January 24, 2014 12:03 pm

The economist’s guide to the future

‘In 100 years, the world’s poorest people may live like today’s middle-class Americans’
A man wearing glasses looking at a globe©Luis Grañena

What will the world look like in 100 years?” wondered Ignacio Palacios-Huerta. Being an economist at the London School of Economics, he put this question to other economists. Admittedly, the profession didn’t foresee the financial crisis but, still, he writes in the introduction to his new book, economists “know more about the laws of human interactions and have reflected more deeply and with better methods than any other human beings”. (Declaration of interest: I once tried to market Palacios-Huerta’s insights into penalty-kicks to football clubs. Nobody ever paid us.)

Economists liked his question. “Hi Ignacio:” emailed Alvin Roth, Nobel laureate of 2012. “To my surprise, I do find your invitation tempting. It’s a sign of old age, I’m afraid.” The economists who volunteered to write chapters included two other Nobel-winners. The resulting book, In 100 Years, suggests some probable contours of our great-grandchildren’s world, among them:

Greater longevity will push us to reshape our lives. Over the past century, life expectancy in the west has risen by about 30 years. In another century the average person could be living to 100 – perhaps even in currently poor countries, which are already making quick gains by saving infants from simple illnesses such as diarrhoea.

Future advances against cancer could match the “cardiovascular revolution” that has reduced deaths from heart disease since the 1970s, says Angus Deaton of Princeton. Health should keep improving, simply “because people want it to improve and are prepared to pay for” innovations.

Roth foresees parents manipulating their children’s genes. Some such methods, he writes, “may come to be seen as part of careful child rearing”. He also thinks people will become more efficient thanks to performance-enhancing drugs that improve “concentration, memory, or intelligence”.

Once humans have more years in good health, they will probably reorder their lives. Roth says that if child rearing takes up less of the lifespan, people may want different spouses for different phases of life. “New forms of polygamy-over-lifetime relationships” could arise, he writes.

Greater longevity will alter careers too. “A typical career” may mean working intensely for 30 years “followed by many years of low-intensity work”, writes Andreu Mas-Colell of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.

Robots will change far more than just work. Already today, anyone thinking of studying accountancy should consider the chances of the profession lasting her lifetime. Within mere decades, self-driving cars will have replaced taxis and a robot will write my column. In 100 years, writes Robert M Solow, the 1987 Nobel laureate, we could live “the bad dream of an economy in which robots do all the production, including the production of robots”. The remaining jobs will be more interesting, notes Mas-Colell, because everything else will have been automated.

Another consequence of robots: humanity will become more educated. Demand has already plummeted for uneducated workers in rich countries. In 100 years, robots will make that true in poor countries too. Our great-grandchildren will think of us as ignorant, sick, tiny peasants. They will also be better trained in emotional skills than we are, because that’s one realm where they might outcompete robots. As Edward Glaeser of Harvard writes: “I cannot imagine a world where wealthy people are unwilling to pay for pleasant interactions with a capable service provider.”

Based on past trends, an educated population is more likely to demand democracy and live in peace. But terrorists will also have awesome technology.

Face-to-face interaction may continue to lose relevance, writes Roth. I’ll continue his thought: in 100 years, instead of Skyping someone, you might invite their hologram into your living room. By then, actual physical proximity may matter (perhaps) only for sex.

As physical proximity loses importance, last century’s trend to urbanisation could reverse. In 100 years, people may be spread out more efficiently across the earth. They may marvel that greater Tokyo once had more inhabitants than Siberia.

Climate change could cause Siberia or northern Canada to fill with people. The economists in this book expect no significant attempts to prevent climate change. People will try to deal with it only after it starts affecting them, suspects Harvard’s Martin Weitzman.

 

He says we cannot predict the scale of the change. The uncertainty is enormous. But he worries that eventually a desperate country will choose an “unbelievably cheap”, unilateral solution: shooting a “sunshade” of reflective particles into the stratosphere to block some of the sun’s rays. That would cool the planet. It may also have horrendous unintended consequences.

Incomes will probably be much higher worldwide, driven by higher productivity, most of the writers agree. In 100 years, the world’s poorest people may live like today’s middle-class Americans, says Roth. That matters. However, writes Avinash Dixit of Princeton, rising incomes in developed nations matter much less. Theorists of happiness such as Richard Layard argue that once people have about $15,000 a year, more money doesn’t make them happier. Most economists in this book worry less about income levels than about inequality, which in the robotic age could be a lot worse than today.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

‘In 100 Years: Leading Economists Predict the Future’, by Ignacio Palacios-Huerta (ed), MIT Press, $24.95/£17.95

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Letter in response to this column:

Economists, reflect more deeply still / From Prof Kevin Talbot

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