Thinking about the future

As of 2013, topics of public discourse about the global future include a number of issues, discussed briefly below in no particular order of importance. Many are interrelated and relate to the outlook for future generations

Global population

Estimates of the global population are about one billion persons in 1800, two billion in 1920, four billion by 1980 and seven billion today, doubling first in 120 years, again in 60 years and almost again in 33 years. Many of the front page issues today are the result of growth in the world population, which receives little public attention except by certain groups.

Discussion requires dealing with issues like birth control, abortion, infanticide, hunger, starvation, disease, the size and growth of national populations and many issues which people often feel uncomfortable to publicise and discuss.

Age structure of populations

Countries and societies face different issues according to their population age structure. A pyramid structure with too many young people may cause youth unrest due to unemployment, as exists in a number of developing countries. An inverted pyramid, like Japan, has different problems, such as too few active people to support a high percentage of older people. One is not more of a problem than the other. They give rise to different issues, youth unemployment in one case and support for the elderly in another. As a country’s future age structure can be estimated, policies can be implemented ahead of time.

Take the Canadian example where an ageing population is forecast. This can be mitigated by people working to an older age, full and partime, pensions paid out later, emphasis on retraining of unemployed and others where there are likely to be shortages, immigration of those with required skills, use of temporary foreign workers, outsourcing of work abroad, or domestically to people able to work at home, and the substitution of capital for labour. Numerous adaptations can be made and were made for example in wartime – see the TV program Wartime Farm on TVO which shows the adaptations which occurred in the UK during WW2.


The crossborder movement of people involves tourists, short term visitors such as foreign students, seasonal workers and permanent residents. The last are usually on the track to become citizens. Another category of migrants includes refugees. Problems arise when short term visitors do not leave the country and become illegal immigrants or visitors, and are often exploited by employers.

The supply of migrants arises as people in poorer countries attempt to improve their circumstances by moving to richer countries, or try to escape from violent situations. The receiving countries may provide incentives to attract people with certain types of skills. Unlike the past, migrants now find it relatively inexpensive to travel home and to communicate with their families. They also send remittances home which become a way of richer countries paying for the valuable resources taken from poorer countries.

National immigration policies act as filtering mechanisms and are often accompanied by policies which assist in integrating newcomers into the society, referred to as multiculturalism.

Warfare and Terrorism

Global warfare during the first part of the 20th century has been replaced first by local wars, and now instances of terrorism which have come to the fore since 9/11.  In the early part of the 20th century armies were still equipped with horse ridden cavalry and engaged in trench warfare. This was found to be expensive in terms of equipment and manpower (and animals) and the nature of warfare changed. Tanks, artillery, naval and air power began substituting equipment for military personnel.

Note that even in the 1940s the Japanese invaded and occupied Malaya using bicycles; the German army advanced into Holland, Belgium and France using horses and bicycles as well as motorized equipment. The armoured blitzkrieg which subdued Poland was accompanied by infantry on foot. Today the use of drones displaces troops with boots on the ground.

Terrorism as warfare changes the nature of war and the rules which are supposed to govern it. The original so-called rules envisaged national armed forces lined up against each other with someone at the national level in charge, willing to declare war, accept surrender, sign treaties and abide by their terms. This never happened in a clear-cut way and so the first world war morphed into a second one, followed by the Cold War and regional wars like Korea, Vietnam, Algeria, East Africa and so on. This, in turn, has morphed into guerrilla warfare and terrorism as in Ireland, East Timor, and currently the actions of terrorists, Islamists and others in North Africa and the western Mediterranean. The proliferation of nuclear weapons by rogue states or groups within those states such as North Korea and Iran has become a basis for state terrorism.

Human rights

These include a multitude of issues, prominent among them globally are the rights of children, women and aboriginal people, many of whom have not experienced the political and economic benefits enjoyed by others. While today more people live within democracies and have a higher standard of living than in earlier times, there are still many people living in abject poverty in the least developed countries, as well as the existence of poor people in richer countries. Hong Kong is among the countries with the highest per capita income in Asia, but has poor people living in wire cages stacked on top of each other.

Deficits and debt

Fiscal deficits and debts are present and future problems for governments and individuals. At present they are less of a problem for many corporations, which are holding unprecedented levels of cash and short term securities, as a result of cost cutting and unwillingness to make major new investments due to global economic uncertainty.

