These are troubled times. The war in Ukraine, soaring inflation, the squeeze on living standards, the legacy of the pandemic and growing concern about the environment combine to cast a shadow over the world. More than that, they make us worry about the future. Will the coming years see a more general retreat, not just in living standards but also in the quality of life and the opportunities for young people?
Anyone who argues against this sense of general decline is liable to get dismissed as unrealistic, unfeeling – or just plain wrong. But actually there is a powerful case to be made that despite those deeply disturbing current themes, the world is likely to become a more peaceful and prosperous place over the next generation.
A few brave intellects have risked ridicule to make this point in recent years, including world-renowned academics Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling, and former US President Barack Obama. Pinker is the Canadian professor of cognitive psychology who is best known for his book The Better Angels Of Our Nature.
In it, he showed that violence has declined in both the long and short terms, even allowing for the two World Wars of the first half of the 20th Century. Strange as it may seem given the horrors we are now seeing in Ukraine, his core point still stands.
The ten billion or so of us that will be living in 2050 will have to look after the place we have got
Viewed overall, human beings are behaving better to each other – more kindly and co-operatively – than ever before in the history of our species. Pinker acknowledged that his view was unfashionable, pointing out that not one book with a broadly optimistic outlook had ever won a major literary prize. By contrast, non-fiction Pulitzers had gone to ‘four books on genocide, three on terrorism, two on cancer, two on racism, and one on extinction’.
Having just written a relatively optimistic book about the future of the world economy, I know how he feels.
Rosling was a Swedish professor of international health and was famous for his animated on-stage TED talks, using statistics to demonstrate how the state of humankind was improving. He found most people simply did not know the facts. In his book Factfulness, co-written with his son and daughter-in-law and published just after his death in 2017, he set out 13 questions that people usually got wrong.
For example, few people realised that over the 20 years to 2017 the proportion of the world’s population in extreme poverty had almost halved. Or that the average life expectancy had reached 72. Or that the vast majority of the world’s population now lived in middle-income countries rather than poor ones. Perhaps most alarming, the better educated people were, the more pessimistic their outlook – and the more wrong they turned out to be. One of the most misinformed audiences he spoke to were those elite business leaders who gather at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Will the coming years see a more general retreat, not just in living standards but also in the quality of life and the opportunities for young people?
But Obama had perhaps the most compelling way of expressing the point that the state of the world is improving over the long term.
Speaking to the Goalkeepers Conference (a sustainable development event held by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) in New York in 2017, he said: ‘If you had to choose one moment in history in which to be born, and you didn’t know in advance whether you were going to be male or female, which country you were going to be from, what your status was… you’d choose right now.’
Viewed globally that must be right. The life chances of anyone born in the emerging world are vastly better now than a generation ago: childhood mortality and maternal deaths have plunged and there has been solid progress against malaria, one of the biggest killers in Africa.
What is perhaps less obvious is that there has also been progress in the developed world too.
Here in the UK, many people believe the baby-boomers, people born between 1946 and 1964, have better opportunities than people born since then, citing the affordability of homes and their access to free higher education.
But that ignores the fact that home-buyers in the 1970s and 1980s had to pay double-digit interest rates and that, in the early 1960s, only four per cent of school leavers went to university, rising to only 15 per cent by the end of the 1970s. But the key question now is will it go on? Will the gloomsters who seem to get a thrill (and endless plaudits) for talking down Britain and the West, forecasting doom and decline, be proved right? Or will the trend for progress, albeit with regular interruptions, carry on improving the lot of the average man, woman and child?
We have just seen two big setbacks with the pandemic and war in Ukraine
There are powerful reasons to believe that it will. Let’s take some of the most pressing current issues and put them in their proper historical context. Start with fears that economic growth has stalled – not simply in terms of living standards but, just as important, life opportunities.
Economic forecasters get a bad press for all the obvious reasons. But that is because short-term forecasts are indeed very difficult.
Looking further ahead, there are sensible things that can be said. We know roughly how many people there will be in the world in another 30 years’ time and where they will be (for evidence, note that the UN’s forecasts of 30 years ago are pretty much spot- on today).
We know that technology will continue to advance, though it is tough to predict quite how new technologies will be used.
Even Steve Jobs, whose genius created the iPhone in 2007, did not foresee the selfie – that first iPhone did not have a front-facing camera. Smartphones and apps have become so central to our lives that it is hard to believe that they did not exist 16 years ago.
We can be pretty sure, too, of the way in which technology and population will interact to generate growth. In 2001, the American investment bank Goldman Sachs produced its first BRIC (Brazil Russia India and China) report, predicting that the four largest emerging economies would pass the G7 leading developed ones in economic importance. Two of them, Brazil and Russia, have for different reasons faded. But China is indeed on its way to passing the US as the world’s largest economy in about ten years’ time, and India is on its way to becoming number three some time in the 2040s.
Next, let’s look at the environmental challenges. Here we cannot be so confident. These concerns will mount, and there is a genuine fear that we are moving too slowly to slow climate change. But we should not underrate the ability of the world to pull together when faced with a dire threat.
A prime example of such co-operation was the response to the pandemic. It would normally take several years to develop, manufacture and approve a vaccine. Yet a combination of universities, pharmaceutical companies and governments created several effective ones in less than a year. It was, by the way, the US, the UK and Europe that led this effort – not China or Russia.
