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A Short Introduction to the
Great Grey Elephants

How seven powerful forces of transformation are converging to reshape the 2020s, giving rise to new opportunities.

If we wait for grey elephants to appear,

it will be too late to prepare


“A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire. If caught early it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smoulder, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it” said President George W. Bush in a November 2005 speech at the National Institutes of Health. Yet at the start of the pandemic most countries were woefully unprepared, resulting in the narrative that Covid-19 was a black swan — an unpredictable event with severe consequences. 


But, for years, people like Bush, Bill Gates and even our very own consultants at TomorrowToday had warned of pandemics being a highly disruptive force. Few listened. The coronavirus is what we call a Grey Elephant: A highly probable, high impact and yet ignored threat.  And, the problem today is there is not just one grey elephant. There is a whole herd readying to stampede.

This article is designed to introduce the seven 'great' grey elephants sharply transforming the 2020s and to encourage you to reflect, ask questions and offer up answers.  


The key take-away: If we wait for a grey elephant to appear, it will be too late to prepare. Expect the unexpected. Promote resilience. Protect the less fortunate. Co-operate and seek opportunities to shape the future positively. 


As you read, imagine what the future might look like. Imagine how employees, partners, supply chains and customers will change. Test your strategy's preparedness and refresh where necessary. Consider what your organisation must do today to build competitive advantage in tomorrow’s world.

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The Perfect Long Storm 

The Perfect Storm is a film starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. It tells the story of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing vessel caught in the Perfect Storm of 1991, a confluence between several powerful weather fronts and a hurricane. After ignoring repeated warnings and signs, the crew, driven by the confidence of past experience and a desire to profit from their catch, carry on as normal. They are never seen again.


During the 2020s organisations will face the confluence of seven powerful forces. Most organisations are making just a few adjustments and carrying on as normal, comforted by the knowledge that what got them here, will get them there. They too may never be seen again. 


Enlightened leaders with their eyes tuned towards change are striking out to find new ground. They recognise that the best way to predict the future, is to create it. There has never been a better time to deliver value and impact. Using new strategies, leadership mindsets and business models, the leaders, are leveraging the perfect storm as an opportunity to build resilience into their systems, and they have an agile and future ready playbook. 

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We have been here before. Every hundred and fifty to two hundred years, there are moments when forces of progress collide and a brave new world emerges

Winning through the Perfect Long Storm

Even before coronavirus, people looked around and could see we are living in revolutionary times. Ubiquitous, mobile supercomputing. Intelligent robots. Artificial Intelligence. Nano-technologies. Self-driving cars. Genetic editing. All these new developments offer evidence of transformative change happening at exponential speed. 

We have been here before. Every hundred and fifty to two hundred years, there are moments when forces of progress collide and a brave new world emerges. 

The Industrial Revolution, The Renaissance and The Age of Discovery all started with social and technological upheaval that disrupted the landscape transmuting a new age.


The Ancient Greeks gave these transitionary epochs a name: Kairos — opportune moments, pockets of exceptional time, rare instants or seasons when the leaders who are tuned towards change seize opportunity to shape the future.

Why is a kairos moment important
  • History shows that moments of kairos offer exceptional and rare opportunities to shape the future.

  • Research shows that companies who are first to act during disruption gain the disproportionate returns and market share gains.

  • Great leaders during these times have the mindsets of an explorer.

  • During kairos, there are no roadmaps. What got you here will not get you there. 

  • This decade of disruption has started, but will not end with Coronavirus.

  • There will be other disruptions shaping this decade. AI, automation, shifting geopolitics, ​ageing populations, inequality are just a few examples of disruptions heading our way.

  • Coronavirus offers an excellent platform to discover, learn and unlearn the skills needed to be an explorer organisation.

Organisations stand at the crossroad of a pivotal moment in history that will be very different from the past. Most competitors only make small adjustments. The enlightened with a keen eye on the future will strike out and find new ground.

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Is your organisation's strategy ready and prepared to take advantage of this sharp transformation?

