What will the world be like in 2050? It will be different, but how different? It is hard to say, but we can look at some trends to see the direction we will be taking in the next three decades.
The world in 2050 is sufficiently far from us to feel foreign, strange and exciting but close enough that we can try to guess the way it will look like based on current trends.
I did a similar exercise on What will the world be like in 2100? 2100 felt so far away that it gave us some safe space to speculate and provide some generic thoughts on the possible direction the world could take. For 2050, we are still far into the future and, therefore, in the realm of forecasts and scenarios, not predictions, but we can come closer and be more specific about the direction the world is taking.
The world isn’t deterministic; thus, the world of 2050 has yet to be decided. This means we still have some scope to create that world through our actions today and in the coming years.
Let’s see what kind of world we build.
Let’s start with the most concerning trend. The earth is warming at an accelerating rate, which will have terrible consequences for all of us.
There was this sadly funny twit doing the rounds last summer, where a British journalist was compared to the TV hosts in the movie Don’t Look Up, and rightly so, because of her dismissive and careless attitude towards the weather.
Like this journalist, many people think this is a joke. “Isn’t it nice to have a bit of warmer weather and more sunshine?”. Well, to start with, global warming doesn’t mean more sun. It will cause more rain as water evaporates faster and more of it is in the atmosphere.
By 2050, the maps of the world we are used to might get out of date as sea levels rise up to 25 or 30 cm. They have already risen by a similar amount in the last 100 years. Some islands and low coastlines will suffer enormously, and all countries with a coastline will have to invest billions of dollars in accommodating their coastlines to avoid flooding and other related disasters.
The last eight years have been the hottest on record, with 2021 being the 6th hottest in history. This trend will continue, and when we get to 2050, we will remember the hot summer of 2022 as a coolish one.
Freakish weather, wildfires, polar caps melting, more frequent natural disasters and many other terrible things will continue happening in the next three decades and beyond. If we haven’t already passed the point of no return, we are close to it.
The IPCC has made some recommendations on how to combat climate change. Governments, organisations and most people don’t grasp the criticality of our situation.
Many proponents believe technology will save us once again. Somebody will invent some new technology that will allow us to store all the carbon in the atmosphere, cool it down, or something new we don’t even know exists today. This might be true, technology can achieve wondrous things in this exponential age, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Waiting for the technological miracle allows us to kick the proverbial can on the road, hope for a better future and avoid taking the necessary actions in the present.
If technology saves us, so be it, but we shouldn’t count on it. We should start doing everything we can today to reduce our carbon footprint, which means travelling less, consuming less energy, and changing many of our pernicious habits. It is possible to have a similar life to what we live today and reduce our emissions considerably.
It can be done, and we have to if we don’t want to get to 2050 with billions of displaced and starving people due to climate change.
In 2050 I will be 71 years old. I should be wiser than today and hope to get there in good health, but most people would agree that my best years will be past me by then.
The same will happen to most of the people reading this article today. We will all be rather old by 2050. Even the currently youthful Gen Zers of today will be middle-aged men and women in their fifties.
Who will replace them? The next generation after Gen Z seems to be Generation Alpha, born from the mid-2010s to the mid-2020s. This generation is still comprised of children, so it is difficult to tell what traits they will share. I hope when they grow up to be in charge, they will be able to tackle the world’s problems better than we did.
The ageing of today’s society is an issue already and will only worsen over the years. In many Western and some Asian countries, the fastest-growing age cohort in the next decade will be people over 65, and this trend will only grow in the following decades. In many Western countries, more than a third of the population will be over 60 in 2050. This will cause a considerable strain on these societies’ working populations and their governments’ resources. This could be solved by migration from other countries and automation, but these problems bring their own challenges.
Automation deserves its own space in this article, so we’ll treat this topic below. Immigration is supposed to come from younger and usually poorer countries, but cultural assimilation and integration are problematic. Also, these countries won’t remain young for long. The demographic pyramid has started getting inverted in some of them already, and it is likely that by 2050 many of them will be ageing as well.
African countries will be the last ones inverting this pyramid and the last ones to stop growing, so by 2050, many of the world’s most populous countries will be in Africa. As a continent, it will be the second most populous after Asia, doubling its population from today’s 1.3 billion to 2.5 billion in 2050.
The West, if we also consider Eastern countries such as Japan, Korea, Australia and the like, currently has a population of 1 billion people. This will remain more or less stable, mainly thanks to immigration.
What are the implications of this for the world of 2050? It’s too early to tell, but I hope that the growth in Africa will bring new impetus and reinvigorating energy to the way we look at arts, business, technology and all the rest globally.
Read more: Demographic shifts and the Future of Work
We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”Roy Amara
“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”.
These words by Roy Amara, a famous American scientist and futurist, are known as Amara’s Law. It is not a law set in stone like those in the Natural Sciences or Physics, but it does tend to happen.
