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Changed visions: 2021 New Year resolutions

New Year resolutions have a habit of not surviving the end of the festive season.

However, 2020 was a bizarre and traumatic year for individuals, households, businesses, politicians, religions and, especially, health officials and front-line workers. So, we all need to change our modus operandi to a greater or lesser extent, and this is a good time to take stock of the year we have happily left behind, resolve to adapt our plans and get serious about some new year (and longer term) resolutions.

It is comforting to know we have one of the highest standards of living in the world. We are the 'lucky country' in so many ways and we are geographically in the biggest and fastest growing mega-region of the world, Asia. Most of the other three mega-regions – Europe, the Americas, and Africa and Middle East – while still big, are losing shares of world GDP.

But what sort of changed visions and behaviour do we need to think about?

Health gurus and officials

We need less shock and awe, and wild forecasts from so-called epidemiologist experts and gurus of the sort that terrified us in early 2020 with the COVID-19 virus. It led to political and public panic, saturation media sensationalism and government deficit spending that has set peace-time records.

COVID in the 2020 year gave us less than 2 million deaths of the 57 million total deaths across the world (a miniscule 3.2%), albeit over three times that percentage in the USA. Didn’t the other 97% of deaths - over 30 times more than COVID deaths - matter as much?

It suggests our health officials in Australia and more so in many overseas nations need to be on top of the response mechanism for the remaining period of the current pandemic in 2021, and others that are bound to follow through this century. The components of a response mechanism include:

  • Border testing/entry clearance procedures (international and domestic)
  • Tracing
  • Quarantining (the infected and particularly the >70-year-old population wherever they live)
  • Masking and distancing
  • Hospital and medical treatment adequacy
  • Business/economic shutdowns (ever again?)
  • Border closures (ever again?)
  • Vaccines
  • Responsible perspective given to citizens about death, all causes, and cost and benefit issues (as are applied to health expenditure all the time).

Australia, as usual, was only mildly affected by the virus with an almost invisible 0.6% of all deaths in 2020. We have not been nearly as impacted as other nations with pandemics over the past 100+ years for reasons of being in the Southern Hemisphere, being an island continent and having a very high standard-of-living with the wherewithal to action preventative and curative measures.

A world-average 3.2% COVID death rate would have led to 5,000 deaths in Australia, but we had less than 1,000. Saving over 4,000 lives, or 2.5% of all deaths, involved current and future deficit spending of some $90 million per life saved. A very high cost, and we have mortgaged future growth severely with massive and unprecedented peace-time government deficits and debt.

The GFC response in 2008-09 lowered the following 10+ years of GDP growth by 0.5% pa, abetted by a lack of much-needed reforms. And the COVID 19 response looks like reducing that growth by a further 0.5% pa to the end of this decade. So, we need to think hard about future pandemics.

Politicians and emperors-for-life

Politics and government are in bad shape globally, including in Australia. In an age where the capitalism versus socialism ideological battle has long since been replaced by the rational versus emotional/irrational ideological battle, the latter has been winning. None so obvious as in the USA, where a President that can be compared to Rome’s Caligula has lost to a more rational new President. Perhaps the tide is turning.

However, emperors-for-life now rule over nearly a third of the population across the world’s eight regions and their 7.9 billion people. Of course, not many of us know that a nation needs a standard of living (SOL) averaging A$25,000/capita to afford an effective democracy, the reasons being: the cost of a largely corrupt-free military, police, government and judiciary; and the wherewithal to help the needy and underprivileged with basics.

Australia’s SOL is around A$78,000/capita, and the temptation is to say every nation should have democracy, without realising it is a magnanimous and virtuous thought but impractical if not destabilising. At best, we can encourage competent, benevolent dictatorships or plutocracies until a nation can afford democracy.

Sadly, we too often end up with malevolent and incompetent or self-aggrandising autocracies and plutocracies The Russian Federation has an SOL of A$15,000/capita, China around the same, India just over A$3,000, and PNG in the same ball-park - to touch on just some of the not-quite-ready nations of the world’s 230 nations, protectorates and principalities, some of whom have a nominal if not actual democracy.

Democracies are under threat across the developed world, even where SOLs are above the A$25,000/capita threshold. The USA is the most obvious. Australia is said to be a democracy, but in effect is compromised by an upper house (Senate) that can and does reject bills from the democratically-elected lower house (House of Representatives). It's no longer possible in the UK, but still extant in our country. We urgently need reforms as covered in previous articles, such as here in May 2020 and here in August 2020.

