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5 Undeniable Long-Term Trends Shaping Society’s Future

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We’re living in a world of rapid change, where disruption is the norm and innovation is the only way to stay relevant.

The dynamic nature of society makes it difficult to decipher. However, despite the world’s complexity, there are some long-term trends that have emerged among the chaos. These help us make sense of the world today, and can give us an idea of what to expect in years ahead.

Here’s a look at five long-term trends that are set to transform society as we know it.

The following article uses charts and data from our new book Signals (hardcover, ebook) which covers the 27 macro trends transforming the global economy and markets. In some cases, where appropriate, we’ve added in the most recent projections and data.

#1: Aging World

With every successive year, our global population is skewing older.

Since 1970, our worldwide median age has grown by almost a decade. By 2100, it’s projected to increase by another 10 years.

global median age chart in the signals book

Of course, not all countries are aging at the same rate.

Using data from the UN, the graph below covers the old-age dependency ratios (OADR) of different regions, showing the proportion of working-age citizens versus the percentage of older people, who are less likely to remain in the workforce.

old age dependency ratios chart from the signals book

What’s the economic impact of an aging population? Some potential risks include rising healthcare costs, a shrinking workforce, and even economic slowdowns.

To mitigate some of these risks, it’s crucial that countries build solid pension systems to support their aging citizens. Other potential solutions include increasing the age of retirement, enforcing mandatory retirement plans, and limiting early access to benefits.

Aging populations are also influencing the make-up of households in many countries. In the U.S., the share of multigenerational family households has been rising steadily since the 1970s.

multigenerational households in the us

At a societal level, people in the oldest age groups often play a different role in society than working age people. Many seniors engage in volunteerism and play a pivotal role in childcare for their families–activities that fall outside traditional measures of economic activity.

#2: Urban Evolution

Another macro trend that’s set to transform many regions of the world is rapid urbanization.

Currently, more than half of the global population lives in urban areas, and this influx of city-dwellers is expected to grow even more in the years ahead.

urban vs rural global population

While urbanization may seem like an long-established phenomenon, it’s actually a relatively new trend, historically speaking.

Throughout human history, populations have typically lived in small villages. All the way up to the early 1800s, close to 90% of the global population still lived in rural areas. Urbanization didn’t take off on a widespread scale until the 20th century.

But once urban migration started, it snowballed, and since then it’s shown no signs of slowing down. By 2050, over two-thirds of the global population is expected to live in urban settings.

The Rise of Megacities

Even in developing countries, urban life is becoming the norm – a shift that is causing a boom in megacity growth.

urban growth in developing countries

The median population size of the world’s top 100 cities has been growing steadily too – from eight million in 2000 to a projected 12 million in 2035.

Why is this happening? People tend to migrate to urban areas for socioeconomic reasons, and these economic pull-factors are particular strong in the developing world. Over time, this migration and increase in the standard of living is lifting millions of people out of poverty. This brings us to our third trend.

If you like this post, find hundreds of charts
like this in our new book “Signals”:


Signals: Book

#3: Rising Middle Class

While poverty is far from eradicated, the global middle class is growing, and fewer people are living in extreme poverty than ever before.

rising global middle class

As the above graph shows, there was an overall increase in daily income from 1971 to 1995. By 2019, income levels had increased even further.

According to Brookings, an average of five people are entering the global middle class per second, and by 2030, the worldwide middle class population is expected to reach 5.3 billion.

global population by wealth category

As the global middle class grows, so does the market for products and services around the world. And as the middle class has more disposable income to spend, these developing markets can create new opportunities for companies and investors alike.

In fact, according to MSCI, although global equity markets are dominated by North American companies (61.5%) in terms of market capitalization, the vast majority of revenues (70.1%) come from outside North America. As the rest of the developing world gets richer, this trend is likely to accelerate.

#4: Rising Wealth inequality

People in lower-income economies aren’t the only people generating more wealth—the richer are also increasing their net worth. By a lot.

Over the last few decades, the wealth of America’s top 10% has increased by billions of dollars, while the middle and bottom wealth groups have stayed relatively stagnant.

share of total wealth by wealth group

What’s driving this wealth inequality? One key factor is the different types of assets each wealth group owns. While the top 10% invest heavily in the stock market, other wealth groups rely on real estate as their main form of investment.

assets vs historical performance

Historically, equities have had higher returns than real estate—making the rich richer and leaving the bottom 90% behind.

#5: Environmental Pressures

So far, we’ve touched on four demographic shifts that are transforming society as we know it. But these changes in our global population size, wealth, and consumption habits have had far-reaching consequences. This last trend touches on one of those consequences—increased environmental pressure.

