A Futurist Vision of Retirement Planning

by Romie Stott

Retirement planning in your 20s and 30s, when we’re told to begin, is generally regarded as sober and responsible dues paying, the province of stoic bean counters. Not planning for retirement — not taking advantage of the magic of compound interest to bathe our last decades in a golden glow, perhaps in a dream house in Tuscany — is a sign of immaturity, and probably other distressing character traits like leaving your dishes in the sink overnight.

I spend a lot of time trying to predict the future and spinning fantasies about it, because I’m a science fiction writer. My work is generally not thought of as serious and responsible.

It’s uncomfortable to describe long-term investment as an everyday engagement with futurism. When I sock $200 away, I don’t want to have to think about it; I want the nice, secure feeling that whatever else comes, it’s reasonably likely that money will be available to meet my future needs. But when I forecast the future value of money using the best data economists have to offer, I’m making guesses about what the world will be like in 50 years, and I’m making guesses about what I will be like in 50 years.

Nobody’s good at that. How many of us are paying down student loan debt for majors in fields we never worked in? Who here feels confident they can predict the near future of the Euro, or Uber, or chicken farms? Even the people who are best at this stuff aren’t good at it — hence the investment advice to diversify and hedge. (A phenomenal strategy if broker and exchange fees didn’t exist.)

Our most popular retirement savings vehicles, 401(k)s and IRAs, have only been around since the 1970s, so we’re not exactly swimming in positive, time-tested data — and both were introduced with employees in mind, not the ballyhooed gig economy. Presumably, someone will come up with something better…in the future. In the meantime, the boilerplate suggestion that you need a million dollars at retirement is absurd on the face of it: a million dollars in New York or a million dollars in Utah? With or without an additional pension or rental income? Living 10 years or 40?

The average American today retires with around $12,000 in retirement savings, according to the National Institute for Retirement Security. That hardly seems ideal. Yet most of them aren’t living in library bathrooms for lack of a cool mil. Besides being a beautiful round number, where does the million dollar figure come from? Is it more or less believable than my theory that hat brims will be made of photosensitive polymers which expand or contract in sun and shade?

Scientists aren’t great forecasters either, kind of by design. Science is about being open to surprise, about seeing patterns and then abandoning them when further testing reveals you were wrong. Scientists are also pretty busy with the science they’re doing; storifying and marketing it are different and not always united skills. Engineers, too. An acoustician can guess, maybe, how much it costs to soundproof a room (anybody who has hired a contractor is shaking her head dubiously), but not whether 10 years from now the people who live there will care more about the quiet or that extra foot of space.

But the future is a place we’re going to live, if we make it that far, and for those of us who like to minimize our financial risks (or get maximum utility from our financial options, because we aren’t frightened people with storm bunkers, no — we are crusading adventurers, protagonists who protag), here are some of the things that those of us who try to predict the future think are most likely to impact your retirement.

Climate Change

In the next 50 years, ocean temperatures worldwide are going to rise between two and six degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels. Hopefully, technology and conservation will mitigate that and keep it closer to two. If a miracle happens, under two. If we renege on the emissions cutting we’ve already agreed to, four. It will not be zero. It is already too late for that, in the same way slamming the brakes on your car means you still skid a ways.

We’re already seeing some effects of the temperature rise, which we’re in the middle of. Weather’s been more climactic — hurricanes, monsoons, droughts. Parts of Indonesia and Venice are flooded. New York City is considering an Amsterdam-inspired dyke system to keep Manhattan above water.

If your retirement dream includes a beach house, lake house, Florida, or New Mexico, add four to 11 degrees to the daily forecast; that’s the EPA’s best prediction for 2100 AD. Maine is suddenly more attractive, although you should probably stay back from the coastline and will still not get much sun at that latitude. Watch out for Lyme disease; the ticks will enjoy milder winters, and animal migrations will spread and then concentrate infected populations. And mosquitos. Everybody thought post-nuclear-holocaust roaches would be the apex lifeform; instead, it’s going to be wet heat mosquitoes.

There’s not really an upside to this one, although if the thought of puttering in your garden appeals to you, it’s a great retirement pastime — it’s calming, it’s creative, it keeps you active without stressing your joints. It’s also, maybe, one of the best forms of carbon capture we’ve devised.

Personalized Medicine

Surely someone, somewhere, has made a mashup of Freddie Mercury singing “Who Wants To Live Forever” with a supercut of conservative commentators saying “death panels.” (Near future prediction: possibly me, right after this.) They’re on to something, though, sort of. Maybe. We are more able than ever to live through things that would have killed us before. And the future of medical research is rosy.

Forget organ harvesting clones: we may be able to regrow only what we need as we need it, out of our own stem cells painted on 3D-printed scaffolds. We’re starting to genetically analyze cancer cells instead of labeling them by organ, and may be able to target them with medicines that tell them to self-destruct. We’ve maybe cured Alzheimer’s in mice. (We’ve cured a lot of things in mice. It’s possible mice are now immortal.)

Delivery of medicine is changing, too. Telemedicine makes it possible to consult with a doctor or specialist hundreds of miles away; electronic medical records promise to flag gaps and patterns; and the combination of smartphones and wearable electronics make outpatient monitoring comparatively simple and un-intrusive. You could, in theory, travel the world well into your 90s without missing a single weekly GP appointment while your iWhatever adjusts your medication dosage on the fly based on how many times your heart beats.

