No trust, no job security: Bernard Salt on the uncertain future

Start typing Bernard Salt's name into Google and the very first thing that comes up is "Bernard Salt avocado". Sadly for him, this does not mean Salt has a prolific sideline as a TV chef. Photos by Jarrod Barnes.

There’s so much more to demographer and analyst Bernard Salt than a quip about A$22 smashed avocado on toast.

By Stephen Corby

Start punching the name “Bernard Salt” into Google, and the very first suggestion that pops up isn’t anything to do with his role as one of the country’s leading demographers, or even one of his bold predictions about the future. There’s nothing about his stellar career with KPMG, nor his work advising governments and business leaders.

Nope, start typing Salt’s name into Google and the very first thing that comes up is “Bernard Salt avocado”. Sadly for him, this does not mean Salt has a prolific sideline as a TV chef.

He might have made his living interpreting lines of raw data to forecast social change, but even Salt couldn’t predict the storm over a humorous mention of avocado on toast in one of his articles.

“It went global, viral and feral almost immediately” he says. 

“I didn’t expect it. It came out on a Saturday, and everyone read the column and got that I was actually parodying being middle-aged. Then on Monday, about 6am, a news organisation took just those comments about the smashed avocado, and three hours later I was fielding calls from the BBC in London.

“It made page three of the Stuttgart newspaper in Germany. It made the newspapers in Venezuela. It was trending on Twitter within six hours.”

He’s referring, of course, to a column he wrote for The Australian newspaper in October 2016. Or, more specifically, to this particular paragraph.

“I have seen young people order smashed avocado with crumbled feta on five-grain toasted bread at $22 a pop and more,” it read.

“I can afford to eat this for lunch because I am middle-aged and have raised my family. But how can young people afford to eat like this? Shouldn’t they be economising by eating at home? How often are they eating out? Twenty-two dollars several times a week could go towards a deposit on a house.”

With that one paragraph, Salt had inadvertently charged head-first into a war that had been brewing between the generations. It was a time when the housing-affordability debate was at its most fiery, and people of all ages were looking for someone to blame.

“It resonated with both baby boomers and with millennials; millennials being incensed by this view and baby boomers saying ‘yes, we do hold that view’. It really crystallised an important social division between the generations.

“About a month after the avocado thing first exploded, I took a call from a wheat grower in Australia who asked, ‘can you do for wheat what you’ve done for avocados?’”

Seeing the hearts and minds of Australia in digits and decimal points

Shaping the debate, even accidentally, is something Salt has become adept at over the years. Part analyst, part storyteller and part seer, he tours the country’s highest offices, painting seemingly fantastic visions of tomorrow that are actually firmly rooted in facts and data. 

One of five siblings in a big Catholic family, Salt was the only one of his brothers and sisters to attend university, leaving his home town in country Victoria to study history and geography in the city, before obtaining a master’s degree on the history of Melbourne in the 1880s.

It’s in those qualifications that the storytelling Salt was born. He sees the future not just through numbers and trends, but by looking to the past. But the real trick, he says, is creating a narrative.

“The data I use is almost entirely from the [Australian] census, but my training was actually in history and in geography. In both of those, there is a use of data in a different way to the black-and-white way in which a businessperson might use it,” he says. 

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“Where they might be looking to see if a number is simply positive or negative, I’m looking at data for the purposes of interpreting history, and looking for a narrative behind the data. 

“It’s that interpretation that really engages CEOs and boards. They can already see that figures are rising or falling; they don’t need me to tell them. What they want from me is to give them a narrative as to why.”

Salt splits that data into what he calls trends and mega trends, with the latter forming the social movements that end up sweeping an entire country. He’s identified one small but crucial piece of data from the last census that he says is a mega trend in the making. It’s a particular trend that should be worrying business and political leaders alike, not to mention spiritual leaders. 

“The data shows that there’s been a 45 per cent increase in the number of Australians reporting that they are now atheist between the last two census periods,” he explains.

“Obviously, you could say that that is a lot; that it is a significant increase on the previous five-year period. Or you could say that something has happened to the heartland of the Australian people over the past five years. 