The Seven 'Great' Grey Elephants

In no particular order of threat or opportunity, the seven great grey elephants defining this new age of humanity include:

  1. Ageing
  2. Angry Planet

  3. Inequality

  4. Big Squeezes 

  5. Angry People

  6. Multipolarity

  7. Intelligent Advances 


Look back over history, there are moments when the forces of progress collide and afterwards a brave new world emerges. The Industrial Revolution, The Renaissance and The Age of Discovery all started with periods of social and technological upheaval that disrupted the landscape transmuting a new age and forcing organisations to rethink how they operate in virtually every area. We have already entered the next societal shake up. Understanding the seven great grey elephants can help you better prepare.


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The world is ageing fast.

For the first time in history there are already more old people than young 

No 1: Ageing


In the next hour, your life expectancy will increase on average by around ten minutes, and over the next year by over two months. This raises some intriguing questions. What will everyone be doing with this extra time? The world is ageing fast. For the first time in history there are already more old people (over the age of sixty) than young (under the age of five). By 2030, older persons will outnumber children aged 0-9 years (1.4 billion vs. 1.3 billion). By 2040, there will be twice as many people over sixty, as there are right now. Already Japan sells more adult diapers than baby diapers. The number of people reaching the age of a hundred is growing at four hundred per cent every year. 


China will have a population averaging fifty years old by 2060. Europe and America will hit this milestone a decade earlier. By 2050, there will be more people over the age of sixty, than under the age of twenty (2.1 billion vs. 2.0 billion). Soon, we will have too few – not too many – young people. Humanity has never been here before. Ageing is a tsunami of change, its impact will be massive and yet this is a neglected grey elephant. Very few companies and countries are facing up to the realities of ageing. The implications are vast, complex and not understood nearly well enough. 


Think of the economic implications of fewer younger workers and consumers. Who will buy your products and pay the taxes? Some countries in Europe, notably Germany, will loose a third of its workforce over the next ten years. As talent becomes harder to find what role will technology play in augmenting your workforce? What will the impact be on disposable income as an increasing amount is spent on healthcare. The retirement dream will be shattered with workers toiling well into their seventies and eighties. Pensions as we know them will become defunct. Younger generations and older generations will become frustrated — but for different reasons — as one shoulders the burden of funding retirement pots while the other finds the pension promises that were made have been broken.   


Remarkable trends


  • Fertility is below replacement levels in most countries

  • Population growth is slowing dramatically 

  • World population will peak at around 11 billion by 2100

  • The world is ageing rapidly, only Africa remains young 

  • In Europe, nearly 1 in 3 people will be 60 or older by 2030  

No 2: Angry Planet


The late Wally Broecker, an iconoclastic guru of the climate debate was fond of saying: “The earth is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks.” The beast has only just begun to snarl, humanity must stop poking or the beast will bite back. 


Front and centre is climate change. Studies show that it is the hottest it's been in a billion years. In less than two decades, Greenland’s ice sheets have already shrunk at a rate of 269 gigatons a year. That’s the equivalent of melting 50 billion 7 ton grey elephants! And, yet there are still climate change doubters. 


It is worth reflecting that “the climate emergency has no nationality, no race, no sexual preference and certainly no political or religious affiliation. The transition we are in will create completely new global tensions,” says Sasja Beslik. The BBC video series on "Life at 50 Degrees" is worth watching to get a broader perspective. 

Case at point, according to the US Drought Monitor, Hawaii has been suffering from severe or moderate drought and 80 per cent of the state is classed as abnormally dry. Since 2008, there has been a particularly dry period with scientists calculating that 90 per cent of Hawaii is getting less rainfall than it did 100 years ago. In early August 2023, a series of wildfires broke out in the U.S. state of Hawaii, predominantly on the island of Maui. Combined with the high winds from Hurricane Dora, warm temperatures and very low humidity, wildfires prompted evacuations, caused widespread damage, and killed at least 111 people in the town of Lāhainā. Humans are having to face up to the realities of an angry planet fighting back.


