"It’s the Demography, Stupid" – Understanding the impact of population surge and shifts.

I don’t think that a day goes by without me hearing, or seeing, the word Millennials. Sometimes it feels like it is everywhere. Whilst the level of exposure seems to be reaching a crescendo I fist started writing about the generation in 2010 and have written a number of articles since:

The term Millennials refers to a generation which is, itself, loosely defined by demography. Some terms transcend their first meaning and that is what has recently happened to Millennials. It only really applies to the population in western countries and to people with a birth year in the mid-1990s through to the early 2000s, but seems to have become a term for anyone of the younger generations globally.

The Millennial generation is most regularly contrasted with the Baby Boomers who were born in the period after the Second World War through to 1964. The Baby Boomer generation was a huge cohort following the low birth rate during the wartime period of the early to mid-1900’s. This resulted in much younger average ages in the western countries and a huge explosion in the workforce which then facilitated significant economic growth. Those Baby Boomers are now moving into retirement and starting to become dependent on the generations younger than them, generations with much smaller cohorts.

The title of this post isn’t mine, it’s the name of a recent programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4 which looks at the shifts in population such as that of the Baby Boomer generation, but also the impact of the One Child policy in China and the slow down of population growth across Africa. The programme gives a really great view of the impact of these population shifts within and between the generations, with a particular UK perspective. If you are a member of the Baby Boomer generation, Generation-X or the Millennial generation you should listen to this programme.

How is population change transforming our world? Think of a python swallowing a pig: a big bulge makes its way slowly down the snake from the head end to the other end. That’s a bit like what’s happened to the UK demographically. The baby boom generation – which has changed Britain politically, culturally and economically – is now retiring. That means a large bulge of pensioners with big implications for the generations that come behind them.

Personally I sit in Generation-X, between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. As a I look to my parents generation I see the promises that were made to them regarding their retirement and understand their desire to see those promises delivered. Likewise I look at my children and see the financial and social burdens that those promises are resulting in. It’s a huge demographic challenge that has been masked by a significant volume of immigration, in the UK at least. But that immigration has, itself, created other cultural challenges which the Baby Boomers have found particularly difficult to handle. Recent elections in the UK and the US have demonstrated these challenges.

One of the factors that has been on a bit of a roller-coaster ride in the last 50 years has been the UK dependency ratio, this is the ratio between those working and those being supported by those working. This seems to be a pretty good indicator of the burden I described above:

http://data.worldbank.org/share/widget?indicators=SP.POP.DPND&locations=GB

The higher the ratio the higher the burden on those working, the lower the ratio, the lower the burden. The last few years have seen a significant shift upwards.

This is the year of the 70th birthday, the year when more people in the UK celebrate their 70th birthday than ever before. It won’t be long before we are celebrating their 80th birthday, I wonder what our dependency ratio will be when that happens? I wonder how long it will be before the percentage of the population aged over 65 will pass 20%?

http://data.worldbank.org/share/widget?indicators=SP.POP.65UP.TO.ZS&locations=GB

Numbers give us insight, how we respond to those insights is what defines the future. My concern is that we are currently making decisions that will impact our future, but without the insights.

This isn’t just a UK challenge though, at a global level it looks like the dependency ratio has reached the low point and is expected to start rising driven by a growth in China:

http://data.worldbank.org/share/widget?indicators=SP.POP.DPND

Data from the World Bank, this site is a great place to get insights.

Concept of the Day: Digital Exhaust

You’re walking down a street in your local town. You have your phone in your pocket with Bluetooth and the GPS turned on. Every second you are exhausting digital information about the location of that phone.

As you walk you get a notification about a Facebook message from a friend – of course you’re available to meet later. Even more digital exhaust is emitted about who you are, where you are and how quickly you respond to messages.

This is a regular route to get your car out of a car park. As you approach your vehicle Google Maps tells you that it’s a 30 minute journey home. How did Google Maps know where your home was and that you were heading that way? More digital exhaust.

Earlier Apple Maps had told you that it had recorded where your car was parked and could help you find it later. How did it know that you had parked up? It used the digital exhaust from your phone to know that you had stopped alongside your phone disconnecting from the car Bluetooth system.

