(Pictured: Keith Suter)
Keith Suter is not the shy retiring type. He works the industry speaking circuit well and likes to make big brave predictions, weaving in some of what he learned doing two PhDs. He spoke with PENNY PRYOR.
“We wont be around by the end of this century in our current form, either we will be extinct, or we will become trans human.” It’s statements like that that have made ‘economic futurist’, multi-doctorate and Club of Rome member, Keith Suter, a sought-after corporate presenter and media commentator.
He says he’s a ‘gun for hire’, but making a living on the speaking circuit was no accident and has been the result of a concerted effort over the last two and a half decades. The motivation actually came much earlier, in the mid 1960s, when Keith was still in his early twenties.
“I’d been on the UN association youth summer school,” he explains.
“We were travelling on a coach in the evening and a flash came into my mind: – ‘Wouldn’t it be great to earn a living giving talks on world affairs’,” he says.
But at that stage it was a bit like Bill Gates saying ‘wouldn’t it be lovely to work on computers?’ before computers had actually been invented. So he had to ‘warehouse’ himself while the world caught up with his idea of being able to make a living giving talks on world affairs and other interesting economic ideas.
Born into 1948 England, Suter left school at 15 and went to work at the British War Office. But after quickly making his way through its ranks, he decided to go back to university for an Arts degree.
His subsequent journey to Australia was to further his education and purely fortuitous. His professors at the University of Sussex encouraged him to study further and as the deadlines for the Northern Hemisphere doctorates were already closed, he applied for Australia.
“So that’s why I came to Australia temporarily in 1973 to do a PhD,” he says.
His first doctorate was on the international law of guerrilla warfare, the second on the economic and social consequences of the arms race, and the most recent on the future of the Uniting Church.
Suter had a long history in the Uniting Church, and the Methodist church before it, rising to the position of foundation director at the Trinity Peace Research Institute in Perth in 1990.
It was at that point he realised the world had probably caught up with his corporate speaking vision.
“So when I look back at my life, up until 1991 I was involved in giving talks on world affairs but for free…and then I thought it would be nice to be getting paid,” he says.
Accepting a three-day a week social policy consulting role with the Uniting Church, he registered with a celebrity agency and started taking paid speaking gigs. Finally, in 2008 he left his consulting role and became a full-time presenter.
“So here I am now in this other life as a corporate presenter and I love it.”
Perhaps it’s his religious background but Suter does believe that we are all destined for certain roles.
He also lectures in international relations and politics at Macquarie and Boston University and in his final lectures he asks students to “think about what you think about when you’re not thinking of anything” to help them determine their future roles. But he also cautions against a ‘career’ and suggests the jobs of the future will be more ‘entrepreneurial’ than what most of us are used to.
In 1992 Suter was asked to join the Club of Rome, a group of internationally renowned thinkers that includes the last leader of the soviet union Mikhail Gorbachev. Being asked to join the organization, which is essentially an international group of independent thinkers interested in the future of humanity, has had a big impact on his life.
At the group’s recent annual conference in Mexico, issues such as the driverless Google car and a call for a much stronger coordination and resource mobilisation for the Ebola crisis, were on the agenda.
The club has also discussed what would be an equivalent age for the aged pension if it were introduced today.
A German chancellor in the late 19th century, Otto von Bismarck, is largely attributed with introducing the world’s first pension for workers at age 70 in 1889 (which was reduced to 65 in 1916) but he wasn’t really giving much away when life expectancy was less than 50 for most people.
“My club of Rome members have argued that if we were to introduce the aged pension today, that age would be around 84,” Suter says.
He has some interesting ideas around retirement and longevity too.
“Now we have four stages of ageing, so you’re young, you’re middle aged and then at the age of 55, 60 the new third age kicks in, which is totally unprecedented,” he says.
“The third age can last for another 50 years and then the fourth age is the compression of morbidity, where all of your bits and pieces fail in six months.”
But we haven’t thought through the impact of this longer third age on society, and many governments are grappling with this at the moment.
Suter is more than slightly concerned by the lack of emphasis on history in all disciplines, but especially economics.
“You are now getting economists being produced that don’t do economic history,” he laments, the implication being that if history is not properly understood, we may be destined to repeat it.
But, even if he is not around to be a part of it, he is excited by a future in which we may be questioning whether machines are better drivers than humans in just 15 years time and trans humans become a reality before the turn of next century.
“We will augment the human body with our science stuff so we can put the chips into brains, we can put chips into arms, so you can actually embed a computer in your arm so you’re permanently online,” he says.
It might sound like the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster, but as every good futurist knows, that doesn’t mean it won’t become a reality in the not too distant future.
NOTE: Friday Interview is taking a break for the summer. We hope to be back with more in the new year.