If greenhouse gas emissions are not dramatically reduced, three-quarters of the global population will be impacted by extreme temperatures. The resulting death toll could rise by more than 2,000 per cent within this century. 


The World Bank predicts that a quarter of a billion people will be forced to migrate by 2050 as climate change turbocharges severe storms, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, coastal storms and flooding. The cost of inaction to the global economy will be catastrophic. 


The good news of the year is that public recognition of climate change is rising, particularly in the investment community. ESG funds have outperformed traditional investments by many measures and there is increasing attention to the importance of climate risk assessment and financial reporting. But we are still nowhere near reversing climate change, too few individuals and companies are investing in cleaner energy, greener products and supply chains.


Pollution is the real elephant in the room

Another stick we are poking the beast with is the practice of flaring — the burning of natural gas that is released when oil is extracted from the ground, mainly from fracking. Flaring now produces more air pollution in two days than all the world’s motor vehicles expel in an entire year.


North Dakota is the global fracking capital, but because of a lack of gas pipelines to bring natural gas to market, oil companies flare as much as 2.5 billion cubic feet a day. This wasted gas could have powered the heating needs of 4.25 million homes for a year.


The practice of flaring is a major source of GHG. Although illegal in Nigeria, flaring continues to have a devastating impact. Fertile lands are being turning into deserts as flares raise temperatures to unbearable levels. One video, in the BBC’s series “Life at 50 Degrees”, tells the moving story of Joy and her family who are among 2m Nigerians living within 4km of a gas flare in Nigeria's oil-rich south. 


It is worth watching, if only to understand the impact of flaring because the biggest grey elephant associated with climate change is pollution. Vehicle emissions, natural gas flares and forest fires are not just damaging for the climate, they are literally killing people. In 2018, pollution from burning fossil fuels led to over 7 million premature deaths, making it one of the world’s top killers.


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“The climate emergency has no nationality, no race, no sexual preference and certainly no political or religious affiliation. The transition we are in will create completely new global tensions” - Sasja Beslik

No 3: Inequality


Coronavirus highlighted the growing gap between the haves and have nots, one of the gravest grey elephants of our era. Over half of frontline care workers are paid less than a living wage, and studies show that low-paid workers are more likely to die from Covid-19 than higher earners: “Who cares about the workers’ health, while the rich run away,” says Domenico Marra who works at a factory in Milan. “But then poor people, who need to bring bread home, go out and take risks.” 


The globalisation and the pandemic crisis has been good for the elite few. The top three wealthiest individuals have as much wealth as the 160 million poorest people in the US. Globally, the richest two thousand people have more wealth than poorest 4.6 billion and the 22 wealthiest men have more wealth than all the women in Africa.


In the UK, 90 per cent of workers have seen their incomes flatline for the past three decades. Whereas the elite or 0.01 per cent of British citizens – saw their incomes increase by 277 per cent over the same period.


The fortunes of the world’s richest 500 people grew 25 per cent in 2019. The combined wealth of these billionaires in 2019 was $8.7 trillion, which is equivalent to the total income of the poorest 150 countries. 


Increasing inequality is widely associated with rising anger. All this helps explain why so many voters in the US and UK have grown frustrated with the ‘out of touch’ elites. The outcome, Trumpism and Brexit, both representing attempts to disrupt the status quo by voting in populist leaders promising to do precisely that.


Inequality is not a remote or abstract threat. It is a real and present danger. It must be reduced if we are to prioritise the well-being of people and our planet.


