Future proof: Britain in the 2020s

Published Thu 29 Dec 2016
Brexit is the firing gun on a decade of disruption. As the UK negotiates its new place in the world, an accelerating wave of economic, social and technological change will reshape the country, in often quite radical ways. In this report, we set out five powerful trends that will drive change in the 2020s.
  1. A demographic tipping point: As the population grows, the UK is set to age sharply and become increasingly diverse. Globally, the long expansion of the working-age population is set to slow sharply.
  2. An economic world transformed: The economic world order will become more fragile as globalisation evolves, trade patterns shift, and economic power gravitates toward Asia. At the same time, developed economies are likely to struggle to escape conditions of secular stagnation. The institutions governing the global economy are likely to come under intense pressure as the American hegemony that underpinned the postwar international order fades and the Global South rises in economic and geopolitical importance.
  3. Brexit – the aftershock: The economic implications of Brexit are likely to put the country on a lower growth, lower investment trajectory, worsening the public finances, with important consequences for the UK’s economy and living standards. Migration is likely to become more controlled. At the same time, politics – long subservient to a liberalising economic consensus – is likely to become increasingly assertive in seeking to reshape Brexit Britain.
  4. Technological transformation – between Star Trek and the Matrix: Exponential improvements in new technologies – computing power, machine learning, artificial intelligence systems, automation, autonomous vehicles, health and resource technologies, and the Internet of Things, among others – are expected to radically transform social and economic life. These changes have the potential to create an era of widespread abundance, or a second machine age that radically concentrates economic power. Which path we take – a future between Star Trek and the Matrix – will depend on the type of politics and institutions we build.
  5. The shock of the Anthropocene – instability in an age of natural systems decay: Climate change, biodiversity degradation, and resource depletion mean we will increasingly run up against the limits of the physical capacity of the Earth’s natural systems to reproduce life as at present. The natural constraints of the Anthropocene age – our new geological era in which humans are the primary shaper of the Earth’s ecology and ecosystems – will force us to build a collective, democratic politics of restraint. The alternative is systemic degradation in ecosystems and rising inequalities in the years ahead.

Together, these trends are going to reshape how we live and work, reorganise our social, economic and political institutions, and redistribute power and reward in society. In the longer term, as machine learning and computing power divorces intelligence from consciousness, as improving health technologies allow for biological enhancements and species divergence, and as the final frontier is conquered by space travel, technological and social transformation will increasingly change what it means to be human.

This is the world hurtling towards us, with very different futures and modernities becoming possible. Critically, there is immense potential for technological and economic change to be shaped to create a more abundant, democratic and equal society. However, we will have to better understand how our world is changing, and by what forces those changes are driven, if we are to build that future. As David Bowie said, ‘Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming'.

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