Deconstruction is the seed of opportunity

Our lifepaths, plans and societal assumptions are all under deconstruction. The next decade is going to be a period of adapt or die for businesses — and societies.

The dawning of a new year is traditionally a time for planning. We reflect on the year just gone, and make plans — resolutions — for the year to come. But what if our sense of being able to plan is shot? If you’ve been on social media much over the last few weeks, you’ll have seen plenty of memes expressing how difficult the past four years have been.

The old saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans”, attributed to Woody Allen, has never seemed more true than it has over the past few years.

Covid-19, although birthed in the closing months of the last decade, was the harbinger of waves of disruption, with supply chain collapse, war, energy crises, monetary shock and more war continually shaking up the social order. And yet, these shocks aren’t creating the problems, they’re just highlighting weaknesses and problems in the assumptions that — unconsciously, at least — underlie many of the ways we plan our societies and do business.

In fact, Covid can be considered the herald of what the 2024 Accenture Song Life Trends Report terms the “Decade of deconstruction” — and it’s only just getting started.

Life plan deconstruction

To quote the report:

Go to school, get a job, climb the career ladder, get married, buy a home, have a family, and save for a stable retirement.

These were once some of the features in people’s image of a successful life—there was a degree of flexibility, and variations in different cultures, but most people broadly followed the same template. Now, it feels like a decade of deconstruction is underway, and billions of life paths are being rewritten—each of them unique. Reconstructing those paths will be faster for people than for the systems that influence their lives.

And that’s the nub of the problem — and the opportunity. People’s lives and priorities change faster than the physical and corporate infrastructure that’s designed to support them. The quicker you, as a business, adapt, the better you are positioned to surf the wave of change, rather than being drowned by it.

One of the great post-pandemic debates is “Should you get staff back in the office”? And yes, some of that debate is rooted in the proof that the lockdowns delivered: we don’t need to be in the office to do good work. But it’s also informed by a longer-term structural shift.

Employment deconstruction

My father’s generation was still very much of the “job for life” school. Throughout my childhood, my father worked for essentially the same company, although the name changed through mergers and acquisitions. (In the end, it was a subsidiary of BP.) Yet, I’ve been writing for NEXT Insights nearly as long as I’ve worked for any single company (12 years, versus 14 years). And I’ve been relatively stable in my employment history, compared to many of my peers. They consider three years in a job and a decade in a single career to be a long time.

The old trade-off of two-way loyalty between employer and employee is long gone. The wave of layoffs in Silicon Valley last year made that plain. And yet, some managers want to behave as if that two-way bond is still in place. Employees can see it isn’t, and are more than happy to negotiate the terms of their temporary arrangement. And, for many, that involves not being in the office.

The same assumptions are dying in many areas of our lives. How education works, how we structure our families, and even how we share space with one another: all under deconstruction. We’ve remade society, but we haven’t adapted to that — yet.

New social wine in old bottles

In essence, we are still trying to cram new wine into old bottles. We’re trying to make new societal arrangements fit old models of living. The design of our houses, our workplaces, our transport infrastructure, our education systems, and even many of our products and services have hidden assumptions baked into them. They were conceived in an era where most people lived in nuclear family groups, with one parent working (usually the male one) and the other parent taking care of household work and childcare.

That hasn’t been the case for decades, but we haven’t truly adapted to that change. Many new parents are shocked to discover this when they have children, and they encounter the paucity of childcare options they have to deal with. Unless, of course, they have the financial resources to just buy their way out of the problem. And therein lies the issue: the people making the decisions are often the ones with the financial power not to feel the pain. And thus, structural difficulties go too long unaddressed.

Enter the polycrisis of the 2020s. To misquote Warren Buffett, when the tide goes out, we can see which social structures are swimming naked. And when you add together inflation in housing prices, the cost of living itself, and the need for multiple working people to sustain a single household, there’s a lot of structural nudity to go around.

Deconstructing housing

Take, for example, one of those old aspirational milestones: leaving home and buying a house. As the Life Trends report puts it:

In many countries, house prices are rising significantly faster than the salaries needed to pay a mortgage, placing this life goal out of reach for many and prompting a fresh approach to living arrangements.

A couple of years ago, Eliza Filby talked to us about the possibility of multi-generational households arising. It helps address the issues of both elder care and child care when all adults in the house are working. And sure enough, it has surfaced as a trend in this year’s report — but not in exactly the same form:

Communal living is on the rise, including new ideas like “mommunes”—collectives of single mothers sharing the financial, emotional and time burden of raising children between themselves.

The nuclear family has faded, but are we yet building the houses, the infrastructure, and the service models to support new ways of living? No. Not yet.

Reconstructing our businesses

And that, of course, is where the opportunities lie. We can choose to be like the old-school office manager, trying to force his workforce back into the pre-2020 working model, and quietly ignoring the fact that it was based on the technology of the 1950s. Or we can embrace the changes to transform our companies, and, critically, our products to make them fit for 21st-century purposes.

What we’re seeing right now is the final death throes of the 20th-century societal consensus. It was fatally wounded by the rise of digital technology, but finally killed off by the polycrisis — or even permacrisis — of the 2020s. Yesterday is dead, but tomorrow is yet to be born.

Can you reshape your business to be a midwife of the emerging societal consensus? Or will the old order’s deconstruction take your business with it?

This article is one of five linked pieces exploring the ideas in the 2024 Life Trends report: