What Our Kids’ Lives Might Look Like, According To Futurists
The future is actually a range of possibilities, and we can work boldly toward the version we want.
In 2016, three days after the Pulse Nightclub shooting and five months before the presidential election, Maggie Smith published a poem she’d written in an Ohio Starbucks titled “Good Bones.” “Life is short and the world is at least half terrible, and for every kind stranger, there is one who would break you, though I keep this from my children,” it reads. “I am trying to sell them the world.” As the Washington Post later declared, it “captured the mood of a tumultuous year.” Which also turned out to be the mood of the next year, and the years ever since, too.
During this period, my son, born in late 2017, has been a newborn, then a baby, and a toddler, and I’ve often experienced the double awareness the poem describes. It sometimes feels like I am trying to sustain a bubble of light around him that’s entirely at odds with what lies outside of it. We’ve talked about unfairness and prejudice, but not about war and genocide, climate change and people screaming at each other in restaurants about masks. I think one of the more important things I can do as a parent is to help prepare him for the world as it is. But he’s 3.
Over the last few years, I’ve worked to stay hopeful. It’s an action rather than a reflex, one that involves a level of emotional cardio I wouldn’t expect from a child in pre-kindergarten. I do it because it feels like a way of maintaining open space for possibility rather than pre-assuming defeat. It’s also one I find hard to sustain, because it doesn’t feel in line with the facts.
The future is actually a range of possibilities rather than anything preordained, and we can actually use this view to work towards the version we want.
Over the past few weeks, though, as I spoke with around a dozen futurists and other experts in various fields, I found many of them perceived the future completely differently. Futurists’ work tends to involve tracking various types of changes then advising organizations on how best to navigate what they believe is likely to come (or communicating about them more broadly — they are often hired as speakers at conferences). Many expressed a version of what I heard from Josh Calder, a futurist who founded the consulting firm Foresight Alliance. “I do have the feeling there’s excessive pessimism right now,” he said. “That’s not to discount that climate change is a huge problem. But fighting inequality and climate change, working to have everybody suffer less — these are also possibilities.”
What I found most useful was actually the way they reminded me of certain ideas that are obvious but that I still have a hard time remembering: that the future is actually a range of possibilities rather than anything preordained, and that we can actually use this view to try to work towards the version we want.
“When we talk about the future, we tend to fall into the passive voice, but we have agency,” says futurist Mike Bechtel. “The future doesn’t just act upon us, we help create it.” Or as explains Chunka Mui, coauthor of A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the World We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050, “If we map out the world we want and move backwards, we might also be able to build it.” It made me think about the last line of Smith’s poem, which sums up the approach I hope I’m able to take when I present these issues to my son — one that focuses on his, and our, ability to help. “This place could be beautiful, right?” it reads. “You could make this place beautiful.”
Here's what the futurists I spoke with had to say:
Where Will We Live?
When Rachel Armstrong, a Professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University, talks about the homes of the future, much of what she describes involves microbes. Some could utilize wastewater and food detritus to produce electricity, along with a soil-like substance that could support urban farming. Others could, via photosynthesis, pull carbon dioxide from the air and produce oxygen, along with superfoods like Spirulina.
The exterior of homes, meanwhile, could utilize living materials with self-healing capabilities: bricks made from mushrooms that could sprout more when damaged; concrete that contains bacteria which produces a shell-like material to fill emerging cracks.
This vision can seem to run counter to the growth predicted for sales of increasingly smart home devices, which will continue. Imagine an alarm clock that automatically wakes you earlier when the traffic on your commute is heavy, or a toilet that registers your vitamin deficiency and orders you a supplement. The two ideas are not necessarily incompatible, though. Armstrong believes if home appliances became more efficient, we could still obtain most of our electricity from microbes.
“If there was enough investment, proper prototypes could be built in three years,” she says. “All the technologies I’ve described exist.”
How Will We Play?
Within five years, interactive toys with artificial intelligence might become available, equipped with not only voice recognition but the ability to learn individual children’s behaviors and respond. Futurist Josh Calder believes there might ultimately be fully virtual artificial intelligence (AI) “friends” so personalized, smart and creative that they will follow people from childhood into adulthood.
Video games, meanwhile, will only become more immersive, and “the pull of children into virtual space is only going to grow stronger,” Calder says, shifting young people’s conception of the world. “If my son throws on a [virtual reality] headset to watch a rap artist give a live concert in a virtual video game, for us, that’s alien and weird,” says Mike Bechtel, a managing director at Deloitte. “For him, that’s what a concert is.”
But while more toys will incorporate technology, “There’s always going to be a place for traditional non-tech toys,” says Jennifer Caveza, chair of the toy design program at Otis College of Art and Design. 3D printers, which could enable kids to become toymakers themselves, would prompt exactly the kind of outside-the-box thinking that will be essential in a shifting world. “Even if adults are slower to come around,” toy designer Cas Holman noted, “children will continue to remind us instinctively what they need.”
What Will We Eat?
According to a 2019 United Nations report, the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050; feeding all of them, per the Food and Agriculture Organization, will require production of 60% more food than today.
Futurist Joana Lenkova expects that, due to resulting pressures and scarcities, by 2030, alternative plant-based proteins will become a more regular part of our diets, along with lab-grown meat, microalgae, and mycoprotein, created by fermenting the root-like spores of certain mushrooms. (She’s more dubious that another much-touted protein source — insects — will be widely adopted.)
