Trying to Guess the Next Twenty Years

It’s fun to predict, even when we’re wrong.  So let’s predict away!  There’s a very real chance of being wrong on specifics, so I’m not about to say “Russia will invade Mexico to secure an orb of power from time-travelers” or anything like that.  But it is possible to use geopolitical principles to guess major trends.

So let’s first establish the parameters of our guessing game.  We’ll be thinking about what might well happen between now and 2033.  We won’t be trying to do the “On October 6, 2022, the machines rise,” game, because specifics are nonsense.

We will base a lot of our thinking on general geopolitical trajectories, taking into account that while there will be occasional aberrations in measurements of power, economics, and leadership style, these will be outliers that won’t change the final calculation markedly.  We will base most of our calculations on a realist thought pattern – that is, nation-states are out for themselves and happily toss aside morality as well as culture in their quest for survival and comfort.

Without further ado, let’s begin!

The world’s about to have a damned rough time of it as the developed world ages

The world’s biggest economies are about to grapple with some massive difficulties.  First is their graying and the accompanying health cost rises that such a thing entails.  More and more of a developed country’s economy will be siphoned off to take care of the elderly, who will live longer but will no longer be in a position to contribute as much.  This means investment in new research and infrastructure will markedly decline.  Some countries will off-set this with immigration and robotics, but many advanced countries will spend a lot of time trying to solve the gray problem.  For a country like Britain, with its National Health Service, the battle over who to pay for and when will be the defining feature of the 2020s.  This will abate only in the 2030s, when the population bulge evens out as people born in the post-war era start to die off.

For the developing world, especially those which are commodity-based, growth will be more difficult to achieve.  With the developed world buying less to build less, developing countries will be forced to wait until developed countries can afford to upgrade their societies.  The ranks of developed countries will change; Latin America is the most promising in regards to moving up the ladder.  But India and China’s vast populations, as well as China’s own grey problem, will prevent them from completing their development projects before the 2030s.

American government will get worse

Additionally, American leadership will grow irrational and self-interested.  Terror attacks or other calamities will temporarily unify the fractured American governing class, but nothing will last.  The two political parties will atomize further into factions, but the zero-sum game of American electoral politics will make it unlikely a third party will rise to challenge either of the two.  It’s possible that one of the parties goes the way of the Whigs, but far more likely that the two parties alter themselves so much ideologically that they’re totally different animals by the 2030s.  Baby boomers will fight and refight the same battles they’ve been doing their whole lives over abortion, gay rights, taxes, and the power of the state.  Only as they exit the scene will rationality return and a new generation of leaders be able to establish a new consensus.

Demographics: Age Structures
Getting old. (Photo credit: Future Challenges)

America’s youth today will end the culture wars

Gay rights, gay marriage, abortion, even drugs will be non-topics.  Some skirmishing over taxes and regulation will happen, but few of America’s young are vested as deeply in fighting tax wars or are moved by the phrase “job-killing red tape.”  A new social contract will be written, one that will provide services in exchange for cash, and as the Baby Boomers leave, it will be increasingly politically possible to balance the budget.

Russia and China could end up being total nightmares

It could go one of two ways.  Some predict the demographic disasters that are Russia (dropping population) and China (graying population) will implode.  If one or the other experiences a severe collapse (which is cyclical in Chinese history and not impossible in Russia), such an event will dominate the 2020s as the world economy is forced to adapt to the loss of one or the other.  Moreover, the geopolitical vacuum left in their stead will require the effort of most of the world’s major powers to solve.  If either goes so far as to become a failed state (or to lose control of territory), the 2020s will be the decade of high stakes diplomacy and a final hurrah of UN peacekeeping.

If Russian and Chinese leadership manage their way through their respective demographic bombs, they will do so at a reduced growth rate in stature and power.  Both of them will grow internally interested in trying to prevent collapse or unrest and won’t be major players on the world stage.  But their absence will be felt keenly.  Without them to challenge American power, the U.S. will have another 90’s – a decade where whim and ad-hoc policy making took American forces to all kinds of weird places.

Either way, neither power is going to beat out the U.S.  The U.S. won’t have an easy time, but it’s not slipping from #1 because its rivals will have plenty of slips of their own.

Technology will stagnate for a while until somebody really reinvents the wheel in the late 2020s

Think about this – how much different is your iPhone from the first Xerox graphical interface computer of the 1970s?  In function, not much.  Yes, your phone is cooler, faster, and able to process more, but it essentially does the exact same thing as computers of the 1970s – it uses silicon chips and calculates using binary code.  It can’t think; it can’t do anything outside the narrow confines of its code; it certainly can’t adapt to changing situations.

Microsoft Windows 95 operating system cover shot
Not all that different from your smart phone.

