One reason I look forward to attending the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit each year is that it's often the first place I hear about phenomena or trends that become more widely discussed in subsequent years. It was, for example, where I first heard the term "BRIC countries" or predictions about the Chinese economy overtaking the U.S. by 2027.
This year, the expected impact of biometrics on travel caught my attention (are you ready for finger-vein scans?), but the presentation that made the most impact on me was the opening keynote by Manuel Muniz, dean of the School of International Relations at Madrid-based IE University.
His area of specialization is challenges posed by accelerated societal and technological change (when he isn't teaching, he's advising governments and international organizations such as the G-20 and United Nations).
By now, most of the WTTC audience of globalists are familiar with the underlying causes of the societal disruptions and the subsequent rise of nativism and nationalism that challenge WTTC's agenda of facilitating the expansion of safe and secure travel. The combination of nostalgia for previous structures, the fear of livelihoods being displaced by technology or immigrants and a sense that there is little hope for upward mobility has convulsed the world order from Delhi to D.C.
Last year at the WTTC Global Summit, Oxford futurist Ian Goldin argued that further advances in science and technology are both inevitable and largely positive. He noted that the transition from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance was by no means smooth, and that there was a century of discord before the Enlightenment was accepted and established.
Overall, Goldin's message was optimistic. The pitfalls he focused on were primarily the unintended consequences of technological and scientific advancement, such as dangers posed by cyberwarfare or the ease with which a global pandemic could spread.
Muniz's presentation was the yin to Goldin's yang, a warning of dark days to come unless fundamental societal behaviors are addressed. He used statistics, data and charts to show, in stark terms, where we might be headed.
The creation of wealth, particularly since the end of World War II, has been and continues to be phenomenal, he said. But, as has been pointed out by others, the extraordinary wealth creation, nurtured by technology and the postwar policies of liberal democracy, are not trickling down to the middle class, 80% of whom have seen wages stagnate since 1973.
And while some older people might yearn for the past, young people in Western societies are losing hope. One-third of all Americans would embrace a government that is more authoritarian, but younger people take it one step further and are less likely to feel that it's essential even to live in a democracy.
Muniz warns that if we think this is just a blip that will disappear after an election cycle, history suggests otherwise. Trade wars and tariffs, though demonstrably not in the economic interests of the nations involved, tend to escalate despite negative repercussions. And the impact of inequality of wages and wealth are chillingly similar to conditions that led to proletariat revolutions 100 years ago, the impact of which endured for the better part of the 20th century. (The current label for disaffected workers is not proletariat but "precariat," a reference to the precarious position many workers feel they're in.)
Although I had seen similar data and had heard comparable arguments before, the deep impact of Muniz's presentation came from a video he showed involving two monkeys that were subjects in an experiment showing the results of inequality. Each of the caged primates happily accept a reward of cucumbers for performing a simple task. But then one, in view of the other, is given a reward of (more desirable) grapes for the same task. The reaction is initially laugh-inducing, but then its sobering implications kick in.
A panel following Muniz's keynote included TUI CEO Friedrich Joussen, Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson and Certares CEO Greg O'Hara. Joussen seemed unperturbed by Muniz's presentation, suggesting that the travel industry, which is a reliable job generator, is part of the solution.
But that rang hollow to me; the contributions of travel are simply not great enough to counterbalance the problems Muniz outlined. And travel would certainly become collateral damage should the future he asserts is plausible comes to pass.
Muniz proposed that we need a new "social contract" that would restore hope. He believes that although President Trump and some other leaders were elected to address the problems, their policies are not going to bring the desired effects.
What I found particularly disheartening is that in the current political environment, it seems unlikely our leaders will engage in the magnitude of serious policy debate necessary to address these deep systemic issues.
I had breakfast with Michael Frenkel, principal of MFC PR, last week, and he told me he recently rewatched a Carter-Reagan debate. "Neither was exactly Churchill," he said, "but they actually had a discussion where they listened to each other. I don't know the solution. But I'd be very pleased just to see the issues discussed seriously."