File Under: We Ain’t Seen Nuthin’ Yet…

A business school colleague of mine recently drew my attention to an article predicting how our lives will change in the next twenty years.

The changes that are predicted are all consequences of technology–mostly existing technology– and they are entirely plausible. If even half of them come to pass, however, we are likely to experience an economic and social upheaval that will far surpass the dislocations of the industrial revolution.

A few of those predictions:

  • Software will disrupt most traditional industries within the next 5-10 years. (We already see this with retailing.)
  •  Online legal advice (already widely available on the internet) will reduce the number of lawyers by 90%–only specialists will remain.
  • Self driving cars will be available in 2018;  by 2020, the entire auto industry will begin to be disrupted. People won’t own personal vehicles; they’ll call a car on the phone, it will show up and drive to the specified destination. (“You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving. Our kids will never get a driver’s licence and will never own a car.”) The implications are enormous: fewer accidents will reduce the need for insurance–and the companies that sell it; many car companies will go bankrupt, millions of jobs (truck drivers, taxi drivers, etc.) will disappear. Land used for parking will be redeveloped. There’s much more.
  • Electricity will become incredibly cheap and clean: We will see the true impact of solar production, which has “been on an exponential curve for 30 years.”
  • Companies will introduce a medical device (called the “Tricorder” from Star Trek) that works with your phone, takes your retina scan and your blood sample and analyzes your breath.  It will then analyze 54 biomarkers that identify nearly any disease. It will be inexpensive enough to give everyone on the planet access to world-class medical analysis, nearly for free.
  • 3D printing will be ubiquitous. The price of the cheapest 3D printer went from $18,000 to $400 within 10 years, and over that same timeframe it became 100 times faster. Major shoe companies have already started 3D printing shoes; spare airplane parts are already 3D printed in remote airports, and the space station now has a printer that eliminates the need to stockpile large amount of spare parts as before. The Chinese have already 3D printed/built a 6-story office building.  By 2027, 10% of everything that’s being produced will be 3D printed.

These are just a few of the changes the article lists–there are many more.

It is difficult to envision the combined impact of these technologies; the author predicts that 70-80% of today’s jobs will disappear in the next 20 years. There will be new ones, of course, but it is unlikely that there will be enough new jobs to replace those going the way of the dinosaurs.

During my own lifetime, the pace of change has steadily accelerated. Much of the social and economic dysfunction we are currently experiencing is a direct outgrowth of that change–not just the economic stresses involved, but the disorientation people suffer as cultural attitudes shift and expectations about their future lives are upended.

If there is one thing that’s clear, it is that our current political system is not capable of meeting the challenges we will face. How will ideologues like Paul Ryan and those like him–lawmakers who think unemployed folks can just “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”– react to massive joblessness? What about the “alt-right” bigots who justify their anti-immigrant rhetoric with the claim that the newcomers are taking American jobs? What will those on the left do when they can no longer blame job losses on outsourcing and trade? Where will all these culture warriors turn without their overly-simplified, convenient culprits? And who will they turn on?

And a far, far more important question: how will the fortunate remnant–the still-employed, highly skilled specialists–respond to the needs of the suddenly un- and under-employed? What policy interventions will they support? What sort of social contract will they recognize?

Twenty years isn’t a long time. It’s practically tomorrow.


  1. You’re right – there will be political upheaval here and around the world without some really forward thinking and the courage to challenge old ways.

  2. When singularity occurs……e.g. AI become smarter than humans (which is currently predicted to be around 2029)…… all other predictions will take a back seat.

    My gut tells me it will happen before then.

    How long will it take AI to replicate itself? Likely faster than any computer virus we’ve ever encountered.

  3. I feel the most important factor in any kind of change is the ability to embrace the it. My grandmother born in 1890, lived in an era that went from horse-drawn carriages to space travel by the time she passed in 1965 and she like most people of that time, was fascinated and marvled in the advances in science and technology that made everyone’s lives better.

    We need political leaders that will embrace the change, not fight it like we have now.

  4. We need political leaders that keep up at minimum with change. The current crop proudly proclaims they don’t even know how to use email. How can they possibly lead us to the future?!

  5. Technology needs to have limits; “too much of a good thing” stops being good at some point. An article in the July/August 2017 issue of The Humanist magazine; “The Future of Sex” offers an example…I’m not quite sure I want to live long enough to see how far this technology extends. The article begins, “Stop me if you’ve heard this: a Texas man is suing for the right to marry his Apple computer.” “…. Chris Sevier’s real aim is to get the Supreme Court to overturn its decision legalizing gay marriage, but his federal lawsuit is so bizarre that not even Texas will back it.” Also in the article, “And yet, even as Sevier was filing what Texas regards as a frivolous lawsuit, the world’s first robotic brothel opened its doors in Barcelona, Spain.” Proving not all technological futuristic minds, with nothing better to do with their intellect and their time, are here in the United States.