While you were out you’d been to the local store to look at some new clothes, they didn’t have your size available so you checked the store’s online store to see if they had different sizes in stock, they did, but you decided to keep looking in other stores. Next time you go to a news website there are adverts being displayed for the clothes that you didn’t buy. More digital exhaust.

Your exhausting all over the place.

As carbon-dioxide and water is the exhaust of a combustion engine – data is the exhaust of your Internet interactions.

Things I did not miss on my holiday

Today I returned to work after two weeks away on holiday.

I’m now a few hours in to my first day back and I thought I would reflect on the things that I didn’t miss whilst I was away.

Here are a few of the things I hadn’t missed:

  • Forgetting things – there’s something about a holiday return that means that I always forget something.
  • Corporate reorganisation emails – yes multiple ones.
  • Conference calls – way too many things to mention.
  • People putting a conference call on hold – listening to that wonderful beep tone is such a treat.
  • Sitting – when I’m on holiday I rarely sit, work is all about sitting.
  • The roller-coaster – coming back to work involves a roller-coaster of emotions as you read something, think about the required actions, read something else, think about other actions, read something else and realise that you don’t need to do anything.
  • Multiple streams – on holiday there’s normally only one stream of information that I need to concern myself with. If I’m walking, I’m walking. If I’m talking, I’m talking. At work there are always multiple streams that need attention. This all leads to a lack of focus that isn’t good for anyone.
  • A lack of control – on holiday I have much more control than I do at work, that’s the reality of work but it doesn’t mean that I like it.

If this sounds to you like a list of complaints, it isn’t, I’m just reflecting on things I’ve observed.

Because it's Friday: "Commencement Speaker Needed" by Improv Everywhere

The team at Improv Everywhere have been having fun again. This time their set-up was to create a graduation ceremony with a problem – no commencement speaker.

So they went around the vicinity asking anyone and everyone if they would be willing to do the speech. The results are both funny and inspiring.

It got me thinking; if someone asked me to do an impromptu commencement speech what would I exhort the graduates to do? There are some great examples in the video, I’m not sure I would be that inspirational and I certainly wouldn’t sing:

Human Behaviour, a Printer and a Ream of Paper

Today I went to the large multi-function-printer in the corner of the office expecting to pick up some printing that I’d just sent to it.

(You might be wondering what I was doing printing, but that’s a question for another day.)

I was expecting to be greeted by a set of pages on the side of the printer, but instead I was greeted by a red-light and a message on the screen.

The message told me in very clear terms that the printer was out of paper. This particular printer has four trays, three of which are dedicated to the type of A4 paper that I wanted to use, all three of these trays were empty.

Being a good office citizen I opened the cupboard next to the printer where the spare paper is stored. Having open the cupboard I was accosted by a sight I’ve seen in every office I’ve ever worked in. Instead of the cupboard containing full reams of paper it was littered with ripped open paper wrappings containing loose collections of paper. Some of these collections had barely 50 sheets in them, some a 100 sheets, but all of them less than half a ream of paper. There were so many bits of reams that I couldn’t see the full reams.

Most home printers only take a few sheets of paper, but for some years now, decades even, designers of office printers have understood something quite basic. These design geniuses have understood that the basic design requirement for a printer tray is that it takes a ream of paper. I don’t think I’ve seen a paper tray that takes part of a ream for a very, very long time. Yet, despite this being obvious to the designers of printer trays it’s clearly not obvious to the users of printer trays. What could be simpler:

  • Open paper tray
  • Remove ream of paper from cupboard
  • Remove wrapping from ream of paper
  • Put full ream of paper in paper tray
  • Close paper tray
  • Dispose of wrapping

Instead people prefer, for some reason, a different process:

  • Open paper tray
  • Remove ream of paper from cupboard
  • Open wrapping covering ream of paper
  • Remove a handful of paper from wrapping
  • Place this portion of paper into paper tray
  • Place partial ream of paper back into cupboard
  • Close paper tray

The only logical conclusions I can think of for this behaviour are as follows:

  • People haven’t understood, even after all this time, that the paper tray can take a full ream of paper.
  • Disposing of the paper wrapping around a ream of paper requires such special skills that this step is to be avoided. Possible, but I’ve not come across it.

I wonder what the designers of paper trays think about this situation. They’ve done the design work, they’ve created an optimised solution, and yet people prefer to work in a way that creates extra work.

