The older we get, the wiser we become, it seems. Certainly we better understand that the decisions we make today will bear fruit (or not) in 20 years’ time.
If we skip classes, don’t graduate and lurch from job to job in our 20s, then there’s a real chance we’ll be condemned to being bossed around in our 40s.
If we smoke, drink too much, don’t exercise and eat poorly in our 30s, then we have an increased risk of diabetes or heart disease in our 50s and 60s. And our 70s might be pretty miserable indeed.
If we spend all our earnings and don’t save in our 40s, then we won’t stand a chance of having the home of our dreams or the retirement fund we want in our 60s.
It’s the same as a nation. Thankfully, we developed a retirement income system in the 1990s which will take the pressure off the pension system in the 2030s.
The same goes for other big long-term decisions, like social housing, superannuation and even Sydney Airport.
A big lesson exists for government here.
So why don’t we appoint a Minister for the 2040s, who would not be responsible for the day-to-day management of government programs, but for development of the policies crucial in 20 or 30 years’ time?
The priorities are obvious. Energy, for a start. Coal will decline and has to be replaced but we don’t have anywhere near a cohesive approach for the next five years.
Right now it’s all about net zero, but there’s far more.
By the 2040s, what energy should we realistically plan on? What industries will it support? What industries will flow from it? And what’s the impact on our environment and the economy?
Our sense of security is paramount. We feel intimidated by the rise of China and that fear is being fanned.
The world is being reshaped by forces well beyond our control and meantime at home, our bank accounts, our home security systems and every aspect of our lives are just a little less safe than they used to be.
How are we going to deal with this in the 2040s?
Our understanding of health is changing rapidly – the odds are leaning towards more plant-based foods. What will they be? How can we make sure we’re eating what’s best for us?
What new disease can we expect will emerge (eg superbugs)? We don’t understand the long COVID tail and we should, because there will be another pandemic, at some point.
The challenges around mental health are only going to get worse unless we are proactive now.
Imagine if we stopped funding research in yearly cycles. Could we dream of a cure for cancer? Sure, it probably won’t be possible to announce it during the next election campaign – but what a legacy for any government to leave.
Just look at jobs. Technology is disrupting many jobs but in unexpected ways.
How do we make sure we’re educating now for the skills of the 2040s? And more importantly, what do we see are the education needs in the 2040s, to skill those young Australians entering workplaces in the 2060s?
This might all sound a bit like science fiction, but measure it against the foresight of the past.
In Brisbane, where I live, the city’s leaders built a six-lane bridge across the river in the 1930s when traffic was still minimal. It’s the same in Sydney. In Melbourne, they built one of the world’s great sports stadiums to a scale unimaginable today.
The challenge is that politicians retreat to vision when they’re in trouble, not as a core business. But if it’s not their business, whose is it?
Ensuing responsibility for the future should belong right at the top – and that means in the cabinet room.