August 8, 2013

Future Shock

Do you think your kids will have it better than you? I already know how I would answer that question; I'll save that for the end. Right now I'm interested in your reaction. I'm willing to bet that the first thought that flashed through your mind was somewhere between probably not and a flat-out no.

I first started thinking about this when I began taking the issue of global warming seriously. Leaving aside the whole question of living on a planet that will be altered for centuries to come thanks to climate change driven by the massive use of fossil fuels since the 1870s, consider this. If we are living in an economy where growth has been driven by fossil fuels, then what happens when we start running out of those fossil fuels?

People smarter than I am have been thinking about the future of the global economy for a long time. I recently read an essay posted in John Mauldin's blog arguing that future growth will be much less than the growth we have experienced over the last 50 years -- 1 % versus 3% -- because of the 3-D's: debt, deficits, and demographics. Some see a deeper problem at the root of the changes we are about to see, chief among them Dr. Robert Gordon, a professor of economics at Northwestern University who was profiled in a long article in New York magazine by Benjamin Wallace-Wells.

Gordon makes two fundamental points. First, the days of rapid growth are over. He predicts the economy will grow at half the normal rate due to "the aging of the American population; the stagnation in educational achievement; the fiscal tightening to fix our public and private debt; the costs of health care and energy; the pressures of globalization and growing inequality." It's hard to argue with that laundry list of troubling factors, all of which are compounded in the U.S. by the political gridlock that has afflicted Washington since Obama took office, a gridlock that shows no signs of easing.

Oh, wait, here's the really bad news. Gordon's second point is that the Industrial Revolution is a one-of-a-kind event in history, one for which there will be no second act. "Some things," he says, "can only happen once." It's worth noting that the entire lifespan of American history coincides with the tremendous burst of growth that began in the 1750s. But that was then. In Gordon's opinion, we have seen all the big, new things we are going to see. Mankind's giant leap is over. The future will be mostly tinkering with and amplifying on what we already know.

If that is indeed the case, Wallace-Wells asks, "How much do we owe, culturally and politically, to this singular experience of economic growth, and what will happen if it goes away?" Good question, one for which there are few good answers and lots of bad possibilities. The rise in dystopic fiction may be the subconscious bow wave of the coming new reality of more people chasing after less.

The resistance to Gordon's thinking comes from those who believe that technology still has the capacity to transform the economy. Robotics and 3-D printing are cited as examples, to which I would add bio-engineering.I agree that these three things alone will create a society which will make today's way of living as distant a memory as is the era prior to World War II, when the world was still mostly unplugged.

The problem as I see it is that robotics and 3-D printing are both potential job killers for humans. Sure it's great for the people who build them, but for everyone else, the finished product represents human work no longer to be done by humans. Who needs a parts factories if you can print them on demand? Who needs human workers if you can have a robot do it? As for bioengineering, that's not exactly blue collar work. So what is it going to take to find a good job thirty years from now? Some suggest you'll either need to be doing something that requires hands-on people work like landscaping or you'll need a PhD.

The way I see it, the future our children's children will face will be uniquely different in this respect: mankind will no longer be the sole placeholder at the top of the evolutionary heap. A new generation of laboratory created life forms -- be it robots, cyborgs, or God knows what combination of DNA that someone creates from scratch using spare parts bought from the Internet -- will be seriously competing with us for a place in the sun.

These changes are already here. Like any new technology, it takes a few decades before you really begin to see and understand exactly how society will be transformed. Modern computers have been around since the 50s, but only recently have they transformed the way we live, from smart phones to the Internet.

As I have argued with global warming, the future belongs to those who can most quickly adapt to the new reality, a reality that poses opportunities as well as challenges, if you can figure out how to be in the right place at the right time. Like global warming, the full impact of these emerging technologies is still a few decades away, plenty of time to prepare. My generation still can make a difference, by teaching our children well, by forcing them to look ahead to the world they will have to live in rather than trying to cling to the world we lived in, a world that has already slipped through our fingers.

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