Since the year 1850, the global average temperature of land areas has risen twice as fast as the global average.

global surface temperatures

Various factors have contributed to increasing temperatures, but one major source stems from human-produced greenhouse gas emissions.

What human activities contribute to global emissions the most? The biggest culprit is industrial activity—32% of total emissions, while energy use in buildings comes in second at 17%.

Our Warmer World

Why is this significant? Rising temperatures pose a risk to our ecosystems and livelihood by changing weather patterns and putting the global food supply at risk.

climate change and extreme weather events

The past half-decade is likely to become the warmest five-year stretch in recorded history, underscoring the rapid pace of climate change. On a global scale, even a small increase in temperature can have a big impact on climate and our ecosystems.

For example, air can hold approximately 7% more moisture for every 1ºC increase, leading to an uptick in extreme rainfall events. These events can trigger landslides, increase the rate of soil erosion, and damage crops – just one example of how climate change can cause a chain reaction.

For the billions of people who live in “drylands”, climate change is serving up a completely different scenario of increased intensity and duration of drought. This is particularly worrisome as 90% of people in these arid or semiarid regions live in developing economies that are still very reliant on agriculture.

As a society, we will need to take a hard look at the way we consume in order to begin mitigating these risks. Will we rise to the challenge?

If you like this post, find hundreds of charts
like this in our new book “Signals”:


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China’s Economy: 40 Years of Soaring Exports

China’s economy today is completely different than 40 years ago; in 2021 the country makes up the highest share of exports globally.

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China's Economy

Animated Chart: 40 Years of Soaring Exports in China

China has the second highest GDP in the world, and it exports 15% of all the world’s goods. But how did this come to be?

A mere 40 years ago, China’s economy was in an entirely different situation, making up less than 1% of global exports and still in the infancy stages of building its economy. The above animated chart from the UNCTAD showcases China’s rise to global trade dominance over time.

Timeline: The Rise to Power

The China of the mid-20th century looks remarkably different when compared to the modern-day nation. Prior to the 1980s, China was going through a period of social upheaval, poverty, and dictatorship under Mao Zedong.

The 1970s

Beginning in the late 1970s, China’s share of global exports stood at less than 1%. The country had few trade hubs and little industry. In 1979, for example, Shenzhen was a city of just around 30,000 inhabitants.

In fact, China (excluding Taiwan* and Hong Kong) did not even show up in the top 10 global exporters until 1997 when it hit a 3.3% share of global exports.

YearShare of Global ExportsRank
20004.0%#7
20057.3%#3
201010.3%#1
201513.7%#1
202014.7%#1

*Editor’s note: The above data comes from the UN, which lists Taiwan as a separate region of China for political reasons.

The 1980s

In the 1980s, several cities and regions, like the Pearl River Delta, were designated as Special Economic Zones. These SEZs had tax incentives that worked to attract foreign investment.

Additionally, in 1989, the Coastal Development Strategy was implemented to use strategic regions along the country’s coast as catalysts for economic development.

The 1990s and Onwards

By the 1990s, the world saw the rise of global value chains and transnational production lines, with China offering a cheap manufacturing hub due to low labor costs.

Rounding out the ‘90s, the Western Development Strategy was implemented in 1999, dubbed the “Open Up the West” program. This program worked to build up infrastructure and education to retain talent in China’s economy, with the goal of attracting further foreign investment.

Finally, China officially joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 which allowed the country to progress full steam ahead.

Made in China

Today China is a trade giant and manufacturing behemoth. Only the U.S. and Germany come close to its share of global exports, sitting at 8.1% and 7.8% respectively.

RankCountryShare of Global Exports (2020)
#1🇨🇳 China14.7%
#2🇺🇸 U.S. 8.1%
#3🇩🇪 Germany7.8%
#4🇳🇱 Netherlands3.8%
#5🇯🇵 Japan3.6%
#6🇭🇰 Hong Kong SAR3.1%
#7🇰🇷 South Korea2.9%
#8🇮🇹 Italy2.8%
#9🇫🇷 France2.8%
#10🇧🇪 Belgium2.4%

China’s manufacturing industry has become dominant in producing just about anything from commonplace household items to integral pieces in automotive manufacturing. Some staples of Chinese manufacturing are:

  • Precision instruments
  • Semiconductors
  • Industrial machinery for computers and smartphones

COVID-19 made China’s integral role in the global economy even more visceral, as major delays in the supply chain occurred when the virus hit the country.

An Economic Superpower

In 2021, China’s trade recovery from the crisis has bested most other countries—in Q1 2021, its exports grew by almost 50% compared to the previous year’s quarter, to around $710 billion.