The rest of our decade here and a good chunk of the 2020s will be spent refining our toys but not changing society much.  Even the self-driving cars are little more than those vacuum cleaner robots but on a grander and more complicated scale.  It’s not likely we’ll have some game-changing technology that will redefine society.  We’ll still use the Internet (itself originally from the ’60s), computers, cars, and oil-guzzling engines to do much of our work.  Robotics will help in some places, but as graying populations grow, investors will see returns mostly in healthcare related things, and mostly in stuff related to end of life care, since that’s what people will be willing to pay for.

It’s hard to say what the new game-changing technology will be, but it’ll likely be in either energy or transportation, something that will fundamentally change our lives in a big way (perhaps a space elevator that makes commuting between Tokyo and New York daily an insane possibility?)  But cash on hand to start it up and spread it will be hard to come by.  Again, only as the grey population shrinks and with it the amount of economic effort needed for it will conditions exist for a grand new technological change that can redefine the way we live our lives.

Wars will grow specialized and remote

What began during Napoleon’s day will end in the 2020s.  Mass industrialized armies of conscripts will be politically unfeasible and no longer the key to victory.  Instead, high tech forces under the command of superbly trained specialists will dominate battlefields.  Those fighting them will typically be highly committed irregulars, specialists of a different sort, not conscripts of million-man army groups.  Drones will grow in use and form and the U.S. will commit most of its military prowess to pinpointing enemies and picking them off rather than invading and overthrowing governments.

Wars between big powers are unlikely, so long as nuclear weapons remain on the world stage.  But should someone succeed in coming up with some perfect anti-missile defense or in disarming all nukes worldwide, conventional wars between great powers will be more and more likely (since Russia and the U.S. could then fight a short naval war in the Bering Sea without having to worry about it spiraling into a nuclear conflict).  Regardless, however, few powers will much relish the idea of invading another country and occupying it.  They’ll be content to let societies that collapse cannibalize themselves.

Terrorism will atomize ideologically and state power will increase to combat it

Any idiot with a laptop will be able to set up a bomb by the 2020s.  State power will increasingly grow to find these people long before they set off their weapons.  They won’t have to be Islamists; they could be any kind of moron with an ax to grind.  But states will be given more and more power to fight them.  This will be most contentious in the United States, but each successive terror attack will increase state power in its aftermath.  Terrorism won’t be eliminated, but managed.  On the flipside, no terror group is likely to achieve their goals by 2033.

Real change won’t happen until the late 2020s or early 2030s

Cyberpunk Military
Soldiers of the future. (Photo credit: Mechanekton)

Most nations will be stuck in reruns of life from our own present.  The same political battles will be fought over and over again; the culture wars will be endlessly debated and used to scrape razor-thin electoral victories.  The United States will not formulate a worldwide strategy for security, but will respond to threats rather than preempt them.  Other powers will try to race to catch up to the U.S., but will be unable to do so because of geographic or (more likely) demographic problems that will hurt their progress.  Dysfunction in politics will translate to dysfunction in economics and world growth will slow.  Educated people will search the globe rather than their local communities for jobs; those with less of an education will be stuck in place, angry, and cause instability their states are then forced to respond to.  Cash for new ideas will be harder to come by and old ideas will be given fresh logos that won’t change society much.

This will create a worldwide crisis.  As people feel their lives aren’t improving, societies will become irrational and with them their governments.  This won’t be a repeat of the 1930s, where people were dumb enough to try out Nazism, but it will mean a resurgence in nationalism, power politics, and high stakes confrontations between leaders who will want to appear to be solving some kind of problem.

Likely, the crisis will be economic in nature.  There won’t be much we can do about it, either, because fundamentally it will involve the Baby Boomers and their end of life cycle.  World resources will be dumped on comforting them because no technology in the world will be able to prevent their aging process.  So few new things will be invested in to solve society’s other growing problems.  Moreover, they will continue to dominate the political process, both by being leaders and by being the largest voting bloc.

This will finally change in the late 2020s and early 2030s.  Some Baby Boomers will die off, but many others will simply stop voting owing to age or incapacity.  In other words, new governing majorities will finally emerge, crowding out old attitudes.  It’s certain this new governing majority will be exhausted with the culture wars and ready to put an end to them.  It’s also certain they will have a pent up energy and a demand to solve problems that hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression.  This energy and mentality will propel the world to a new decade of growth and change in the 2030s and 2040s.

Guessing is fun 

And I’d be curious to hear from anyone who might guess differently.  What might the 2033 of your world look like?  (Please don’t say zombie apocalypse).  After all, the odds of us all being wrong are pretty high.

3 thoughts on “Trying to Guess the Next Twenty Years

  1. I’m curious to know if you have read George Friedman’s “The Next 100 Years”. It touched on the collapse of Russia and China, but also focused on the rise of Poland (one of the few European countries with a growing population) and Mexico. It also made mention of the war becoming very specialized with technology. It’s a fun read.

    1. It’s great fun, that book! His Next Ten Years is also a good read and he really hammers on the tech wall we seem to be headed for.

  2. Pingback: Geopolitics Made Super | 2013 in Review (Or, A Cliche but Highly Traditional Way to Ring in A New Year)

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