7 Changes In The Next 50 Years
I am 38 years old. If I were to describe my current work and life to myself at the age of 13, there are large parts younger me simply wouldn’t have the context to understand. “I buy advertising on a global network of computers, some of which are in people’s pockets, looking for companies that want to train people over that same network”. And it’s not just because I was 13 years old; my current life and work mostly didn’t exist then.
The world is going to change at least twice as much in the next 50 years.
I look forward in time professionally, predicting and guessing at trends, as well as backward, looking at accumulated data. That slides over easily into looking at the world in general, and because I’m a practical creature, I start to imagine what I’ll do in a futureworld. Here are a number of things that will change, and here are things I think I — and you — will need to do to cope and to thrive.
“Every era is marked by the wealth of those who figure out what the new scarcity is.” — Kevin Kelly
We’re not at the apex of connectivity yet. The exact directions of the ubiquitous connection aren’t clear, of course, and I don’t think that people sending their heartbeats to each other over their Apple Watches is the way of the future. But just as your music app now uses GPS to work out your pace, other objects and activities will be attached to the global network. There are two knock-on effects in this: providing connectivity — wireless in particular — will become ever more important, and providing spaces where there is no connectivity will become more of an opportunity. Just as good hotels now provide high-quality wifi connections, in the future they might offer rooms that are Faraday cages — so there’s no connection.
We’ll need to think about connectivity where we live. This is not to say that you shouldn’t live in the back of beyond, but you should know what you’re getting into first. If normal life in 2040 is going to need an 8G connection 86400 seconds a day, then the house you bought that’s in a communications blackspot due to the scenic mountains can become more of a liability.
I like to think that I am not so much a believer as a rational viewer of evidence. And the rational view of evidence says that climate change is a real thing. I don’t think it matters much whether it’s anthropogenic or not; it’s happening. Global temperatures will rise more and more, weather will be more chaotic, and there’s a distinct possibility that major ocean currents will stall. There will be outbreaks of diseases, some thought extinct, some unknown. Almost everywhere in the world will experience more extreme conditions, and there’s the near-certainty of sea-level rise.
So again, pay attention to that when you’re looking at where you live. Don’t buy land at sea level. Don’t buy houses on flood plains. Check that the building you’re living in can cope with extremes of temperature. Assume that you’ll experience weather that is currently unusual for the area — storms in calm places, rain in dry places, drought in wet places, and so on — and make sure that the buildings you’re living, working, and storing your stuff in can handle this.
Look at the surrounding landscape as well. Are there tall, old trees near the house? Those can fall in storms, and cause significant damage. Is there a hillside with arable land on it above the house, with not much in the way of hedgerows or trees? With sufficient rain, that can result in mudslides. What is drainage like in the area? Even if you’re not in a flood plain, hollows can still flood, or nearby rivers or streams can overflow.
There will be other effects too; people living near coasts will have to move, cities on coasts (and that’s most of the world’s major cities) will have to build sea-walls or other flood management systems, and indeed, over time, those cities will probably have to be abandoned. This will result in a huge number of people moving inland, and in the cases of low-lying areas such as the Netherlands, Florida and Bangladesh, moving to different countries. This probably won’t hit wartime refugee levels, and it’ll be a slower, more planned process, but it will still be a level of migration unseen since the Industrial Revolution. There are both costs and opportunities here, but the practicalities come down to: move well inland, or at least 50m above sea level, and don’t invest in anything that requires coastal land. Underwater salvage and boat-building may well thrive over the next century, and in the short term, dyke and levee building might be skills in high demand.
Without getting into the politics — that’s another whole post — it seems likely that travel is going to become more difficult as border checks and security theatre, driven by bombings and other attacks, increase. The prospect of secession of various territories is also about — Scotland and Catalonia are the two that spring to mind most quickly.The concept of Texas, or some other Southern state, parting ways with the USA isn’t impossible, either. So there may be more borders than there used to be.
This, considered alongside movement to to climate change, means that travel outside your own country or polity will become more difficult. Holidays abroad will probably still happen, but the more casual travel for business purposes might not. This isn’t because travel will be physically more difficult or burdensome, but because visas, passports, and so forth will become much more complicated. Country A will deny visas to people from Country B. Country B, in retaliation, will deny visas to people from Country A, but will also have to deny visas to people from Countries C, D, E and F, with which A has border agreements, and so on. The beginnings of this can already be seen in the complexity of South American visa requirements.