We should not underrate now the scale of the effort being made to cut carbon emissions, cut air pollution, and produce food in more sustainable ways.
That leads to a wider concern about the performance of the democracies of the West.
The financial crash of 2008/9, an uneven response to the pandemic, and now the surge in inflation, have combined to lead to a deal of soul-searching on both sides of the Atlantic. Is our system really working?
There is a simple answer to that, which is: what else do you want?
What seemed like an impressive reaction to Covid-19 by China now appears much less so, given its ineffective vaccine programme and the shutdowns in many cities.
And Russia’s outrageous attack on Ukraine is not an advertisement for that brand of authoritarian government either.
The longer answer would acknowledge there are many flaws in our democracies and that tackling those flaws will be a slog that will never end. We are still learning how to adapt our politics to the new communications technologies. But they are so new that you would expect that to take time.
Or take the current burst of inflation. Not only is this not nearly as serious as that of the 1970s and 1980s, but the central banks of the developed world have learnt from the mistakes then and have begun a concerted effort to tackle it.
Labour unrest is troubling – but again, not nearly as serious as it was 40 years ago. After all, our system, for all its faults, has delivered something close to full employment in most countries, and an albeit imperfect safety-net for people who struggle.
More broadly, the democracies of the West are a magnet for talented immigrants in a way that autocracies such as Russia and China are not. So they have to work with the talent pool they already have, whereas democratic nations can attract the brightest people from everywhere. Since talented people are increasingly the main driver of growth, this really matters for economic success.
Pull together these various forces – demography, technology, the success of democracy and so on – and it starts to become possible to sketch what the world might look like a generation hence.
Home-buyers in the 1970s and 1980s had to pay double-digit interest rates and in the early 1960s, only four per cent of school leavers went to university, rising to only 15 per cent by the end of the 1970s
Some aspects of that world are widely accepted: that China becomes the world’s largest economy, for example. Others have yet to be fully grasped. One that is I think inevitable will be that China will not only have become a very old society by 2050, but also one with a fast-declining population. That is a legacy of the one-child policy that ran from 1980 to 2015, and while that is now reversed Chinese women are choosing to have much smaller families.
Now ask this: if in 30 years’ time the Chinese population is falling, will the country still be able to continue its present policy of aggressive expansion overseas?
The US, by contrast, will remain a relatively youthful country, driven in part by its immigrants, and will therefore be much more vibrant than China. There is even a possibility that it will regain its number one slot in the world economy during the second half of this century. So if the US and China can manage to get through the next 15 or so difficult years without open conflict, they will move to a calmer and more co-operative relationship.
I think the balance of probability is that the US will itself become a more co-operative society, because that is what the majority of its citizens want. To put the current turmoil in context, ask whether what is happening now is really worse than McCarthyism in the 1950s.
There are other features of the world in 2050 that we can glimpse.
One will be the rise of a global middle class in the emerging nations, China and the Indian sub-continent of course, but also in parts of Africa.
Another will be the growing importance of the wider Anglosphere, countries where English is either the principal language or the unifying one. The most important members of this club will be the US and India, followed by the UK, Canada and Australia. This wider Anglosphere will account for 40 per cent of global output, maybe more. It will suit these countries to work together when there is a common objective, rather as the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand co-operate now in the Five Eyes intelligence network.
From a British perspective, this is quite encouraging. We have to make the inevitable Brexit pivot away from Europe work in economic terms and that will take time. But Europe will become a smaller economy in relative terms than it is now – the ageing of its population makes that almost inevitable. No one can predict how the EU itself will change, but common sense would suggest that the UK will come to a more comfortable relationship in the future than the current discord.
A more middle-class world will feel different. There will sadly still be many poor people, but if the present economic trends continue, at least two-thirds of the world’s population will have access to higher education, freedom to travel, career opportunities, decent housing and so on. That has never happened before in the history of humankind.
There will inevitably be things that go wrong along the way. We have just seen two big setbacks with the pandemic and war in Ukraine. As far as the pandemic is concerned there will be other health emergencies. But just as the Spanish Flu of 1918 did not reverse the advance in global life expectancy, there is no reason to think that this pandemic, or the ones to come, will reverse that either.
And Russia? It may well continue to be a threat to its neighbours and itself, but we have seen a robust and unified response from the West. In any case, Russia is a declining power, with the prospect of a fast-falling population that will struggle to run the world’s largest landmass. It needs friends, and has not been good at making or keeping them.
We will see a rise of a global middle class in the emerging nations, China and the Indian sub-continent of course, but also in parts of Africa
There are other obvious threats, from some kind of environmental or humanitarian disaster to a conflict that spiralled into a global war. Some of the more extreme possibilities don’t bear thinking about. I think and hope that the folk-memory of the dreadful first half of the 20th Century will keep us inoculated against a similar catastrophe.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the heavy footprint humankind is placing on the planet. We have nowhere else to go, so the ten billion or so of us that will be living in 2050 will have to look after the place we have got.
So back to that overarching question: is the real progress identified by people such as Pinker and Rosling somehow going to stop? I don’t see any evidence that it will. We are going through a difficult period, but there have been far more difficult periods in the past. Even the relatively successful second half of the 20th Century was marred by famine and conflicts.
Blind optimism is as pointless as unwarranted pessimism. But you don’t have to be blindly optimistic to agree with Barack Obama. The best time to be born is now.
lHamish McRae’s new book, The World In 2050: How To Think Abo