We could also see more urban agricultural and vertical farming, as well as indoor farming, which necessitates fewer pesticides and resources. An indoor agriculture company in Kentucky, AppHarvest, already claims to produce 30 times the yield of conventional farming, while reducing water consumption 90%.
How Will We Learn?
Education innovator Mike Yates’s hope is that in the future, primary schools will be highly personalized. “Education is very resistant to change,” he says — but if schools embraced adaptive learning software, for example, which adjusts according to the student, this could speed up the academic portion of school. “Then you’ve got time to work on other life skills,” Yates says.
Another game changer would be if the Biden administration expanded the public school system to include pre-k and made the first two years of community college free, as has been proposed. As Anthony Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, told CNBC last summer, it could improve access to higher paid jobs. “In general, we see an 8% wage increase per annum for every year of college you complete,” he said. “So if you go to a two-year college, on average, we’re talking about a substantial wage increase over a lifetime.”
As for higher education, ever since 2012, the college population has been declining, a result of demographic changes as well as attitude shifts, and that is likely to continue. “College is no longer the ticket to the middle class that it once was,” says futurist Alexandra Whittington. She suggests parents, if they can, save for college, but adds this caveat: “Don’t be surprised if they want to put the money into something that pays in a different way, like a bitcoin fund or an eco-startup.”
In the meantime, expect to see new approaches to debt. The lender Lennar, for example, recently started offering to pay off student loans as part of their mortgage package.
One “black swan type of future” Whittington raises is that cognitive enhancements could advance to the point that we might be able to upload languages to our brain, or become smarter via pills. “Then what’s the point of going to college?” she says.
Such possibilities are why Yates and futurist Bryan Alexander suggest that what’s most important is to help children learn to pay attention to not what’s happening currently but what’s likely to come. “We can’t tell the future,” Yates says. “But we can get pretty close if we’re watching for the signals.”
How Will We Make A Living?
Unsurprisingly, many jobs that fall under the umbrella of STEM are expected to be in demand. The field of cybersecurity is likely to grow — “Every sign suggests it’s going to be a bigger and bigger problem,” says Alexander — as well as AI and healthcare.
“Our kids may well live in a world where robots are beginning to do charismatic, emotional, creative things,” says Bechtel. “So then it’s about figuring out what are the higher order pursuits that still require human judgment, discernment and empathy.” While AIs may become skilled radiologists, for example, telling a patient whether a growth is malignant would still be a human role.
To address climate change, we’ll also need scientists and “people who understand the natural world and can help us fix it,” says Whittington. “Tesla has about 1% of the new car market, and worldwide cars represent only 8% of carbon emissions,” Mui says. “That Elon Musk has gotten that rich and successful working on such a small slice of the climate problem is why I think the first trillionaire will be someone who deals with low carbon steel or low carbon cement, or some other factor we have to address.”
For kids uninterested in college, there will continue to be opportunities in fields like woodworking and HVAC, in which the median age for service technicians is already over 50. “Those shortages aren’t going to go away because it’s non-routine work,” says futurist Heather E. McGowan. “They can’t be solved by automation.”
Whatever career path children of today choose initially, it also has a good chance of shifting. “The best research I’ve seen suggests that in the developed world, today’s young people will have 16 jobs across five different industries,” McGowan says. “Parents need to help kids understand what self-propels them, for this is going to be how they navigate their future.”
How Will We Travel?
For car travel to stop contributing greenhouse gases, far more is necessary than just the proliferation of electric vehicles. The electric grid, for example, would need to be completely powered by renewable sources. Production of the cars’ batteries also likely needs to be less energy-intensive. Then there’s the time it currently takes to charge the batteries. Such challenges are why Calder believes that in 20 years, we’re still going to be working to decarbonize transportation. (Air travel, he believes, will be even more difficult to decarbonize, though he thinks it will prompt increasing moral disapproval.)
That said, in two decades we’ll have far more advanced autonomous vehicles, and they will also be safer. “It could just become really hard to get a car to crash into a physical object,” Calder says. “If we reduced traffic accidents by half, that would save more people from violent death than abolishing all war and terrorism.”
Futurist Shara Evans also believes hyperloop travel will become an important mode of transportation within the next few decades. A number of different commercial companies are investing in this technology, which involves a train, via magnetic levitation, moving through a closed loop in which the air has been sucked out. Such trains could go up to 760 miles per hour, meaning a two-hour drive could be completed in about ten minutes.
She thinks space travel could become another huge industry, too, particularly if the development of reusable rockets continues apace — we might ultimately be able to mine asteroids and establish colonies on the moon and Mars. As far as when, though, experts are unsure. “It’s coming,” says Bechtel. “But it might be more of a grandkid thing.”
What Role Will Technology Play?
“As a Gen Xer, my lived experience has seen screens multiplying in number,” says Bechtel. “But our kids are likely to interact with technology in a way that moves beyond the glass.” Eventually smart glasses and smart contact lenses would enable “a digital paint splashed over reality,” he says. “I think our kids are going to look at us like we had three heads because we had our necks craned down at our phones all the time.”
Technology itself will also become exponentially more powerful, particularly, per Evans, in the fields of AI, robotics, and quantum mechanics. A Harvard-led team recently developed a quantum computer, for example, which can perform more simulations than there are atoms in our solar system. “In 30 years, we will be able to throw infinite amounts of capabilities at any problem,” says Mui. “What this means is that, if we plan backwards, we should be able to have clean, abundant energy for everyone, inexpensive transportation, and affordable healthcare. We should be able to address climate change. We just have to take the long term view and move heaven and earth for our kids the way we want to move things for them today.”
Illustrations: Margaret Flatley/Romper
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