Remarkable Trends 
  • The Industrial Revolution has pulled billions of people out of extreme poverty — living on less than $2 per day

  • At the start of the Industrial Revolution 89 per cent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today that figure is at under 10 percent. But that is still over a billion people 

  • For the first time since the start of the Industrial Revolution, younger generations on average can expect to be less well off than their parents

  • Africa is expected to account for nine out of ten of the poorest people in 2030

  • Inequality between the haves and have nots is growing

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The big squeeze is systemic and more complex than pandemic-driven supply disruptions and HGV driver shortages alone

No 4: The Big Squeeze


While Christmas was not cancelled, many retailers warned shoppers to be prepared for higher prices, fewer discounts and reduced product ranges than normal this year. With the cost of living rising fast and wages falling behind inflation, most people are experiencing a squeeze on several fronts. Those who can afford stuff, are discovering they can not get cars, furniture, clothing or toys due to supply chain and labour disruptions. The rest are discovering that they have significantly less disposable income. Rising costs in energy, transport and healthcare are depressing consumer spending as people are forced to divert spending from other goods and services. 


The big squeeze is systemic and more complex than pandemic-driven supply disruptions and HGV driver shortages alone. Wages have stagnated for decades, Adjusted for inflation, many workers are poorer in real terms than they were forty years ago and this despite record corporate profits. Health and pension benefits have grown stingier, and job security has shrivelled.


The big squeeze is starting to take its toll. Here is a breakdown of its major impact:


China squeezed

The spreading omnicorn variant, energy shortages and rising transport fees — costs from China have soared to nearly seven times what they were twelve months ago — are hampering factory activity which contracted for the first time since the pandemic began. As a result manufacturers of everything and retailers across the world, are grappling with a logistics squeeze and this is having a dominoes effect globally. 


The food supply squeeze

Whilst we have enough food to feed everyone on planet earth, we have too much of the wrong types of food (High fat, sugar and salt — HFSS) in the wrong places. Food wastage has also become a massive grey elephant. The UN estimates that each year, 1.6bn tonnes of food worth approximately $1.2tn, goes to waste –  A new study warns that unless urgent action is taken food loss in 2030 is set to have increased by a third to 66 tons of food thrown away every second. 


Nonetheless, today for the first time in human history more people die from eating too much rather than too little. Obesity has tripled worldwide since 1975 and by 2030 half of humankind will be overweight. In addition the industrialised production of food such as palm oil, soy beans, and beef is resulting in the extinction of millions of wild mammals, fish, birds and insects. 


The bottom line is that the global food system is unsustainable. Changes are inevitable and as this shift happens supply shortages and higher food costs will add to the big squeeze.


The fresh water squeeze

The future of Himalayan glaciers is bleak. If global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees over the next two decades, a third of all Himalayan glaciers will disappear. If temperature increases above 2 degrees Celsius, two-thirds of its glaciers are doomed. You may be wondering why this matters especially if you live thousands of miles away. The simple answers is it matters massively. Directly or indirectly, 3 billion people rely on the ten big glacier-fed rivers. That’s 40% of the world’s population in an economic region that drives at least 20% of the global economy. 


But like a trickling stream, the impacts of melting glaciers won’t all be felt at once. Rather it will come in increasing waves of disruption. At first, melting water will flood rivers and dams. The next wave will be crop failure as rivers dry up. This will also hamper hydroelectric power plants starving industries of crucial energy. The great water squeeze will hit the poorest the most, especially subsistence farmers in Bangladesh and Nepal. The result, mass migration and social unrest. As water availability evaporates, tensions between geopolitical rivals such as China, India and Pakistan could boil over into water wars. Other regions in Africa and the Americas are also under threat. In parts of Mexico the mighty Colorado river has dried up. As global warming intensifies the risks of water wars erupting over access to fresh water supplies are highly probable, high impact yet neglected threats.


The energy squeeze

Gas, coal, carbon and electricity benchmarks are hitting records. The price of oil passed $80 a barrel for the first time in three years and natural gas is the costliest in seven. TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanne has said the energy crisis that’s affecting Europe is likely to last all winter. Bank of America analysts are saying it could get even worse with predictions of oil reaching $100, spurring on an economic crisis.


As the big squeeze is felt we will witness the rise of very angry people.