Today nobody knows what kind of technology we will have in 2050, not even the keenest futurist, well-researched scientist or most avid technologist. Nobody. Part of it is because of Amara’s Law. In three decades, a technology that is nascent today or hasn’t even adequately developed has time to grow exponentially to proportions we cannot begin to imagine today.
We tend to underestimate how much technology can impact our lives over decades.
We live in the Exponential Age, and many of the technologies changing our world are growing ever faster. This means that the world in 2050 will be very different to today’s, but we don’t know where the main differences will lay.
We can speculate about it, though, and speculate we will.
Artificial Intelligence is one of today’s most significant technological advances, and it will continue growing and improving. Many people believe AI is a general-purpose technology, like electricity or the combustion engine, and therefore it is having and will continue to have a profound impact on many other technologies, industries, business models, and the way we live our lives. It will transform our society. It is already doing it.
It will have a considerable impact on the way we work too. It will probably displace many jobs through automation. If this follows up with previous technological upheavals in history, many new jobs may be created, so there wouldn’t be any problem, or it could be different this time. We could go the same way as the horses at the beginning of the 20th century and disappear from the job market.
We will see, but we’ll probably have a clearer view of how this is going by 2050. We might even have reached the stage where we have conscious AI by then, or passed the Singularity and not look back. Many people are already very excited about what’s happening with ChatGPT and similar natural language processing technologies, even if they are still far away from emulating general intelligence or having any sort of sentience or consciousness.
The probability of achieving Artificial General Intelligence before 2050 is small, but it is not zero, and if this happens, then all the bets are off. The world would be a very different place.
Healthcare and increased lifespan
The Singularity proponents believe we will reach a point in the next couple of decades where advances in AI, biology, and nanotechnology will mean that we will either become a-mortal or be able to upload our consciousness into a computer.
I believe we are still far from either of these options, if we ever get there. Still, it is possible that we will have significant advances in medicine and bioengineering and that by 2050 we will be able to increase our lifespans considerably (or perhaps only the wealthiest members of society might be able to pull the trick).
Also, thanks to CRISPR and other advances in genetics, design babies will be an option. They are already technically possible, but ethically and legally, we are far. Will our moral values change enough in three decades that choosing the colour of your children’s eyes becomes a reality by 2050?
I’m not so sure. Mores tend to lag technology and science, and they change more gradually, but society seems to be changing faster and faster every decade, so it could be. I find it abhorrent today, but will I think the same in a few decades?
We spend more and more time in the digital world. Today we spend more time on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the like, or playing Fortnite or Call of Duty, than walking in a forest or meeting friends face to face. Will we spend most of our time in the Metaverse tomorrow?
This is what Mark Zuckerberg wants us to do, and he may get it. The trend towards further digitalisation and us spending more time online hasn’t lost any pace, and it seems to be increasing. Also, advances in Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality will make the experience of digital immersion much better with time.
However, trends often stop or reverse. They sometimes work like pendulums, they go one way, and when people get tired or get a reaction against them, they go in the opposite direction.
There have been increasingly more vocal voices raising the alarm about the harm social media does to people, their pernicious effect on the political discourse and how they increase polarisation and radicalisation. The surveillance capitalist model of Big Tech has been denounced (see below), and some people are making a conscious effort to spend less time online.
During the covid pandemic, many people spent more time at home and connected to virtual worlds, both for leisure and work. This seemed to be an irreversible trend, but this isn’t so clear. Some people are returning to the offices, and the tech companies’ results in the last year have stalled.
We may have gotten enough of the digital world and decide to spend more time in the real world in the next few decades. I wouldn’t count on it, but you never know, stranger things have happened.
A shifting World Order
There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happenVladimir Lenin
“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen”, said Lenin, who knew a thing or two about revolutions and tumultuous times.
Will the three decades we have to 2050 be some of those when not much happens? Or will there be eventful years, with the World Order changing considerably? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I suspect it might be more of the second.
As I wrote in Geopolitics of the Future, the next few decades will probably see a growing conflict between China and the US for their supremacy in the world. This clash might not result in a conventional war (fingers crossed!), but there are many ways in which two superpowers can compete and try to harm each other. We have seen some of them in the last years with the Trade War they started in 2018 and the sanctions the US recently imposed on the use of semiconductors and high-performance chips by the Chinese.
We are in a multipolar world and will continue being in one in the next few decades, but with different protagonists. The US and China will continue being top dogs, but their relative weight might differ. China’s last couple of years haven’t been as stellar as they used to be, and its population may have already peaked or is about to. China may never surpass the US in GDP, which was a given only a few years back.
India will probably surpass China in population in 2023 to become the world’s most populous country. It has some structural issues it will have to address, but if they do so, it will be another great power to consider in the next few decades.