And the country is not slowing down any time soon. Further plans for economic development are well under way, like Made in China 2025, with the goal of becoming a dominant player in global high-tech manufacturing. Additionally, the famous One Belt, One Road initiative has been funding infrastructure projects globally over the past decade, and the country is also a founding member of the RCEP—which is soon to be the world’s biggest trading bloc.

However, China still faces a series of challenges, such as:

  • Population decline
  • The onset of labor saving technology
  • Trade wars with U.S. and sanctions from other trade partners, like Europe
  • The emergence of ASEAN trade powers, like Vietnam

A declining population has many implications like a shrinking workforce and domestic market. Additionally, many companies are setting up shop in less costly manufacturing hubs like Vietnam.

Furthermore, inexpensive innovations in labor-saving technologies, such as robotics and automation, have already begun to undermine the cheap manual labor that has made China the world’s manufacturer.

All of these elements and more could potentially spell a slowing of growth in China’s export dominance. However, while the future for China may not be certain, currently, global trade and production could not function without it.

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Markets

The Biggest Business Risks in 2021

We live in an increasingly volatile world, where change is the only constant. Which are the top ten business risks to watch out for?

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The Biggest Business Risks Around the World

We live in an increasingly volatile world, where change is the only constant.

Businesses, too, face rapidly changing environments and associated risks that they need to adapt to—or risk falling behind. These can range from supply chain issues due to shipping blockages, to disruptions from natural catastrophes.

As countries and companies continue to grapple with the effects of the pandemic, nearly 3,000 risk management experts were surveyed for the Allianz Risk Barometer, uncovering the top 10 business risks that leaders must watch out for in 2021.

The Top 10 Business Risks: The Pandemic Trio Emerges

Business Interruption tops the charts consistently as the biggest business risk. This risk has slotted into the #1 spot seven times in the last decade of the survey, showing it has been on the minds of business leaders well before the pandemic began.

However, that is not to say that the pandemic hasn’t made awareness of this risk more acute. In fact, 94% of surveyed companies reported a COVID-19 related supply chain disruption in 2020.

Rank (2021)% ResponsesRisk NameBusiness Risk ExamplesChange from 2020
#141%Business InterruptionSupply chain disruptions
#240%Pandemic OutbreakHealth and workforce issues, restrictions on movement
#340%Cyber IncidentsCybercrime, IT failure/outage, data breaches, fines and penalties
#419%Market DevelopmentsVolatility, intensified competition/new entrants, M&A, market stagnation, market fluctuation
#519%Legislation/ Regulation ChangesTrade wars and tariffs, economic sanctions, protectionism, Brexit, Euro-zone disintegration
#617%Natural CatastrophesStorm, flood, earthquake, wildfire
#716%Fire, Explosion-
#813%Macroeconomic DevelopmentsMonetary policies, austerity programs, commodity price increase, deflation, inflation
#913%Climate Change-
#1011%Political Risks And ViolencePolitical instability, war, terrorism, civil commotion, riots and looting

Note: Figures do not add to 100% as respondents could select up to three risks per industry.

Pandemic Outbreak, naturally, has climbed 15 spots to become the second-most significant business risk. Even with vaccine roll-outs, the uncontrollable spread of the virus and new variants remain a concern.

The third most prominent business risk, Cyber Incidents, are also on the rise. Global cybercrime already causes a $1 trillion drag on the economy—a 50% jump from just two years ago. In addition, the pandemic-induced rush towards digitalization leaves businesses increasingly susceptible to cyber incidents.

Other Socio-Economic Business Risks

The top three risks mentioned above are considered the “pandemic trio”, owing to their inextricable and intertwined effects on the business world. However, these next few notable business risks are also not far behind.

Globally, GDP is expected to recover by +4.4% in 2021, compared to the -4.5% contraction from 2020. These Market Developments may also see a short-term 2 percentage point increase in GDP growth estimates in the event of rapid and successful vaccination campaigns.

In the long term, however, the world will need to contend with a record of $277 trillion worth of debt, which may potentially affect these economic growth projections. Rising insolvency rates also remain a key post-COVID concern.

Persisting traditional risks such as Fires and Explosions are especially damaging for manufacturing and industry. For example, the August 2020 Beirut explosion caused $15 billion in damages.

What’s more, Political Risks And Violence have escalated in number, scale, and duration worldwide in the form of civil unrest and protests. Such disruption is often underestimated, but insured losses can add up into the billions.

No Such Thing as a Risk-Free Life

The risks that businesses face depend on a multitude of factors, from political (in)stability and growing regulations to climate change and macroeconomic shifts.

Will a post-pandemic world accentuate these global business risks even further, or will something entirely new rear its head?

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