Seeing 10 Years into the Future

Somehow, even in the shadow of the virus, we can see 2030 with surprising clarity. We know a lot, and we can make good guesses about much of what we don’t know. In fact, I’ve been doing this for several years, traveling the world, speaking to university audiences, explaining how and why Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are the places that today’s students must study because of their enormous population increases and their associated growth as consumer markets. I’ve been focused on the lives and futures of young people growing up in the 21st century, much of it connection with Kids on Earth, a global interview project, and my work as a Senior Scholar at The University of Pennsylvania.

In fact, it was a browse through a UPenn newsletter that led me to Professor Mauro F. Guillén, a colleague at UPenn’s Wharton School. About two months ago, Guillén published a book entitled 2020: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything. My interest in children, teenagers, parents, and schools; his is business, economics and government, but our circles overlap with plenty of shared space.

For both of us, the key to the secrets of the 21st century is the number of babies being born, where they are being born, the number of people who are living long lives, and where they are living those lives. He sets the stage with the rapid growth of the world’s population: 3 billion by 1960, 4 billion by 1975, 5 billion by 1987, 6 billion by 2000, and 7 billion by 2010.

And then: “The reality is that by 2030 we will be facing a baby drought.”

Take a closer look: “for every baby born in the United States, 4.4 are being born in China, 6.5 in India, and 10.2 in Africa” and “improvements in nutrition and disease prevention in the poorest parts of the world have made it possible for an increasing number of babies to reach adulthood and become parents themselves.” And so, by 2030: “South Asia (including India) will consolidate its position as the number-one region in terms of population size. Africa will become the second-largest region, while East Asia (including China) will be relegated to third place. Europe, which in 1950 was the second largest, will fall to sixth place, behind Southeast Asia…and Latin America.”

If 21st-century governments were more open to immigrants, the trends could equalize, but they’re going in the opposite direction–limiting incoming populations from countries whose people they need in order to maintain not only sufficiently large populations but also sufficiently young ones. That is, Europe and The United States will become increasingly old–which is terrible for the economy (the success of Social Security in the U.S., for example, relies upon income from the younger population, which disappears if there aren’t enough babies and aren’t enough immigrants). As we make these (okay, the correct word really is “stupid”) decisions, we are making an economic and social mess for ourselves.

It’s always instructive to study maps. One of my current favorites compares the size of the African continent with various countries. If you move the countries around like jigsaw puzzle pieces, you can fit all of China into the part of Africa that’s south of the equator, with all of India and all of the United States, and Eastern Europe, and France, Germany, and Spain, and still find enough space on the continent for The U.K., Japan, Italy, Switzerland, and a bunch of other countries. It’s not easy to think clearly about Africa, or any other place unless you understand its size, its history, and its potential for the future. Incredibly, people in the countries listed above know very little about Africa (challenge yourself: how many African countries can you name? how many cities?)

Perhaps women will think more clearly than men have done. This is the other huge trend: women graduating from higher education, with more advanced degrees than men, and gradually gaining power in both industry and government. They marry later–average age of first time mothers is now 28 years old. For example, “in the 1950s, about 7 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 29 had a college degree, half the rate of men. Nowadays, the proportion of women with a college degree is 40 percent, while the figure for men is only 32 percent.”

Now, let’s think about old age. People really are living longer–science, medicine, biotech, nutrition, hygiene, education, social programs–everything contributes to longevity. “By 2030, the average 70 year old will live like today’s average 50 year old.” We’ll be aided by robotics, and devices that make it easier to climb stairs, maintain balance, diagnose disease more quickly, and more–all of this takes shape during the current decade. In many ways, this is driven by necessity. For example, “by 2025, Japan will need 1 million nurses the country currently doesn’t have.” In the U.S., as in most countries, “about 90 percent of paid senior care is done by immigrants”–but our present-day policies are limiting the number of available workers. If Japan solves the problem with robots–a significant current effort–perhaps the U.S. will benefit.

Forget about “keeping up with the Joneses.” Now, we’re “keeping up with the Singhs and the Wangs.” Forget about your current notions of cities as a great place to live and work. (We’re seeing this in the real estate market as many people leave the crowded cities for locations with fewer people, less crowding, and increasingly excellent services.) Many cities exist near bodies of water, and with climate change, water levels are rising, and storms are causing chaos. Also on the subject of water, several cities in India are illustrating a nasty future in which water supply is insufficient for population needs. (“A majority will face formidable challenges related to pollution, congestion, and security. The cities most exposed to climate change will suffer from a shortage of freshwater and an excess of saltwater.”) Less so, perhaps, for food needs as vertical farming is becoming to take hold. And yet, some cities are flourishing–even during the pandemic, and hopefully, afterwards–because of creative class and knowledge workers–but these are precisely the folks who can work just about anywhere.

Present-day assumptions about ownership may be giving way to newer assumptions about sharing (a phenomenon slowed by the pandemic). Assumptions about the ways money and banking work are also taking shape in new ways–look at the progress made by PayPal, Venmo, and credit cards in a marketplace where so many people are now reluctant to handle paper currency and coins. We may be seeing the end of non-digital money by 2030.

I like the quote from William Faulkner that begins the end of the book: “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” So here we are, stuck in the pandemic, questioning whether we all ever return to the old normal, strikingly unaware of so many of the realities already in the “high likelihood” category for 2030. We’ve already lost sight of the shore; we just haven’t accepted that reality.

The author’s suggestion that we “approach uncertainty with optimism” may be the only approach that makes sense in what is now a fairly crazy world of the future.

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