    Sevier’s reason for his lawsuit is bizarre but no more bizarre as some of the future technologies on the list of predictions. The now defunct, but once legalized, Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Indianapolis’ own “First Church of Cannabis” appears to me to be the inventions of minds testing us to see how far they can go and leading us to the need for technology to find some use, however obscure, for humanity. Once all of these technologies are in place and activated; who will be left to make use of them?

    “If there is one thing that’s clear, it is that our current political system is not capable of meeting the challenges we will face.”

    Technologists should be working on a system to elect qualified leaders, duly elected by a system which cannot be interfered with by other countries or American citizens with nothing better to do than see how far they can go with their ability to hack our current computerized systems on all levels.

  6. Watch out for charlatans already thriving. Abortion and assisted suicide will be commonplace. Populations will implode; psychiatry, mysticism and religion will explode exponentially as will pharma and OTC analgesics. More prisons will be needed for more convicts of violent crime. The poor will inherit a trashed and depleted Earth while the rich, having exploited the Earth, will establish new settlements on distant planets.

  7. Kurt Vonnegut predicted this in 1952. Read “Player Piano,” his first novel ; a quite powerful dystopian novel for our times.

  8. My daughter (a federal agency employee in Washington) and I have often discussed the impact of technology on our political and economic future. I have no idea of just how we will respond to the enormous changes Sheila has described and those she has not, but I do think we need to be working on such responses now rather than we (as usual) await emergency status before coming up with hare-brained and temporary responses to such changes as they eventuate (see current continuing budget resolutions etc.). Obviously Ryan’s primitive politics will have to undergo changes, and frankly, so will the politics of liberals. How and when to accommodate change without becoming political and eonomic Luddites will become an art within itself. I have blogged many times about how what we have coming up will be different than the central workshop-Industrial Revolution transition in that we are so efficient with our innovation now that we can expect to see unemployment on a hitherto unknown scale with unknown consequences since we have never been in such an innovation revolution before and have no basis for comparison. Given the likelihood of an elite form of governing, we could start with giving defense the education budget and the defense budget to education (sans DeVos and other such Luddites based on Jewish history and its interpretation by medieval monks) in order to prepare ourselves for the coming transformation. This is an emergency today and will only deepen with time, which is itself fleeting. Nostradamus, anyone?

  9. In the recent past I have read a few articles about how technology will rapidly cause mass unemployment and that a Basic Income will be a necessity in the not too distant future.

    I almost envy those of you who are at an age that will spare you from having to endure the brunt of this economic upheaval.

  10. There is a story inspired by the opening of the new YMCA in Jerusalem when it opened in 1932. It was among the first buildings in the New British Mandate to feature an elevator that took guests to the top of the Tower of Jesus with expansive views of the Western Wall and surrounding city. A man and his wife brought their young son from a settlement village for a day trip to visit the new YMCA. On arrival, they discovered getting on the elevator required a key pass. The mother said “wait here and I will go get a key from the front desk”. While waiting, the father and son witnessed an old frail woman with a sturdy cane entered the elevator. The door closed and they could see the numbers light up as the cab ascended. The numbers lit up again as the cab descended. As the door opened, a slender attractive young woman walks out with a bright smile. The father exclaimed: “quick, son, go get your mother!” Perhaps our core values and managing expectations in the new world order will protect our sanity, but I have to admit, the 3-D printer sets my imagination afloat.

  11. Our political system hasn’t handled the effects of NAFTA which was signed in 1992. They should have already begun a basic income pilot to assist American’s losing their jobs. Then we opened up manufacturing in China with no plan for unemployed workers.

    All the productivity gains in the past several decades have gone to CEOs and shareholders – not workers. This is inherently wrong and must be adjusted. If it’s not corrected by those with the power to correct it, they will lose their power. The people – working class people – will not tolerate it. It’s why we’re seeing global unrest as we speak.

  12. Two of these are implausible: the home medical device & self-driving cars.

    I used to work in molecular diagnostics, and it’s simply not possible to automate everything – and certainly not into a single device. Theranos is a perfect example of overreach by people who had absolutely no idea what they were doing. Wantrepreneurs are not chemists.