This silly little example shows to me the difficulty of adjusting human behaviour. Even when there is an obviously simpler way of doing things we prefer to follow the tried and trusted path. We prefer to put too little paper in the printer because we are afraid that putting too much in it might break it. This is just a tiny example, but there is evidence of this type of behaviour everywhere you look. The challenge that many organisations face is that these tiny examples scale up into huge areas of inefficiency.

I'm a man in the middle

Robert Frost once said:

“The middle of the road is where the white line is-and that’s the worst place to drive.”

But that’s the reality of much of my life – I’m in the middle.

  • I’m middle-aged
  • I sit, as a member of Generation X, between the baby boomer generation and Generation Y or as they seem to have become the Millenials.
  • I work in middle management. There are people above and people below.
  • I’m in the middle of the grade structure at my employer.
  • I’m of average height.
  • Although I used to wear Regular (middle) length trousers at some time in history my trousers have become marked as Short though my legs are no shorter.
  • I used to wear tops with an M in them, they normally now have an L instead, probably because I am above average weight.
  • I have an average sized waist. Not sure I understand how I can be average height, have an average sized waist, but be above average weight?
  • I drive a medium-sized car.
  • I have a family that is as close to medium-sized as it’s possible to get without having part of a child.
  • I live very close to the geographic middle of the UK, and the geographic middle of Britain (yes they are different things).
  • Income is a tricky one, that’s above the median, but there are people earning a lot more than I am and a lot of people earning less. I need to remind myself sometimes that I’m not in the middle here.
  • I live in a city that is about as close to having a median (medium) population for the UK as it’s possible to get.
  • I think I’m middle class, but that’s difficult to be clear about that these days because, thankfully, the class system isn’t as definitive as it used to be.
  • The average tenure at most employers is between 9 and 10 years, my tenure has been significantly longer than that.
  • I have an average commute to work for my region.
  • I have the average number of connected device.
  • Looking on my utility providers web site we use an average amount of energy for our region.

The reality is that we all live our lives in the middle of something, but is that really the worst place to drive?

On the train in 2015

I’m on the train travelling home from London after a two day workshop. It’s time to read fiction and to let the mind wander. Normally I would have my headphones in but today I think I’ll listen to the world around me.

The suited man across the aisle from me is snoring. His white shirt is still adorned by a tie, but it’s warm in here and the collar is unbuttoned and the tie is loose. He’s the only person I can see who’s wearing a tie on this business dominated train as we hurtle through the countryside. He’s clinging on to his beaten-up blackberry and I wonder whether he’s set himself an alarm so that he wakes before his station. He looks strangely out of place in 2015.

The man behind him is tapping away on his iPhone and has been since we left Euston. What can be doing that’s taking so long to type, or perhaps he’s playing a game? I can’t see from here. His attire is more current with his casual shirt carrying its corporate logo.

I’m sat at a table with a much needed power supply that’s reinvigorating the various, barely adequate, batteries that my mobile technology utilizes. I’m wearing a shirt today, but haven’t worn a tie for business meetings for a long time.

Opposite me another businessman works his way through an over generous food bag as he watches rugby on his oversized bright blue laptop with his headphones in. I thought he was going to be a problem when I arrived; his bag, laptop, Kindle and Samsung Galaxy covered the whole table. Thankfully he soon constrained himself to his side of the table.

Behind me there’s a discussion between three businessmen and one businesswoman around another table. They’re in various logoed polo shirts and are trying to work out whether it would be possible to disappear in a modern world where the network knows your every move:

“You just can’t do anything without leaving a footprint somewhere.”

“Just imagine what Facebook already knows about you”

“How many different cameras have captured images of us today?”

The businesswoman isn’t too bothered about the thought of disappearing as she taps away on her pink-clad smartphone completely ignoring the men, who she clearly knows but has probably heard enough from already.

We are accompanied on our journey by a young Asian couple who are swapping stories and laughing as they pass each other their iPhones. They’re also plugged in trying to water the lithium. It’s hard to tell whether they are business people or on a tourist journey. Where would we be without flex?

There’s a cloud free sky outside and bails have been randomly scattered across the golden-brown fields. The sun is setting and the colours are a beautiful spectrum of oranges, yellows and blues. The sun will soon be set and I will soon be home.