“There has been a visceral recoil from the embrace of belief to non-belief, so what has happened? Well, clearly people are recoiling from the inquiry into child abuse in the church. 

“But then you see it’s more than that. The Australian heartland is not just rejecting big religion; they’re rejecting big government with the main political parties, big business and big unions.”

That is the most fascinating thing about any conversation with Salt – his ability to extrapolate specific data sets and apply them to the broader community. It’s as if he doesn’t see the numbers, but instead sees the hearts and minds of Australia in every digit and decimal point. 

What he sees now is an Australian who is less trusting of business and politics than ever before, and less willing to simply go along with the status quo. Instead, we demand things that speak us to on a personal level, whether from our MPs or our department stores.

“There’s almost an anti-big-business sentiment at the moment, and it impacts political parties, too,” he says. “You only have to look at the rise of the independents and the small parties to see that there has been a fragmentation.

“What people really respond to now is local businesses, cooperative businesses and community business. We’re becoming so cynical that we actually want to see real evidence of authentic behaviour by corporations and businesses.

“It’s been gathering momentum over the last decade and will probably last into the next decade. If you want to connect with the heartland, then you need authentic, local, communal relationships.”

Bernard Salt's column about smashed avocado sparked a media firestorm and an advertising campaign by ME Bank.

The down side of seeing into the future

Consult any Marvel movie and you’ll surely know that any special power arrives with its own burdens. For Salt, predicting an uncertain future carries its own baggage. While you and I chug along, living largely in the moment, Salt finds himself constantly looking 10, 20 or 30 years into the future. 

Ask him what scares him most about where we’re heading, and it’s the things he can’t predict, rather than the things that he can, that cause the most sleepless nights. 

“Let’s picture Australia by 2030,” he says. “America’s dominance will be significantly challenged. It will still be the most powerful military force in the world, but China will be a bigger economic force.

“I am concerned about Australia’s future in terms of trying to walk a fine line between securing income support from China, but securing military support from America. I think that’s a very different space for Australia to be in.

“We’re sort of caught in this world where our leading trading partner is not only not aligned with our leading military partner, but is the logical opponent of it. It’s something that changes the geo-dynamics of the broader region.

“When everything is aligned it’s very simple – life is very simple and very secure. When the interests are not aligned, it just becomes a much more complex world. I’m not implying that it’s threatening, but it’s just a more complex world.”

The skill of the future? Flexibility.

It’s a complexity that Salt also sees playing out in workplaces around the country, even now. There’s no such thing as a secure job anymore, he says. When quizzed over the most important skills for the future, he doesn’t list a single university course or career. Instead, he lists a mindset: flexibility.

“It makes sense with all this disruption and with the changed global influences. All of these factors can result in an organisation having to reinvent itself or realign itself, too,” he explains. 

“In order to prosper as a worker you need to have the right mindset. If you don’t, then you’re certainly going to be wrong-footed.

“It’s how you view it. Can you learn new skills, meet new people, reinvent yourself? Do you see it as a positive opportunity as opposed to something that is quite threatening? 

“What we actually need is a workforce and a future that is more agile, that is more flexible, that is not fazed by changed working arrangements. 

“We might find in the next 10 or 15 years that businesses and government departments are completely reimagined, and that you need to actually re-pitch your skill set to a new community. If you have a mindset that says no, that you don’t feel comfortable pitching yourself as a 45-year-old to a 34-year-old manager, then that will actually hold Australia back in the future.

“It’s creating a workforce that is comfortable with change, that’s really what we want.”

However, it’s far easier to be comfortable with change when you can see it coming; it’s this skill that makes Bernard truly worth his salt. 

Bernard Salt on Australia’s mega trends

  • Between the last two census periods there’s been a 45 per cent increase in the number of people reporting that they are atheist.
  • Australians are rejecting big government (including big political parties), big business and big unions.
  • People now seek things that speak to them on a personal, local and community level.
  • The job skill you need for the future? Flexibility.

Read next: Bernard Salt: The sum of us?

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March 2018
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