Get ready for the Star Trek economy

Today's children could live to 120 and work to 100. What's all the fuss?

When I told a conference recently that today’s children may need to work until the age of 100, the Times called it “the stuff of nightmares”. The Washington Post told parents expecting a better life for their little ones to “think again”. This generation may need to prepare themselves to work in 40 or more different jobs in a fast-changing world where the boundaries between what humans and machines do will continue to shift.

It is easy to see why people find this picture shocking today, but this is a very plausible scenario and should come as no surprise to policymakers: the topic has been discussed by futurists, ageing experts, economists, technologists, and social commentators for more than a decade. As societies around the planet increase their life expectancy, the challenge will become increasingly global, and its implications are far-reaching enough to merit a close examination of the underlying trends and drivers.

There are four key factors at play: life expectancy; personal health and well-being; the impact of automation on jobs; and the gap between individual income and expenditure

Rising life expectancy

Right now, average UK life expectancy is just over 80 and has gone up quite dramatically over the last century. It is a similar level in many of the more developed economies and rising fast in several parts of the developing world. This is a result of access to and advances in health care, improved living conditions, better diets, greater awareness of health issues, and a range of other factors. As we look ahead to the next 100 years, scientific breakthroughs and more routine advances in health care, mental health and diet in particular, could bring an even more dramatic scale of change.

Some experts, such as Cambridge gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, suggest that we could see breakthroughs that make a 200+ year lifespan feasible. However, even if we scale back our expectations and say life expectancy estimates only increase at four to five months every year – a similar rate to that which we have experienced in the last few decades, then our scenario starts to take shape. On this basis, a child entering secondary school at the age of 11 today could expect to live to somewhere between 117 and 125.

Prolonging active lifespans

At the same time, over the next 100 years, we can reasonably expect continued breakthroughs in health care which will prolong our active lifespans. Examples would include tackling the genetic basis of many conditions, better targeted pharmaceuticals, and drugs and stimulation techniques which will help enhance our cognitive capacity and memory. Our physical strength and capacity is already being prolonged by the use of exoskeletons and the creation of replacement limbs, organs and cells using techniques such as 3D printing. We should expect further progress with advances in stem cell therapies and developments which we cannot even begin to imagine today. Taken collectively, these should help enable an individual to continue working in some capacity in a range of jobs until they are around 100.

Smart systems replacing humans

The question arises, why – even if we could – would we want or need to keep working to 100? The first is a technological driver. We have already seen an accelerating pace of automation, with a growing number of human roles being replaced by technology that can perform relatively consistently for 24 hours per day, seven days a week, over all 365 days of the year. More recently, advances in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) have heralded the potential of a new age of intelligent machines which could transform the working landscape for the foreseeable future.

Robots are now in service in domains as diverse as manufacturing, driverless vehicles, farming, security, construction, retail and hotel service, drones, basic health care, and a range of other sectors. Artificial intelligence sits at the heart of modern smartphones, internet search, retail recommendation applications, airline autopilots, credit scoring, and our satellite navigation systems. Powerful “machine learning” software is emerging that can recognise and adapt to patterns and even reprogramme itself. A range of research studies and expert predictions have suggested that – over the next 20 to 30 years – robotics, AI and other forms of automation could replace anywhere from 30 per cent to 80 per cent of all the jobs that exist today. From truck drivers to lawyers, doctors and accountants, smart systems are already beginning to replace all or part of their roles.

This process of automation is only likely to gather pace in the coming years. Clearly new industries will emerge, yielding intelligent transport systems, new synthetic materials, autonomous vehicles, vertical farming, and many other science- and technology-led developments. These new sectors will be highly automated from day one. The hope is that employment in these new sectors will fill the gap created by job losses in existing industries. However, hope is not a strategy. In practice, it seems highly plausible that we could see 30 to 50 per cent of the population unemployed or underemployed within 20 to 30 years.