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The angry people could propel the kind of new thinking required for a radical redesign of the global economic system to something fairer and more inclusive

No 5: Angry People


“It is not enough for people to be angry,” said Martin Luther King; the “supreme task” of a leader “is to organise and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.” From doomscrolling — the act of consuming an endless procession of negative online news — to violent unrest — South Africa’s civil unrest sparked by the imprisonment of populist ex-president Jacob Zuma in July is an example — Anger is on the rise globally and from ageing, climate change, rising inequality and the big squeeze there is no shortage of fuel to stoke the fires of peoples’ anger. 


The cost of anger and resulting violence is not just told in wars. It may come as a surprise, but every year far more people are killed outside war zones than in them.

Cycles of violence are not uncommon or necessarily unproductive – think of the suffragette movements. Nor is the anger remarkable in itself, but as it becomes widespread it can become a dominant societal force of change. This is why Angry People has the potential to be the most damaging and frightening of all the grey elephants.


Indeed, everything comes back to economics. Shortage anxiety turns very quickly into contagion anger and scapegoating. The wealthy should not comfort themselves. The last time these levels of inequality were seen was during the French Revolution and back then heads rolled. The elite, of which business is their vehicle for change, have an important role to play in countering this grey elephant. The pledge by the Business Roundtable that the purpose of a corporation is to promote “an economy that serves all”, must not become an empty promise. The time to act and make a visible difference is fast dwindling. 


Populist activists are using sophisticated production capabilities to spread anger virally. From anti-vaxxing rhetoric, to stirring up hatred against politicians, the neoliberal democratic system is under attack. Neither Trump nor Trumpism has gone away and the populist fire is on the rise across the world, a study warns


With violent riots flaring up in the US and globally, this grey elephant’s impact is highly visible. George Floyd’s murder at the hands of American police has become more than a tragic death, it’s the unravelling of the social contract between government, the economy and people. 


The politics of the pandemic and economic turmoil are now more variable than the virus. In the long run, populism and the angry people could also be a far more dangerous disruptive force than coronavirus itself. On the flip side this could also propel the kind of new thinking required for a radical redesign of the global economic system to something fairer and more inclusive.


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None of the western powers want to live in a world where China controls 90 per cent of the active ingredients for antibiotics and dominates battery and other strategic technology.

No 6: Multipolarity

The pandemic is politicising travel, immigration and entrenching a bias towards nationalism and self-reliance. As the US slowly emerges from a period of absent without leave, Russia and China continue to use the crisis as an opportunity to set new global rules and gain allies. The result, is an accelerating shift from ever-expanding globalisation toward rising regionalisation of the global economic and political systems. 


We are discovering just how dramatically the pandemic is reshaping world power. Many express concern that the virus will be the tipping point for China to overtake its superpower rival, the US


China worked hard to turn Covid-19 into a success story. In essence the pandemic has become a battle ground for a face-off between the ideologies of authoritarianism and democracy. By offering assistance to badly affected countries — Who would have imagined, pre the pandemic, pictures of Chinese doctors and nurses being sent to Italy on humanitarian missions — China has used the crisis to further reinforced its credentials as the go-to global leader, especially in countries who view the west as having abandoned them. 


China has also gained dominance in strategic industries from 5G telecoms to battery technology. According to the Benchmark, a London-based agency, in 2019, “China accounts for 23 per cent of the global mine-output of battery minerals. Yet its chemical companies churn out 80 per cent of the world’s processed battery-grade raw materials and 66 per cent of the global production of cathodes and anodes for Li-ion batteries.” In terms of battery factories, China now dominates. In 2020 China led the world’s battery cell production with a 63.2 per cent share, while the US was in second place with 14.2 per cent.


None of the western powers want to live in a world where China controls 90 per cent of the active ingredients for antibiotics and dominates battery and other strategic technology. Climate change activists and consumers are also demanding more sustainable and locally produced supply chains. 


As globalism unravels companies will pull back with attempts to manufacture locally. But building back capabilities long handed to the East will be difficult and costs will rise. Stagflation beckons and the era of easy money will come to an end. 