The days when a political party can control both houses are long gone. Apart from a year of the Howard Government’s reign, that power went four decades ago. Until we get a democratically elected upper house, or remove its vetoing power - as distinct from a delaying/debating capacity - the ability and courage to reform Australia’s structures is stymied.

Individuals and households

We have around 10 million occupied households in Australia with a population of 25.5 million citizens.

While individuality is important, the way we live and work is mostly in family and other types of households, working cohorts, and social and recreational groups. We are, after all, mostly gregarious.

That said, the ageing and empty-nesters, students and other young people, have led to many single-person households. Over one in four households are single-person households, heading for 30% before the middle of this century. Modern telecommunication and videoconferencing technologies are vital anti-hermit, anti-social and loneliness antidotes.

Communication technologies have also led to many workers operating partially or fully on their own across many occupations and industries. Those that work alone from their home are now approaching 30% of the near-13 million employed persons. So, tribalism is taking on a new form as we move through this century, with virtual togetherness usurping a lot of physical tribalism.

Religious tensions are fading in most countries across the world, with some notable exceptions. Some 16% of the world’s population claim no religious belief, but in Australia, the no-religion proportion now exceeds 30%. We are, relatively, free of tension in this part of our lives. Long may it continue.

And, fortunately, in a world of polarisation of incomes and wealth this century, Australia has not seen more than a tiny-cum-marginal increase in this socially divisive pattern so far since 2001. A lucky or socially cohesive country indeed, contrary to oft-suggested lack of equanimity.

Australia is often seen as a nation of low crime. This is true when it comes to the murder rate with one of the world’s lowest. Robbery, burglary and theft crimes have fallen dramatically since the beginning of this new century. However, we have one of the world’s highest drug-related deaths and serious assault crime rates. Sadly, 1 in 10 women over the age of 15 have experienced domestic abuse of a physical, sexual or emotional nature, leading to the most frequent intervention by our police forces.

We need a lot more education, media campaigns, safety and protection measures, and reporting/coping/survival guidelines to reverse the generational abuse practices. Social cohesion needs constant vigilance.


It is the business world that creates the majority of the incomes and wealth of a nation’s citizens. Indeed, in Australia, it produces around two-thirds of the actual annual goods and services, the balance being the imputed value of household-produced goods and services.

The official total wealth creation (GDP) is traditionally accredited to businesses of which there are around 2.3 million in Australia, and of which only 40% employ persons other than the owner. We lose around 1 in 7 of these businesses each year, replaced by newcomers, much the same as in the USA.

This attrition (and renewal) is generally regarded as healthy and Darwinian in maintaining a vibrant, competitive and productive economy.

But our business world at large is not very efficient in its use of capital. Over the past four decades, the businesses in total have had an average net profit on their equity of less than 4%.

Our 2,000 largest enterprises, now accounting for almost half the nation’s $5.7 trillion revenue, have averaged around 8% return on equity. Our 100 largest listed stocks have averaged a better 11% over the past 3 years but compared badly with an average of over 20% - virtually double ours - in the USA’s 100 largest.

Some 1 in 4 of the US 100 largest listed stocks achieve ‘world best practice’ (WBP) returns of 22% or more on equity after tax; but only 1 in 10 for our largest 100. And only 6 of the US 100 stocks had profitability below the bond rate or ran losses; whereas we had 27 of our 100 below the bond rate or in losses.

What are the reasons for such a frightening gap between Australia and the USA?

It isn’t population size or hi-tech or taxation regimes or labour cost advantages, contrary to conventional wisdom. It is due in large part to:

  • the American gurus who have written the world’s most and best management success books over the past half-century
  • the countless conventions, conferences and seminars featuring these gurus
  • the leading US universities, think-tanks and institutes that have embraced and disseminated the New Age (post-mid 1960s) rules of success
  • the country-clubs that operate on a more success-sharing basis than our more ‘British’ clubs.

Associations, unions and clubs

Australia has over 18,000 community and business associations, generating revenues of $30 billion in 2021, a third of which comes from social clubs with gambling, dining and drinking services. But growth is expected to be a lowly 1.2% a year to the middle of this decade. Individuals, households, workers and businesses are less interested in them than in the past due to use-of-time issues, relevance, value and datedness.