Russia’s reputation as a power is being considerably damaged by its dismal performance in the war in Ukraine, so it will continue being a nuclear power with a lot of natural resources but a diminished influence beyond its borders. I wouldn’t be surprised if its governing system suffered significant changes from here to 2050. Putin will not be alive or in good enough health to govern by then, and whether he will be replaced by another strongman or a proper democratic government is anybody’s guess.
European countries, including Britain, will also have a reduced influence in the new world order of 2050. This influence will be more in line with their size and presence worldwide. It is a small region, after all. The European Union will continue suffering existential crises that threaten its very existence, but it will probably trundle along.
The chances of the UK entering the EU again are not nil. It isn’t likely, but it is possible. The last few years have been tumultuous for the British, and some voices are already asking for a new referendum, only six years after the last one. In almost three decades, many more things can happen.
Asia and Africa, and to a lesser degree, Latin America, will be the regions with increased influence. The main economic growth will come from these regions, which will also have younger and more vibrant populations. I am excited to see what they can do with this increased influence.
The workplace of 2050
The first surprising change we will probably notice in the workplace of 2050 is that many jobs we are used to seeing today will no longer exist, and many other new ones will. Also, many of today’s jobs will have enhanced functions and new duties, thanks to AI and other technological innovations.
How big will the onslaught on jobs caused by AI and robots be? It is difficult to tell, but my bet is that quite big. As we have seen above, AI has evolved a lot in the last decade, but it’s also seen some breakthroughs in the last couple of years, and it will displace many jobs. That means they will be fewer or no clerical, and admin jobs, many manufacturing and middle management jobs will disappear, and we will have new jobs, which their job title we cannot even imagine today.
These new jobs and the entry of new, non-human types of intelligence in the workplace will require a new kind of leader with new leadership qualities. The future leader will be Future Ready, have an inspiring Purpose, excel at Interpersonal Skills and be obsessed with Personal Growth. Leaders without these qualities will not succeed in 2050 (or 2030, for that matter).
There is no going back to the world before covid. Flexible working arrangements are here to stay, and white-collar employees will expect from their companies the possibility to work from anywhere and at any time. As mentioned, this will require a new type of leader and a new type of organisation, more decentralised and distributed than the ones we have today.
Gig economy and digital platforms
The gig economy is also here to stay. The formula isn’t currently working in all sectors, but there will be new iterations, and by 2050, more and more professionals will be selling their services and skills in digital marketplaces enabled by digital platforms.
There will likely be two classes of digital gig workers. In an increasingly winner-takes-all market powered by digital platforms, some super-skilled professionals will get vast sums of money as they get to scale their services via the Internet and sell them to a significant share of the market (superstar professors or speakers, for example).
At the other end of the spectrum, there will be massive competition for low-qualification jobs that AI and robots haven’t automated. This market sector will be ripe for exploitation and bad practices from corporations. We’ll have to watch out to avoid having a subclass of workers who live in worse conditions in 2050 than in 2020.
Surveillance capitalism (and communism)
The last decade has brought us the phenomenon that Zhousana Zuboff has termed Surveillance Capitalism, which is based on Big Tech companies amassing huge troves of our data and surveilling everything we do on the Internet to make money out of it. We are being watched without us realising or consenting to it.
A similar phenomenon, even increased, is happening in other more autocratic communist societies, such as China, where citizens are being constantly watched with the help of modern technology.
This trend will likely continue accelerating, and the world in 2050 will probably be under constant surveillance, with some hints of Orwell’s dystopian 1984.
The future hasn’t been written yet, so there is a slight possibility that some parts of society will start getting concerned about the intensive surveillance they are subject to, and a movement against it is started and is successfully changing the status quo.
We have seen some movement around this, with, for example, the Social Dilemma documentary and the work of organisations such as the Centre for Humane Technology. Still, it is unclear what impact they will have in changing the world for the better and if they will avoid this significant shift happening before 2050.
Remembering the 90s
Do you remember what life was like in the 90s? And what were you like? (if you are old enough to remember them or if you were already alive then, that is) I was a teenager then, so I was a somewhat different person, and life was also quite different, but still, there has been some continuity. We didn’t have smartphones, and the Internet was starting, but many other things are more or less the same today.
The world has changed a lot since then, but has it really? We are the same Cro-Magnons with fancy clothes and fascinating gadgets.
But what do the 90s have to do with 2050? You guessed it right: today, in 2022, we are at the same distance from 1994 than from 2050. If you remember 1994 as not so far away, it may feel the same when you are in 2050 and look back to 2022. It may look even closer as time seems to go faster as you get older.
When you get to 2050 and look back to the last three decades, you will see that life was different back in the 20s but wasn’t so different after all. Hopefully, you will also feel that we have built a better world and that life is at least a bit better than it used to be back in 2022.