Increasing deficits lead to rising debt levels which at present governments and individuals can finance due to low interest rates. But if rates rise, then governments will have to cut back on program spending, which they are already doing, or go further into debt or default which Iceland did and Greece nearly did.

Individuals face similar problems. For example, with low interest rates they borrow more, often using as collateral the inflated cost of housing. When the housing bubble bursts, they cannot finance their debt and are forced to reduce other expenditures or default on their debt payments.

Deficits arise from the annual flow of expenditures exceeding incomes, leading to an increased stock of debt which is sustainable only as long as the payments on the debt can be made. As governments and individuals cut back on spending, the adverse consequences flow to other parts of the economy leading to a general downturn.

When the depression of the 1930s ended, it was associated with a world war which caused unemployed men to be employed in the forces, women filling their places in the civilian workforce, and a general economic upturn as wartime production was ramped up. The present global recession is less severe than the 1930s, but it is as well to recall what circumstances caused the economic turnaround in the 1940s.

Income inequality

This occurs within a country where a few people hold a disproportionately large amount of the wealth, or earn a disproportionately large amount of a country’s income. When carried to an extreme, the sense of unfairness, if not remedied by the political process, can lead to some form of revolt. In western democracies, income inequality has been growing over recent decades. Signs of revolt are present in European countries like Greece, Spain, Italy and France. Students have protested against fee increases in the UK and Canada (Province of Quebec).The “occupy movement” took place in the US, and the Tea Party branch of the Republican party is a protest movement, as are aboriginal protests in Canada. Use of the internet and social media facilitate the coordination of protest movements.


Healthcare costs are continuing to rise due to a combination of an ageing and longer living population in some countries, reduced infant mortality and technological change, which has improved the delivery of healthcare services for some. For many governments, healthcare costs are taking a rising proportion of total revenues with older people responsible for much of the increase.

As with population growth healthcare becomes a difficult issue to discuss because it has intergenerational features. The idea of rationing healthcare for the aged or for any group of persons is a sensitive issue, for example should hip, knee and shoulder surgery for people over a certain age be paid for by the state. Young people would probably say no, at least before remembering that they are going to get older.

The environment

Over the past half century, the environment has become a widely debated issue. Part of the discussion relates to the impact of human activity on the environment and on climate change. Another notes the fact that earth is currently in the fifth ice age,

“During the most recent North American glaciation, during the latter part of the Wisconsin Stage (26,000 to 13,300 years ago), ice sheets extended to about 45 degrees north latitude. These sheets were 3 to 4 km thick.

This Wisconsin glaciation left widespread impacts on the North American landscape. The Great Lakes and the Finger Lakes were carved by ice deepening old valleys.”

Current evidence shows the melting of glaciers and ice packs in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The cause of the warming is debated, as will be cooling of the planet’s temperature, which will almost certainly follow centuries hence.

Energy sources

The industrial revolution from the 1800s was driven in part by the substitution of various sources of mechanized energy for human labour. The first industrial revolution lasted until about the mid 1900s  (some divide this period into a first and second industrial revolution.) Since around 1950, a new industrial revolution has emerged associated with nuclear power and developments in communications technology amongst other factors.

The demand for petroleum (oil and natural gas) has increased markedly as more countries and regions of the world have undergone economic development. But because of the environmental effects of coal and petroleum based energy sources, alternative cleaner energy is being developed. The alternatives are well known, wind, solar and water including tidal, being amongst the more prominent. While these receive much attention, the possibility of organizing manufacturing and service activities in an energy saving way also provides a means of making existing energy supplies last longer.


If the foregoing includes some of the major issues affecting current societies, what type of educational experience should young people be offered. I suspect a greater emphasis on maths and science or a stronger grounding in these areas will benefit future students. Life long learning will be needed to permit people to adapt to a rapidly changing workplace. At the same time, distance online learning will provide the flexibility for people to study at home without having physically to attend an institution.


The foregoing laundry list of issues will require involvement by governments which will increase their role, and at the same time generate further problems. Reliance on centralized government bureaucracy, expanding entitlements, and the rise of interest group politics to defend the entitlements may undermine future economic growth.


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