One hears repeatedly about the future of shipping in terms of future environmental regulations and stricter local laws, the spread of digitisation and innovative technology, unique designs and more efficient ships, etc. A combination of all these is expected to bring about disruption not just in the business of shipping but in our future way of life. However, these changes will not be possible without the oil that lubricates all of these gears.
What is this super smooth enabler that we are talking about? Business, regulations, technology, design, etc. do not come out of thin air. They are made possible by people, and it is people who will make possible change and disruption. To understand the future of shipping, one needs to understand the different kinds of people affecting the shipping market today and to predict the mind-set of those who will influence the market in the near future. Let me attempt to describe these different kinds of people briefly:
Born roughly between the end of WW2 and 1965, baby boomers are sometimes also known as the “original generation”. Unlike their parents they had a lot more opportunities for good work and a good life. It is believed that no generation has had it as good, because they enjoyed good benefits while working and can retire with generous pensions. The oldest among them have either retired from decision-making roles in shipping or soon will.
Born roughly between 1965 and 1984, they are believed to be in a permanent state of anxiety, which makes them somewhat cynical and perhaps resistant to change. Those on board vessels are career seafarers and are either senior Captains or senior Chief Engineers. On the shore side, they are either senior managers or mid-level managers with some at the decision-making level. The oldest among them will begin retiring in another decade.
Also called the millennials, born roughly from 1984 to 2000. They are the primary shapers of modern technology and count among them the youngest self-made billionaires. They are comfortable sharing their entire life online and live by the slogan “let’s take a selfie”. They are generally considered to be self-regarding and selfish. The oldest among them have become Captains and Chief Engineers on board or are mid-level managers ashore.
Those born post-2000. They are described as the “original digital natives” or sometimes called “screenagers”. Growing up in a world of political chaos and recession, they are mature, smart, play it safe and genuinely want to change the world. They are true global citizens, don’t believe in boundaries and want to make the world a better place. The oldest among them are teenagers and have either already entered the shipping industry or will do so in the coming few years.
This is the last group, born post-2010. It’s said that over 2.5 million of them are born on this planet every week. Born into a world of tablets and smart phones, they are capable from the cradle of sharing a thought or an idea worldwide. It is believed that unlike earlier generations, Alphas will spend the bulk of their formative years completely immersed in learning and using technology. In my opinion this generation will not use emails (it only quickened the pace of what the postman brought). They will use instant messaging, pictures and video. In an age of hyper-connectivity, within seconds they will have the capability of reaching out to and interacting with any person or stranger they choose to on the planet. Devices will not be seen as tools but as an extension of their lifestyle. They will probably be cadets on the last series of sister ships ordered today.
It is fascinating to look at how the different generations in shipping have evolved, not just in how they work and use information, but also in how they use technology. Let me attempt to explain this based on the age-old practice of noon reports from ships.
The baby boomers thrived in an environment dominated by a top-down management style. They got all their information from their many managers, who in turn got all their information from the front line. In the case of ships, it meant a report sent at noon stating the ship’s position, ETA next port and fuel ROB (mainly only the most pertinent information).
Gen-X wants to know a lot more about what is happening on board. Triggered perhaps by their generational anxiety, the daily noon report evolved into a massive onboard data-gathering process. In the morning, data is manually and systematically collected from various kinds of equipment and machinery—sensors, instruments, etc. (most of which is irrelevant and unused unless there is an incident and a need to go back and investigate what happened).
Gen-Y is not really interested in all the detailed information contained in noon reports. They find most of it irrelevant to them and a waste of time. They are keen to change things but can’t do much while the management styles of the previous two generations are still in place. They believe that if new technology exists, it should be tried, tested and used. They suggest, for example, automating the noon report and distributing only the relevant information to those who need it.
Gen-Z is generally more outspoken and will not be limited by the management styles of previous generations. Since they live in a world of information overload, they ignore irrelevant information and only focus on subjects that genuinely interest them. Like much else, they view the noon report as an inheritance from “the dinosaur age”, and may want nothing to do with the generic information contained in them. They will expect ship data that is specifically relevant to them, made visual in a manner they prefer. Each Gen-Z’er may demand their own unique user interface to data.
The evolution of the work habits of Gen-Alpha can only be guessed at. Their response to the ship’s noon report may be: “What is that?” and then they might google it on their personal devices to learn its history. The likelihood is that they will not work behind a desk at the company office. Their office will be wherever they are or wherever they go. Possibly they will code their own software to customise and personalise their devices to meet their work and entertainment needs, so they won’t need separate work and personal gadgets. Their future will perhaps consist of unmanned transportation, and remote monitoring and management.
What should we focus on?
Understanding the people of the future is perhaps more important than predicting the future as we see it because how we see the future may be a lot different from how the next generation sees it. Strategies for attracting fresh talent and more importantly retaining them must evolve, taking into consideration different mind-sets and what drives them. Design, technology, and visual interfaces must cater to the needs and preferences of the generation that is going to use them.
One day there may be drones and autonomous ships everywhere that have no need for seafarers, and I hope it happens soon. However, until we get there, let us create technology that the next generation can easily use, modify and evolve. I believe that understanding the next generations should be our number one priority.
What are your thoughts?