Lehigh Valley

Recipe for future: Tech, climate change and millennials

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - No, entrepreneur Peter Leyden said on Wednesday at Lehigh University’s Iacocca Hall, but automation will have major effects on the U.S. workforce in the coming decades. 

Leyden said that 30 percent of current U.S. jobs will be affected by automation by 2030, and a challenge for the country will be to adapt to these technological changes.

The global digital revolution, climate change, the rise of millennials and what all these will mean for American society were among the topics Leyden addressed in his speech to the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. 

Leyden said the U.S. is part of a “world historic” transformation marked by deep structural changes involving advances in technology as well as unprecedented challenges such as climate change.

The present transformation is unfolding at a quicker pace than previous ones and is arguably the most important one, Leyden said.

The world has been rapidly changing into one in which everything is digitized and all systems are being globalized, Leyden said. He noted that humans have a difficult time organizing at a global level. 

Global problems such as climate change and pandemics as well as problems with the U.S. healthcare and education systems will need to be addressed, Leyden said.

The world is at a point where old systems are not working and a “new system hasn’t been figured out” yet, Leyden said.

The digital revolution is playing a major role in the current global transformation. The raw quantity of digital data has increased, the cost of digital storage has gone down and computers and other digital devices have shrunk in size.

Technology companies dominate the world economy. Leyden said that all top five world companies in 2016 deal with technology, with Apple, Inc. and Alphabet, Inc. leading the pack. 

The world is increasingly connected digitally. Leyden noted that before 1990 only 6 percent of the world’s data was digital. Now 100 percent of data is.  

40 percent of the world’s population have the internet, and three quarters of the world population have a cell phone, Leyden said. The quantity of the world’s data doubles every two years.

Globalization is also contributing to the current transformation of society. Leyden said that worldwide travel has grown, with 10 percent of the global economy based on travel and tourism.

The number of airplane flights a year currently stands at about 3.3 billion. 

Leyden disputed the notion that America does not produce anything anymore, saying that “nothing remotely” like Silicon Valley or Hollywood exists anywhere else in the world. Leyden said he is optimistic about continued economic growth for the foreseeable future, aided by successive waves of new technologies.

Technology has improved and labor productivity have increased in the past few decades, but real income leveled off in the 1980s. One-third of U.S. workers are independent, working as freelancers or contractors, Leyden said. 36 percent of Americans have more than one income source. Leyden said in a question and answer session after the speech that a challenge for the U.S. will be to create jobs with decent wages, healthcare benefits and vacation time.

The U.S. will become a “millennial world,” with the generation born between the early 1980s and 2000 playing a bigger role in driving American society and the economy, Leyden said. As of 2015, millennials made up 35 percent of the U.S. workforce, with that number only set to increase as thousands of baby boomers retire every day. 

U.S. demographics are also set to change in the coming decades, Leyden said, with the U.S. estimated to be a majority-minority country by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By that year, Hispanics are estimated to constitute one-third of the population, while 47 percent of the country’s citizens will be white.

Climate change will represent a global challenge in the years ahead, Leyden said, noting that 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have been since 2001. The concentration of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is currently at 405 ppm, with 350 ppm considered a safe level. Leyden said he considers it “ridiculous” that any controversy could exist regarding whether climate change is happening. 

The country has many ways to handle the climate challenges, such as upgrading infrastructure so that, among other things, buildings are more energy-efficient, Leyden said. Using people’s ideas plus technology to solve world problems has worked in the past, and will work again.

Leyden is the founder of Reinvent, a company which brings together innovators in video conversations about reshaping the world. He was the former managing editor of Wired magazine and is the author of books "The Long Boom" and "What’s Next".

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