Opinion: Older folk need to keep up with the millennials

By Martin Hesse Time of article published Jun 20, 2019

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We are living at an extraordinary time in history, at the dawn of an era that will usher in economic opportunity and social upliftment we can barely dream of. Millennials are leading this so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, and older folk like me (Baby Boomers and Generation Xers) are going to have to keep up, somehow. We don’t have the luxury that our parents had of living in denial of newfangled gadgets - things are simply changing too fast.

Attending the recent Exponential Finance Summit in Cape Town, hosted by Singularity University (SU), I was overwhelmed by the positive energy that radiated from every corner of the conference centre.

Most people there were millennials, who, it appeared to me, were fully aware of the incredible opportunities technology is opening up for them, and were simply having their beliefs and expectations confirmed by the excellent line-up of international and local speakers.

It was also gratifying to see the racial diversity among the delegates. Millennials are colour blind - if you live and breathe technology, which they do, that is all you need to be accepted into their vibrant, entrepreneurial circle.

It’s hard not to be excited by how our world has changed in the past few decades and what futurists see happening in the next 20 years. And boy, are things going to heat up!

The gist of the summit was in that one word, “exponential”. An executive director of SU, Will Weisman, explained in his introduction to the conference that the world has changed faster than the human brain has. Our brains are not wired to think exponentially; we naturally think linearly, and we need to retrain our brains to begin to grasp the rate of human progress and make extrapolations into the future.

Compound interest, for example, is exponential: if you had R100 and it grew by R100 a year for 10 years, you would have R1100; if it grew by 100% a year for 10 years, you would have more than R1 million.

Weisman provided examples of exponential growth in technology. Computing power has shown a predictable exponential trajectory, doubling every couple of years, according to Moore’s Law.

By about 2030, for $1000 you will be able to buy a computer with the computing power of the human brain, he said. By about 2050, you’ll be able to buy a computer equal to all human brains.

Another example is the sequencing of the human genome. Weisman said: “We started in 1990 with this effort. We spent seven years and a billion dollars and were able to sequence 1% of it. So linear thinkers would have thought ‘this is a disaster; it’s going to take 700 years and a hundred billion dollars’. But the folks who understood exponential thinking saw that they were almost there. It took only a few exponential doublings to get there, in about another six years with another $1.5billion.”

Another word Weisman brought to our attention was “abundance”. Technology takes a scarce or costly resource and makes it plentiful and ultimately ubiquitous, he said, and there is no better example than the smartphone. This abundance will truly transform society, reducing inequality and enabling financial inclusion.

But incumbent organisations and individuals resistant to change will lose out big time. Amin Toufani, chief executive of T Labs, a Silicon Valley venture studio, said that for these players, “winter is coming”. He compared the Chinese fintech company Ant Financial and Bank of America. “Bank of America approves a loan in 20 days; Ant does it in two seconds. And this is not unique to Ant Financial, which is almost twice as big as Goldman Sachs,” Toufani said. In financial services, there are several factors that will distinguish winners from losers, the primary one being how well the needs of the client are met.

Of course, the future won’t all be roses. Automation will make thousands of jobs redundant, and cybercrime (covered in last week’s Personal Finance) is a huge threat.

But, while many jobs may be lost, new ones will emerge in fields as yet unimagined. Twenty years ago, who would have thought there’d be job opportunities in social media marketing, for example?

Although we are not immersed in the new technology like our children, I think we Baby Boomers are adapting relatively well. I’m continually surprised at how comfortable many people older than me are using SnapScan, Google Maps, Uber and Facebook.

Not quite sure how I’ll cope in a driverless taxi, though, or with being operated on by a robot...


Singularity University, based in Silicon Valley, California, was founded in 2008 by two gurus of the new technological age, Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil.

It is, according to its website, “a global learning and innovation community using exponential technologies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges and build an abundant future for all”.

It runs education and innovation programmes throughout the world for entrepreneurs and corporations.

The organisation’s local chapter, SingularityU South Africa, has its headquarters in Johannesburg.

Its aim is to “build an empowered network of globally connected change-makers across Africa who are able to innovate and implement solutions that will solve some of the Africa’s - and the world’s - greatest challenges. We want to #futureproofAfrica into the Fourth Industrial Revolution and not chase the tail of disruption”.


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