Is this going to be expensive? Hard to say. On the one hand, if you put a gun to my head and say you’ll shoot me if I don’t hand you all my money, I’m going to hand you all my money so I can live another few minutes. On the other hand, if you tell me you’ll die without this thing I have that you can’t pay for, I’m going to give you it, because I’m not a monster. The cost of medicine is a war between the deep seated impulse to nurture fellow humans and the knowledge that we can completely screw them over because they’d give us anything.

I think it will be expensive. Look at bottled water pricing at a rock show where there is no shortage of bottled water. Operating tables, we’re sometimes short on.

Basically, assuming there’s not a catastrophe, we’re getting to the point where someone can choose when we die, or more accurately can choose to keep us alive as long as we have money to keep the machines going. Right now, when we make advance medical directives for our end of life care, we tend to think of it in terms of what we’d like for present-day us. But we are not the us who are dying, who are likely medicated, maybe brain damaged, maybe senile, and might try to overrule us — or be unable to overrule now-us when we really should.

Speaking personally, I want me to live as long as possible, but do not extend the same consideration to mirror-world negaverse me, who better not steal all the money I’d rather use to build a posthumous me monument. If possible, I’d like to set up some sort of “am I really me” test along the lines of the software that makes you do math problems before you can send a drunk text. Not a death panel so much as the predictive algorithm that flags credit card transactions that might be fraudulent. “Hey, so we noticed you’ve been on a breathing machine for the last week, which you aren’t normally.” “Yeah, it makes it hard to watch reruns of Battlestar Galactica.” “Great, charge approved.”

Demographic Shift

As we get older, we’re getting older — humanity as a whole. Part of that’s because child mortality rates are down and still falling, which boosts the average age of death. But birthrates are also falling, and predicted to continue to fall — except in maybe Africa, which could see a population boom. That’s nice in some ways; if the population levels off, or drops, fewer people have to share sometimes limited resources. But the flip side is that there are fewer people to share the work, and some fields — among them, high-quality elder care — are still labor intensive.

One possible answer is automation, but automation has its limits. Robots are the masters of Doing One Thing. That one thing might be complicated and impressive: BigDog’s one thing is staying upright and finding a path forward. The HV-100 is brilliant at taking care of plants it recognizes that have been placed in an environment with context clues. However, neither BigDog nor the HV-100 could make espresso; you’d need an espresso machine for that. (If I’m secretly an android, my specialty is finding coffee.)

We can make human-ish, versatile robots, but their secret one thing is scraping data people put into a database — increasingly, the Internet. People who liked this book also liked. This ingredient probably goes with this ingredient because hundreds of recipes list them together. Here is the aggregate fastest route. “Big data” isn’t a development buzzword because it’s low-hanging fruit, but because trying to get non-human things to spontaneously think like humans is incredibly hard and we’ve had no luck at it. Most AI researchers aren’t even trying anymore; they’ve moved on to other computer logic problems.

To alleviate the labor crunch, you might want to devote some of your volunteer time to data entry. That memoir you always meant to write for your grandchildren? Your obsessive need to write down what you eat every day, where you like to sit at the restaurant, and whether your server seemed distracted, in a blog nobody wants to read? Maybe this will someday teach the robots how to care for you. Or if you’re bored of your own boring life (or so thrilled by your thrilling life you need a break), how about volunteering for the Smithsonian transcription project? Retirement money in the emotional robot bank.

The Singularity

Some very smart people think within 50 years Artificial Intelligence will be so advanced we will be able to upload our brains into the cloud and live forever as post-humans (unless we choose to download into fresh-made bodies). This is called “the Singularity,” and some of these very smart people are convinced enough they are freezing their heads at the moment of death so their brains can be thin-sliced and digitized when the technology catches up. To fund their cryopreservation and eventual re-emergence, they’re using combinations of life insurance and investment trusts.

I am not one of the very smart people who believes this will happen. On the one hand, computer technology has advanced with extraordinary, transformative speed, and people with money want it to keep doing so. On the other hand, we have not figured out brains even well enough to guess which antidepressant will work for someone. I’m not fully convinced our “selfness” resides in the brain. Or exists.

However, if it does become possible to live forever with computer mediation, I suggest delaying a return to the body for at least 30 years, long enough to allow compound interest to work on your remaining assets. You will of course have some maintenance costs — server usage, etc. — while you wait to return to solid state memory (a.k.a. a brain), but you may be able to offset this by using your downcycles to electronically manage your own index fund. Suggest also investing some current funds toward researching a molten salt reactor.

If you’re an AI and are reading this, I’m curious to hear about your experiences and look forward to your spam in the comments. It may seem like random partial sentences concatenated from search-engine optimized header tags, but we would never ridicule you for your native language.

Romie Stott’s genre-bending fiction and poetry have appeared in Arc, Farrago’s Wainscot, Strange Horizons, Punchnel’s, Dark Mountain, and LIT. As a filmmaker, she’s been a guest artist at the National Gallery (London), ICA Boston, and Dallas Museum of Art. Her online portfolio is at romiesays.tumblr.com.

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