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Five Major Changes to American Life By 2020
J. Hughes   May 21, 2009   Ethical Technology  

My response to a journalist’s inquiry about what I thought the five biggest changes would be in American life and society between now and 2020.

The first major change in American life and society will be the growing realization that radical life extension is possible. A number of new healthcare technologies will have become available by 2020, such as vaccines for cancer and treatments to prevent and repair Alzheimer’s disease, which will have extended healthy life expectancy. Some therapies will directly slow the aging process, and others will be in the pipeline.

The second and related major change will be a widespread discussion about ways to reform retirement, work, pensions and taxation to take account of the radical extension of life expectancy. Some will press for privatization, reducing entitlements, and raising the retirement age, while many Baby Boomer seniors will defend the status quo.

But a third trend will begin to change the terms of that “old age dependency” and “pension reform” debate: the growing structural unemployment as a result of robotics and artificial intelligence. After the global economy emerges from the current recession employment will recover very sluggishly because automation and information technology will increasingly be more attractive investments than human labor. Many redundant workers will need to be retrained for the shrinking occupations that humans do better than machines.

As a consequence of these three trends there will be discussions throughout the industrialized world about how to shorten the work-week and work-year, and increase subsidies for worker retraining, while expanding the work-life by raising the retirement age. The need for ongoing worker re-education will reduce our commitments to specific firms and careers, and encourage a strategy of diversifying our job skills and experiences in order to reduce our “precarity.”

A fourth trend will be the growing application of emerging technologies, such as genetic engineering of crops and nanotechnology, to the challenges of ecological sustainability and civilizational resilience. The investments begun with the Obama stimulus plan and budget to expand development and use of wind, solar and biofuel energy will be helping to reduce consumption of coal and oil. Crops more resistant to drought and severe weather will be spreading in use, and nanomaterials will be enabling reduced use of resources in manufacturing. Progress in nanorobotics and molecular manufacturing will make distributed fabrication of consumer goods an imminent prospect.

A fifth trend will be the merger of computing and telecommunications into ubiquitous interactive intelligence environment, at least for those with access to it. Our environments will be aware of our presence, and we will have glasses and clothes with constant connection to the web. Virtual displays will respond to our gestures and voice. 

But, unfortunately for us futurists, the most important trend will be the rapid acceleration and completely unpredictable cross-fertilization of technologies. So 2020 will probably take the five trends above for granted, and be consumed with the issues raised by technologies we can’t even imagine today.




James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


A few points:  First, some of the changes you mentioned are already happening.  There are surveys that show that there are a number of older Americans (65+) still in the work force.  Most of the surveys I’ve seen indicate that a large percentage of the Baby Boom generation plan to work, at least part time, after 65.  Sometimes that’s because they want to remain active; more often it’s out of necessity.

That’s been increased by the economic meltdown!  Pensions have been largely replaced by 401K savings plans.  With the collapse of the market, that 401K is more like a ‘201K’.  Even companies that have old-fashioned defined benefit pension plans are underfunding them, so workers are likely to get much less.

Actually, I haven’t been fond of the idea of ‘retirement’ since I heard a retiring engineer say:  “What wine goes with dog food?”  This was a guy with a pension!

As for “the growing realization that radical life extension is possible,” this is going to put a lot of stress on American society when people realize that the rich are going to live for centuries - and they still can’t afford to see a doctor!  More surveys:  more and more people are saying they can’t afford to see a doctor for routine illnesses.  That’s due both to the rising cost of health care and our current recession / depression / total f***ing economic collapse.

I know a brave lady who took care of her husband during his last illness, and had to endure a painful attack of diverticulitis without medical care - while she was still caring for her husband.  I know a young man who may lose the use of his right hand because he didn’t have medical insurance and couldn’t afford to see a doctor.

I have some hopes for real health care reform from this current administration; but, the odds are that Big Pharma and DenialCare (The big ‘health’ insurance companies) will work their will on Capitol Hill - again!

As for that ‘Third Trend’ - we’re already seeing major structural unemployment as a result of the offshoring of jobs and downsizing in general;  all this cuts costs and increases corporate profits while increasing unemployment and misery.  Technology has been playing a part in that since the late ‘80s.  The first big wave of ‘downsizing’ largely hit the middle management people who were made redundant by computers.

Be very careful about invoking the ‘retraining workers’ mantra as a palliative.  Every time that’s brought up in an online discussion, someone replies:  “Retraining for what?”  Retraining doesn’t do a lot of good when there just aren’t jobs to be had. 

Right now, people are mostly blaming offshoring and corporate greed for the loss of jobs;  but, there is a big danger of a wave of neo-ludditism when technology becomes a bigger factor.  Add in the rage they’ll feel when they start hearing about the wonders of life extension (for the very affluent) when simple medical care is becoming a matter of: “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it!”

Yes, “the rapid acceleration and completely unpredictable cross-fertilization of technologies” will play a major role in determining our future; however, right now the biggest factor is the growing concentration of wealth among an uber-rich class - the ‘Plutonomy’ and shrinking wealth among the rest of us.  If that continues unchecked, we’re going to be living in a cyberpunk dystopia with corporations and the big rich owning everything.

I don’t think that’s inevitable, and, this isn’t coming from a luddite!  I was a senior associate member of the Foresight Institute, and a member of the National Space Institute for years.  I consider myself a technoprogressive; but, first of all, I consider myself a progressive.  And yes, you can read that as “Liberal!”

I plan to retire from the military by 2030. Then I’ll have money for all the cybernetic parts I could ever want.

I put my hopes in Kolak’s Open Individualism (for the left-brainers) and spirituality (integral thought, New Age and progressive versions of religion, for right-brainers) induced mass ego death, which, assuming we survive through it, will lead to unimagined compassion, empathy and love, and a completely changed perception of reality. It’s either that, dystopia, annihilation or assimilation by the AI, the last one not being much different from the first one in the long run, but it may appear aesthetically unpleasant to us if the AI chose to disregard our short term subjective experiences. The time for ‘mass enlightenment’ is drawing near.

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