politics, the electoral cycle now never seems to end. For communications, we inhabit a Twitter universe of 140 character tweets. For sports, only a brief commercial break separates the seasons.
Why short-termism has come to dominate our lives and what it means for the future are developments we ignore at our peril. Despite our fixation with the present, the future is hiding in plain sight and it is unacceptable to be surprised by evident trends in the world around us. And yet that is increasingly what is happening.
The information revolution is changing everything, but we seem more transfixed by each new device and less fixated on how this revolution is transforming how we do business, how we do government, how we do health and education – indeed, how we do everything. The demographics of aging is inexorable in Western societies, but we are slow, even hesitant, to draw out its implications for health-care costs, education, immigration and housing, to name a few. Globalization has created an immense new marketplace, but it has unleashed competition on a scale and of a sort that we have yet to get our minds around, let alone our public policies, business strategies and education curriculum.
One aspect of these changes is the Western phenomenon of simultaneously having “people without jobs” and “jobs without people.” A more systemic impact is the rise of income inequality. As Thomas Friedman observed last month in The New York Times: “We’re now in an era in which globalization and the information revolution have merged to drastically shrink what was the basis of our middle class for so many years: the ‘high-wage, middle-skilled job.’ ”
Reinforcing this, a Pew Research Center opinion survey conducted in 39 countries last year found that just 27 per cent of Canadians and 33 per cent of Americans believe their children will be better off, with Europeans even more pessimistic.
The answer for Canada is not to be found in short-term political fixes, less technological change or reduced globalization. Rather, it lies in a return to a longer-term orientation: more structural policy thinking, a global economic strategy, greater dialogue and co-operation between public and private-sectors, better and more targeted education, and tackling our structural productivity and innovation deficits. It seems rather obvious that, in this changing world, the status quo cannot be a viable long-term strategy for any sector in the Canadian economy, from business to government to education.
For example, what sort of education will it take for future Canadian graduates to reach their potential in a world where the pace of technological change is unlikely to slacken? If the next 15 years are anything like the last, during which we restructured how we work (Internet, mobile), communicate (smartphones), interact (Facebook, Twitter), shop (Amazon, eBay), listen to music (iTunes, iPods), plan trips (TripAdvisor, Expedia) and find information (Google, Yahoo), then literacy, numeracy, creativity, adaptability and entrepreneurship will be the name of the talent game.
Unfortunately, the most recent PISA results from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development suggest that our long-term trajectory is in the wrong direction. Canadian students fell to 13th place from eighth in math, with declining scores in math, science and reading relative to the last global testing in 2008. STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects may be one key to future work success, but fewer than 50 per cent of students take Grade 11 and 12 math and science courses these days. In the workplace, surveys show employers increasingly dissatisfied with their new hires, citing lack of technical and soft skills, and unemployment rates for youth are double the overall rate.
If the goal is a competitive and dynamic Canadian economy into the future, one that offers rising standards of living and high levels of economic mobility, then we must plan for the decade instead of the quarter, raise our policy game and instill a culture of global instead of local excellence in everything we do. This transforming world offers immense opportunities provided we are not passive bystanders to the global shifts. Our biggest risk may be not taking one, being complacent when a sense of urgency and a willingness to change are called for.
Kevin G. Lynch is vice-chairman of BMO Financial Group.