So here we are: the last few weeks of 2019, the end of one decade and the start of another. It’s time for reflection and stock-taking, and that’s precisely what we’ve done in the fourth and final Harvard Pulse of the year.

As before, this quarter we surveyed 100 business leaders from across the UK – at companies of all sizes and sectors – to get their views on how the technology and business landscape was changing.

Pleasingly, we found a high degree of confidence about the UK’s prospects in 2020. Over four-fifths of our respondents (81%) said they felt confident about the UK economy’s chances of growth in the year ahead, and even more (85%) were optimistic about their own organisation’s growth.

Perhaps relatedly, Brexit fell as an issue in business leaders’ minds, down to 11% from 17% and 20% in the past two Pulse surveys. While our survey was conducted before the recent general election, it might have been a straw in the wind that the Brexit issue was getting settled in people’s minds.

Optimism vs anxiety

But looking further ahead, business leaders’ views are less rosy. While 79% of respondents are confident that their business will still exist by the end of the next decade, one in three of them (34%) are not confident that their own job will. Interestingly, the larger their company size, the less confidence they are likely to have in their job existing by 2030.

We were struck by this paradox. Leaders seem pretty confident about the prospects of larger structures, like the economy and businesses, but they’re less certain about their personal prospects. It may not be coincidence that 70% of leaders believe that automation is the technology that will have the biggest impact on the workplace in the next decade.

This tension – between how well “the system” is doing, and how well each of us is doing on an individual level – seems to underpin a lot of political and social discontent right now. We’ve called it the struggle between optimism and anxiety.

The rate of change, especially in technological developments, can be disconcerting for many people and can generate a sense of anxiety that’s then manifested in political backlashes and cultural nostalgia for simpler times. A key challenge for the tech industry, I think, is to contribute to a more informed conversation about how this change can be managed and be constructive.

Pulse themes

Looking back on a year of Pulse surveys, we can also discern some consistent themes.

The role played by the CEO in tech purchasing decisions remains fundamental (the last three Pulse surveys have found that 42%, 45% and 46% of CEOs respectively make the final buying decision in their companies). And digital transformation has remained the number one tech priority in every quarter’s survey. It was selected by 50% of business leaders this time round.

If that’s what’s stayed consistent, what might change? Our respondents see the 2020s as a decade when collaboration tools will rival AI as the most influential technology (83% versus 84% respectively). They also expect this tech will change our working lives: 72% think we’ll have a higher proportion of flexible and remote working by 2030, and 70% think we’ll have a better work-life balance.

That might explain why 70% of business leaders think that the perception of the tech sector will improve by the end of the next decade. So let’s end on that optimistic note: tech still has the power to change our lives for the better. The priority in the years ahead must be to ensure tech doesn’t provoke anxiety, but instead provides answers to the biggest challenges we all face.

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