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In the end the age of automation could

be a blessing to workers not a curse 

No 7: Intelligent Advances

The digital revolution, led in part by tools like ChatGPT, is reshaping our world in profound ways. ChatGPT, for example, exemplifies the way artificial intelligence can efficiently and effectively assist in various tasks, from content creation to decision-making processes, demonstrating the transformative power of AI.

Robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning have ignited a fresh era of automation. Even before the pandemic highlighted the necessity for fresh workforce competencies, technology was already redefining the future of work. From miners to CEOs, the daily tasks of virtually everyone are undergoing transformation. Today, we witness machines that can diagnose diseases, detect fraud swiftly, generate news articles, navigate warehouses, manage stock market trades, and even conduct legal research. The scale and scope of these achievements are expanding constantly.

With such rapid changes, it's natural that concerns about AI's implications for the workforce have also risen. Studies, like those by McKinsey, suggest that due to trends in remote work, e-commerce, and ongoing automation, over 100 million individuals may need to transition to new roles by 2030. Moreover, approximately 800 million jobs might experience disruptions during the same period.

Balancing innovation and its societal implications becomes paramount. While robots can drive economic growth, there's a critical need to ensure they don't exacerbate societal disparities. The interval between tech adoption and job creation can be turbulent. For businesses, the challenge isn't just about how automation alters work but about maintaining purchasing power, especially if automation results in fewer or lower-wage jobs. We must remember, robots don’t consume products or services. A public backlash against perceived automation-first companies is plausible.

On a brighter note, companies succeeding in automation prioritise a 'bionic' approach. This means valuing human capabilities as much as technological ones. Bionic organizations aim to harmoniously merge human talents with AI and data-driven tech to enhance customer experiences, streamline operations, and innovate. The true essence of this approach is to amplify human innovation and intent.

However, technology is merely a tool that amplifies human abilities. To truly leverage it:

  1. Prioritize purpose, ensuring technology benefits society and doesn't just optimize speed and cost.

  2. Utilize AI to handle repetitive and predictable tasks.

  3. Allow individuals to foster relationships rather than just manage processes.

  4. Transition from a product-centric to a relationship-centric business model.


Moreover, cybersecurity and increasing surveillance — with omnipresent sensors and facial recognition — can significantly influence personal behaviour and politics.

Ultimately, AI and automation can be assets rather than adversaries. If executed correctly, they can enhance productivity, reduce tedious tasks, uplift living standards, and lessen inequalities. New roles can emerge, paving the way for more meaningful and human-centric professions. However, unchecked technological progression could suppress wages, intensify workplace surveillance, and magnify biases. The trajectory technology takes lies in our hands, determining if AI and robotics benefit or hamper the future workforce.


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Great opportunities exist for leaders

who are tuned towards change. 

Explore, evaluate and embark

We stand at a moment in history when there are no roadmaps. Organisations will need to build an explorer mindset into their organisational DNA. This is not the time to focus only on the essentials or to hunker down and weather the storm. This is the time to e boldly surfing the waves of change, scanning the horizon, courageously going against conventional wisdom by striking out and finding the new ground. 

Our research reveals that the 2020s will be a decade of disruption. We face enormous challenges. From accelerating climate change to the battle against inequality in all their manifestations . These are just two out of the seven leading grey elephants we’ve identified in this paper, and all seven are colliding at the same time creating the perfect storm which is amplifying and speeding up change. The Grey Elephants are not novel. They represent the world and the decade we are living in. All the change can be overwhelming, even frightening. 


But we also have better technology and insights to help identify problems and deliver solutions. Great opportunities exist for leaders who are tuned towards change. We need confidence to lead courageously, because, the greatest risk of the 21st Century is that we fail to think boldly enough to make this century great for everyone.

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Grey elephants are not novel. They represent the world and the decade we are living in.


Dean van Leeuwen is a partner in TomorrowToday’s European and global office. Graeme Codrington is a partner in the South African and global office. 

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