There’s enormous power to be had in counting people, as recent events such as the election have shown. But demographics drive far more than politics. Population shifts, from fertility rates to migrations, have enormous impacts on society and the economy, and understanding them can position businesses in a far healthier place for the future. That’s the message behind Upside: Profiting From the Profound Demographic Shifts Ahead, by Kenneth W. Gronbach (AMACOM, April 2017), an illuminating, worthwhile book.
Gronbach is a demographer, future-caster, and popular keynote speaker for a wide range of industries and business sectors, specifically because his approach combines numbers, scientific method, insight, and warmth. He makes counting humans seem human. Cracking open this book, one gets a good idea how: he makes compelling links between generations and the trends they determine.
Gronbach shows how the key trends we’re witnessing right now — from the rise of digital culture to the reliance on immigrant employees — are directly connected to population shifts. Taking these shifts into the future, he explains why baby boomers are going to be a tremendous shot in the arm to certain sunbelt states — they’re starting to retire. Generation Y is about to trigger a massive building boom — there aren’t enough homes to house the families they’re about to start.
Among the many fun facts peppered throughout are misnomers and misassumptions: Before “millennials” clicked as a name, Gen Y was also deemed the “trophy generation,” and “Generation We.” As a species, we do plenty of experimenting before settling on the truth. But if we paid more attention to the numbers, we might not have to.
Gronbach cites statistics with a certain infectious ease, but he’s also a warm and personable storyteller. He recounts a moment of middle-aged bafflement when a millennial young woman on a checkout line points to the watch he’s wearing and says, “You don’t see many of those anymore.” He assumes she must be referring to his antique Rolex, a treasure he takes pride in. But all she means is that he’s wearing a dinosaur, something utterly irrelevant to her generation. It’s funny, and telling. Generation by generation, we humble each other.
The heart of this book, of course, are its fascinating predictions: Gronbach charts the birth rates of Generation Z and sees a future far blinder to color and racial divisions. Population trends in the Northeast point to a decline that may take a toll on the region’s economy. But the South is headed for a population surge and will reap the benefits: it could see a return to manufacturing in the region, and its cities may start to truly thrive. For a business looking to expand in Southern states, that could be promising news.
Gronbach’s talk of demographic rises and falls — and the subsequent peaks and valleys in industry and manufacturing — are reassuringly based in fact. He takes care to illustrate his discussions with cleanly designed tables. It’s a bit unnerving, thinking of oneself as a single digit in a trend shaped by many millions, but it makes perfect sense. As we live longer, we have an impact on everything from healthcare to housing. Which means that aging boomers are going to wreak havoc on our healthcare system: in terms of sheer numbers and unprecedented longevity, they’re a Tsunami of needs we’re simply not ready to meet.
On the whole, Gronbach’s argument mixes caution with plenty of hope, celebrating the entrepreneurial spirit by offering a tangible leg up. As such, Upside is an ideal resource for anyone interested in what the future will bring, from investors to inventors, retailers to educators, health care practitioners to startups. Be realistic, he insists, and look at key differences with open eyes — for in them lie our next challenges and opportunities.
Boomers may “speak cyber” as if it’s a foreign language, but Generation Y have digital smarts in their very DNA, multitasking and solving technological challenges with incredible speed and facility. Fair warning to organizations: Keep your tech up to date, even if you don’t understand it, or you’ll bleed talent faster than you can say “mobile app.”
Gronbach also looks at trends shaping the rest of the planet. He offers a fascinating analysis on China, including the problem of a profound gender imbalance with far more men than women. He expresses concern over the impact of aging rates in Latin America. Access to information is a global shift —in the era of Big Data, we have more power than ever to read the numbers as we chart our future course. Gronbach is a well qualified, highly engaging guide.
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