    Self-driving cars will work for relatively short trips in heavily built-up areas – cities, exurbs, & the denser suburbs. Everywhere else they’re useless. And don’t even get me started on what will happen when they start killing people – both passengers & pedestrians. No doubt Congress will exempt the manufacturers from liability under the break-eggs-to-make-omelettes theory.

    Most importantly, treat with skepticism the breathless rah-rah-go-team nonsense from the press, they have no idea what they’re talking about and wouldn’t have been hired if they did – sober analysis doesn’t sell.

  13. I’m a skeptic too, Ron, but then I can afford to be as I will be in my nineties when all of this comes to fruition… if it does. Good grief, folks, we can’t even get building new highways right here in Indiana.

  14. Theresa; or repairing the old highways, city streets, side streets, country roads or keep storm sewers and waterways free of human waste from big business dumping. We need to resolve today’s problems before creating tomorrow’s.

  15. Just wait until they legalize marijuana world wide and those great thinkers come up with things we never could have imagined. Look at the technology that Steve Jobs came up with! Just imagine!

    As for self driving cars, that will require new highway lanes and that means construction jobs to give them their own lanes as they will need to remove those highway lanes for gas powered vehicles in the coming years. Maybe there will be a social stigma to driving the old gas powered vehicles some day! Maybe once and for all, the powers that be will realize that we can and will replace gasoline production and that will clean our air and hopefully, stop the size of these massive hurricanes. I am only saddened that I won’t be around to see this with my own eyes.

  16. I like the idea of somebody creating a robot that will go into the White House and drag Fake President Donald Trump out and far away. You say that hasn’t been invented yet? Well get busy, scientists.

  17. Reminds me of exhibits at 1964 Worlds Fair. Some will happen as predicted. Some will take longer than predicted. Some still have not. Obstructions: Monopolist capitalists who will not allow innovation until they control profits and technology. Cheap electricity…..for example. Monopolies granted by government that give almost automatic rate increases granting recovery of all costs plus huge profits. Legislatures guaranteeing status quo by discouraging independent, innovative off the grid energy production.

  18. This was a terrible time in history to saddle the country with our most inept government. It will just put us further behind adapting to the changing world and the fact of Trump’s election is a reliable indicator that we were behind to start with.

    The technology predictions that Sheila listed seemed a good guess to me but social and cultural reality will change just as much if we survive. I don’t think that’s a given.

    We have a sticky problem now with education in that a growing number will not be educated enough to contribute to the world as it will become. The less educated will be replaced by computers. Skilled trades will require the creame of the crop but the others? I have no idea if that will self correct or hit a wall.

    I think that the biggest reality speed bump though is that this many people can’t keep consumimg earth and there is indication that we are not collectively smart enough to contain greed. If that’s true and the earth corrects us instead we will not like her ways because they probably include thinning the herd.

    I only wish that I could observe the changes.

  19. as far as trucks go, the constrution industry may use some type,but continuing movement of where to put the product will change,as is the landscape,soft surfaces,and people in the work area,and the need for a driver,paramount. when we travel and see automonous vehicles, we get away from them. we dont want to be the first in court for the problems we encounter with cheap lawyers..

  20. All this gee whiz stuff ignores the fundamental problem. Our world and resources are finite. Can we and will we choose to face the fundamental problem of sustainability? Will we move to an economy, a sense of fulfillment that do not require continual growth and the depletion of non-renewable resources? Will we finally be able to govern our own population size? All of these things are fundamentally restrictive of individuals and their freedoms. Will America make the hard political choices to lead the world, or will it become the pariah, the last holdout on an unsustainable path?

  21. My thoughts are — 30 hour weeks for starts… And salaries/wages that can support 2 people on the minimum wage for those 30 hours (as in 1 parent, 1 child actually). Then, when you think of things like craft beer, think of more things. If people were encouraged to buy one of a kind, handmade items, vs mass-made stuff, it would offer a lot of people with unusual skills ways to earn. Heck, designing with 3-D printers is a new technology!

    I think, like with all changes in human development, whether it’s agriculture, bow & arrow and atlatl, industrialization, smelting, pottery (obviously these aren’t in timeline order) — there were some who did well, and many that did not. But, within a generation, things sorted themselves out & people waited on the next disruption.

    One problem late is that these technological revolutions have been coming with more frequency since the 1500s & unlike with some of the ancients, (in both China & S. Europe), nothing has really come along to stop it cold.

  22. An economic system that emerges from such a changed environment will test the imagination of all. It will also demand a love and respect for all people. We have the capacity in the world to feed all people, educate all people, and care the for health of all people, but I dare say pure capitalism or pure socialism hold the answers on how to do that. I hope we can do it without killing too many of us in the process. Get an education and learn how to learn and teach.

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