Work, employment, pensions, and the basic income debate

Some view these developments as a wonderful tipping point for humanity when we can be released from the drudgery of work and freed up to do more interesting and creative things with our time. However, we have spent centuries educating people about the importance of jobs and so the transition may not be so easy. A big question is how people will pay for the goods and services they need if they don’t have jobs or full time employment.

Many believe that the current model of pensions will be unsustainable if people live 20, 30 or 50 years past retirement ago. So, there is a growing view that we will need some form of guaranteed basic income – possibly funded through additional taxes on companies making super-normal profits as a result of replacing humans with technology. Clearly this is not going to be universally popular but there has been precious little coherent argument about what the alternatives might be. Countries like Holland, Canada and Namibia have all experimented with the idea of a guaranteed basic income and the results are generally very positive for society as a whole.

Rise of the Star Trek economy – why would we still need to work?

We may find that the level of basic income will not be enough to support the lifestyles people desire. Some argue that incomes might not need to be so high as prices will fall through a combination of low-cost 3D printed goods, vertically farmed food, lab-grown meat, cheap transport in autonomous vehicles, and free distribution via the internet. Indeed, some argue that we are heading towards a “Star Trek” economy where there is true abundance and almost no need for money. Whilst economists are beginning to explore the idea and innovators are suggesting we could get there quite quickly, for others this seems like a utopian dream that is beyond anything we might recognise today. So, for those who might still face a gap between income and expenditure, there may be a need or desire to continue working. Whilst we may only be able to work part-time, we could continue to do so into our 90’s or 100’s given the medical advances described earlier.

For many who look at the world through the lens of today, this may seem a very depressing prospect: the people we know in their 90’s and 100’s do not seem capable of doing any kind of meaningful work on a regular basis. However, health care advances and rising life expectancy will change all that and people may want to keep working as a way of staying active.

Will we all end up driving for Uber?

In the next 10 to 15 years we will see people doing multiple jobs: driving for a company like Uber, renting our bedrooms on AirBnB, renting out closet space to companies like Amazon, providing last-kilometre delivery services for e-tailers, renting out our driveways as short-term parking, and doing a variety of other such sharing economy jobs. Clearly this might not be a very attractive prospect for a lot of people. However, these jobs won’t last forever: driverless cars and other forms of robotics could eliminate many of these new sharing economy roles within a decade or two.

How far could automation extend?

It is very hard to think of current jobs whose role could not be at least partly performed by robots or smart systems. Some of us are just too scared or arrogant to admit it might be possible in our profession. However, we already see smart software writing newspaper articles, scanning for future trends and diagnosing cancer patients. The pace of advance is rapid. Truck drivers could be replaced quickly by autonomous vehicles. Security robots and drones are patrolling buildings, and robotic teaching assistants are already emerging.

There appear to be few limits to what might be possible.

So what does this mean for society?

We need to start the debate now in society about what we want and how we should address the implications of large-scale automation. We cannot sleep-walk into the issue. We have to change our attitudes towards unemployed people and teach people to think differently and use their leisure time creatively. If we can cycle money around the economy effectively, we may avoid a crisis. Automation could drive down costs. Some suggest that production could be taken into state hands, but this could be very contentious as it would effectively mean the end of capitalism.

We need to prepare adults and children for both the longer term and the next 20-30 years. We need to encourage people to research and explore for themselves the advances that are shaping the future and to join in the debate about the implications.

We need skills that will help us learn new jobs quickly e.g. learning how to learn, accelerated learning, problem solving, collaboration, scenario thinking, managing complexity and so on. We also need life skills like stress management, sleep management and meditation – all of which have major benefits when taught well to pupils.

As with many previous generations, those born today will find new and creative ways through the problems we perceive. They won’t have the same conditioning as us and could have very exciting lives in prospect if we prepare them well for a rapidly changing reality.

Rohit Talwar is the CEO of Fast Future Research, a global research and consulting company that specializes in identifying future growth industries and helps governments and global companies to explore and respond to the sectors, ideas, trends and forces shaping the next five to 20 years.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.


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