In practical terms, this means that it’ll be useful to consider the necessities of travel. Don’t settle in countries that look likely to get into visa or passport arguments. Courier, international delivery, and other logistics employment will become more complicated, but also more necessary — and this is already on the rise, as more and more goods are bought online and need to find their way to the buyers.
4. Fossil Fuels
It’s very hard to make predictions about fossil fuel usage. Common sense dictates that their use will wane, to be replaced by solar, wind, and tidal energy sources. As these aren’t directly portable, battery technology would then be a major growth area. But that relies on industrial and economic giants behaving according to common sense, and that doesn’t always happen.
The most useful thing I can say is: don’t get into dependence on fossil fuels. Their prices might rise, or they might be subject to sudden collapse if solar or wind power makes a technological jump. And it’s entirely possible that they’ll be, as a sort of stable door post horse process, be put under legal restrictions as climate change begins to bite.
Connected with fossil fuels, transport will also change. Self-driving cars are going to appear soon, and given that they’re markedly safer than human drivers, it’s very likely that simple insurance costs will make most people switch. Of course, once you’re not driving the car, and it can drive itself, it makes a lot less sense to have one in the garage all the time, so subscription services for cars will appear. When you’re ready to go, you just pull out your phone, and hit the “home” button on the CarService app, and the car will be there in five minutes to take you wherever you want to go.
The description above is by no means guaranteed to happen — but it’s certainly possible. That would change the face of the Western landscape quite a bit, particularly in cities — a lot less parking would be necessary, for instance. And if self-driving cars can be done, self-driving buses and cargo vehicles can’t be far behind.
For another possibility: if the prices of fossil fuels climb, and batteries don’t match up, then travel by car will become much more expensive. Trains and buses will become more popular — or at least, more used — and freight will return to rail and maybe even canals, where there are still canals.
Essentially, though, the transport market is almost inevitably going to be disrupted massively. If your current livelihood hinges on driving or selling cars, it’s probably time to branch out. It’s very likely that driving will be regarded, in a few decades, as being as useful a skill as switchboard operation.
6. Social Media
Social media have been one of the biggest changes in the world in recent years. They’ve gone from being a weird thing some people do on the internet to being the internet for many. My position on this is that social media don’t really change anything about human interaction; they just speed it up and make it more reactive — much like temperature rises do for weather.
Nevertheless, an understanding of social media, how they work, and what you can do to game them in one manner or another, will be the foundation of a huge number of jobs, companies, and even industries in the next 20 years. After that, they’ll either have faded into normality, or be ever more complex and chaotic. If you’re still one of those people who’s going “I don’t need to understand Facebook”, well… it’s a bit like “I don’t need to understand politics”. You might not like it, but it’s going to have massive impacts on your life, and understanding that will be useful to you. Replace ‘Facebook’ above with any other social medium that takes off, as necessary. I’m not saying you need to be on it 24/7, or even on it at all — but you need to know what it can do, and how people use it.
People are living longer, on average. I have colleagues in their thirties who still have two and three grandparents alive. The ‘demographic pyramid’ is becoming a demographic pillar. The knock-on effects on things like retirement and pensions are obvious, but there are more subtle effects too.
Change in broad cultural taste will slow down, because most people’s taste is largely settled by the time they’re 30. If, instead of there being 50% of the market still under 30 years old, we’re looking at only 30% of the market being under 30, then music, for instance, will be marketed to the older people. Grunge-like music will be around for another fifty to sixty years. New stuff will appear more slowly — unless, of course, the current crop of 20-somethings settle on all-variety-all-the-time as their particular taste.
The Western system of inheritance has for the last century or two been broadly based on the idea that people will inherit from their parents around the time their own children are entering secondary education. This is no longer the case. The most visible example of this is Queen Elizabeth II, the UK’s longest-reigning monarch ever, and mother to the oldest heir. Prince Charles is older now than most of England’s kings and queens were when they died, let alone inherited the throne. Money and land are being accumulated by the elderly, purely because they’re still around to hold it, and their adult children have to make lives of their own. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s very different — and it means that when these people do inherit, they’re going to be getting a lot of money.
In practical terms: plan ahead. Get insurance, get pension plans. Take care of your health, because living to a hundred doesn’t necessarily mean being healthy all that time. And don’t rely on an inheritance; make your own way in the world as best you can.
These have been just some of the possible areas of change over the next 50 years. And the swift rate of change now is, barring apocalyptic effects, the slowest such rate you’ll ever experience again. Think forward, because your future self is going to need those plans.