Union membership has fallen from 50% in the 1970s to less than 15% in 2021. Golf clubs have seen declining numbers due to time-usage factors. Business associations have lost some interest with the fading of protectionism (and the need of lobbying) and in some cases struggle to provide modern and relevant information, education and advanced upskilling. Social clubs have had zero real growth in revenue since the beginning of this century, as society has turned to other forms of entertainment and social togetherness, not the least of which has been digital era-aided entertainment and social media.

So, 2021 and the decade ahead is demanding of serious renewal of associations involving:

  • questioning of their raison d’etre and relevance
  • reviewing their audience/members (including gender, age and localities)
  • reviewing their products
  • reviewing their modus operandi (including the digital era options)
  • auditing their value-proposition


We began by saying New Year resolutions have short lives. It’s so true.

Societies and businesses have retreated from long-term planning in favour of the here-and-now and have been beguiled by emotive and irrational politics over rational ideologies and politics.

These are insidious trends in a century where Asia is in the ascendancy in population numbers, economic output, innovation and productivity, with long-term thinking (indeed generations long) and ambitious standard-of-living growth objectives.

All Australian businesses should commit to WBP performance in 2021, with appropriate New Year resolutions and good luck.


Phil Ruthven AO is Founder of the Ruthven Institute and Founder of IBISWorld. The Ruthven Institute was created to help any business that wants to emulate world best performance and profitability using the Golden Rules of Success, based on over 45 years of corporate and industry analyses and strategy work.


January 08, 2021

Many interesting issues for 2021 and beyond but I feel that the large future problems for Australia and elsewhere are :

Climate and ecology
Misuse and over-use of all of the world’s finite resources. What drives this is need in subsistence economies and greed and profit in the developed world. I am not optimistic that these problems will be solved in view of these two powerful motivations; there is no incentive to economise, live modestly or behave sustainably if it means you will have fewer material things tomorrow than today, or that your reduced sales will mean reduced profit.

The automation of production-based industries will dramatically reduce employment. Similarly, the automation of information-based business will replace human brain-power with AI. Service industries will combine AI with robotisation and replace countless more jobs – and the world’s labour-force will find itself unemployed and unemployable. What happens to income-dependent populations and how will they adapt and survive without earned income.

Politics & development
The ascendency of the economies of totalitarian and autocratic forms of government results from their long term planning capability, their ability to implement their plans without dissent and distraction, and in continuity of their regimes and policies. Politics in the democracies result in short-term planning, difficulty of implementation and lack of continuity. The differences in ethics of susceptibility to corruption, nepotism and favouritism are small enough as not to need comment. The inevitable global changes in economic power – and the reactions to those changes - will be difficult and dangerous.

Covids and similar will come and go, but lives and adjustments will be much more influenced by these issues, which are already present in 2021 and will persist through generations.

Helena Ryan-Scully
January 08, 2021

Excellent article...

January 07, 2021

Very interesting commentary in this article, thankyou.

So refreshing to read an alternative perspective on the costs of our Covid responses, when unfortunately most of our media outlets only peddle one side of the story, upholding that the measures taken by our various leaders can be 'the only way'.... ("just look at what's happened in other countries.....")

Re your comment about ICT being "vital anti-hermit, anti-social and loneliness antidotes" - I would argue that they are part of the cause, and not the panacea! The ever-increasing pervasiveness of digital devices and screen time into our lives is partly responsible, imo, for the increase in social alienation and isolation, and an increasing ability to only feel comfortable communicating online instead of in a physical social context. The more we are connected digitally, the less we are connected in real life! No matter that other forces are decreasing average household size. If we weren't plugged in to our devices so much, we'd be going out more and partaking in more meaningful social experiences with others.

Wholly agree that we are the lucky country. I give thanks every single day for where I live, and not just the country but the state. While it is upsetting not to be able to visit family overseas, if I had to be stuck anywhere in the world, it would be Queensland. (And not Victoria!) Thankyou thankyou thankyou :D

Gary M
January 07, 2021

I don't see Australian Governments doing much different to combat COVID-19 or the next pandemic in future. They will consider actions in 2020 a social and political success - every Premier is at the top of their popularity. So don't expect a big opening next time around - lockdown will win again.


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