The Biggest Problems Facing The World Aren’t What You Think — And They Will Require Collective Solutions

Greg Satell (@Digitaltonto)

February 24, 2016


After a terrorist attack, we demand increased vigilance because we perceive an increased threat. Yet The Washington Post reports that we’re not only more likely to die of more mundane causes, like a bee sting or even getting hit by lightning, but even those remote odds are on a downward trend.

Cognitive scientists call this availability bias. Terrorism makes for a compelling news story. There is agency, a back-story and political ramifications that get reported on heavily. That makes the danger seem more clear and present, so we feel more compelled to act on it. Sqeaky wheels, in effect, get the grease.

Availability bias is more than a simple academic curiosity. It encourages us to react swiftly to tragic events, but ignore slow moving trends that will have a far greater impact. Today, aging, decreased poverty and automation are, at first glance, positive trends — and they are — but they are also starting to create problems that we haven’t even begun to think seriously about.

The Aging Planet

In 1935, the year Social Security was enacted, life expectancy in the US was little more than 60 years. Today, it stands closer to 80. Global trends are similar. Even in Africa, life expectancy has gone from 36 in 1950 to 58 today. That of course, is a very good thing, but it is also creating a new set of challenges quite unlike anything we’ve faced before.

First, the obvious. Longer lifespans contribute to population growth, which causes strains on the environment and increases the risk of climate change. The UN predicts global population will top 9 billion people by 2050, which may well exceed the planet’s carrying capacity. So we’re going to have to markedly reduce the environmental impact of each person.

Another impact is on healthcare. A generation ago, the medical profession was focused on acute events, like heart attacks and car accidents. Yet today, an increasing share of healthcare spending goes toward the more chronic conditions associated with an older population, such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, which are far more costly to treat.

Finally, increasing lifespans will cause the worker to retiree ratio to plummet. The McKinsey Global Institute warns that falling birth rates combined with increasing lifespans will result in a demographic deficit, limiting our ability to produce capital for investment to solve future problems we will face.

The End of Poverty

Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen dramatic declines in extreme poverty, from almost half of the developing world to about 20% today. In fact, most experts agree that the complete eradication of extreme poverty within the next generation is a real possibility. On the whole, that’s a reason to celebrate.

Yet even this silver lining is surrounded by a dark cloud. As people grow more prosperous, they consume more—increasing energy use and the amount of meat in their diet meat—which further increases the stress on the planet caused by a growing population. They also become more politically active, which contributes to strains within and in between societies.

Research by Princeton’s Alan Krueger suggests that terrorists tend to be well educated and come from relatively privileged backgrounds, but nonetheless identify with their more downtrodden brethren. Radical groups, for their part, actively target and recruit the affluent, but disenfranchised because better education makes for more effective terrorists.

Even taking terrorism out of the equation, the fact is that over the next few decades we are going to see literally billions of people enter civil society who, through the Internet, will be politically aware and far more demanding than their predecessors. We’re going to have to find ways to make room for them and their demands.

Automation And The Evolution Of Work

The Industrial Revolution replaced physical labor with machine power and, in doing so, cause no small amount of civil strife from groups like the Luddites. Today, we see a similar trend in which machines are beginning to take over cognitive tasks, in fields as wide ranging as legal discovery, making medical diagnoses and even creative work.

One worrying side effect of all this labor saving automation is that there is increasing evidence that it is contributing to income inequality. This will only compound the stresses from increasing population and decreasing poverty as an entire generation of newly educated workers will not only have difficulty finding meaningful work, but also have an extra generation to support.

Even for those who can find a good job, the nature of work is being radically transformed. Research from MIT’s David Autor found that the dividing line in today’s labor market is no longer white collar vs. blue collar, but between routine and nonroutine work. So bookkeepers and travel agents suffer, but financial analysts and wedding planners do well.

In previous generations, we could educate our way out of inequality, but Geoff Colvin argues in Humans Are Underrated that’s no longer possible. He points out that with the automation of knowledge, those who can work effectively with others — not the "best and the brightest" — will offer the most value. In effect, collaboration is the new competitive advantage.

The Future Does Not Fit In The Containers Of The Past

Put it all together and you get a grim picture. An aging population increases healthcare costs, while at the same time there are fewer productive workers to pay the bill. To make matters worse, those younger workers are themselves being automated out of the economy just as a rising new global underclass becomes politically active and asserts their own demands.

These challenges are not in any way insurmountable. Surely, we’ve overcome much greater ones in the past. Yet they are fundamentally different in nature and will require vastly different approaches than before. We can’t solve them with greater prosperity, technology or education because those are, in large degree, the underlying causes.

As Rishad Tobaccowala has put it, the future does not fit in the containers of the past. The challenges the next generation will face are unlike anything we’ve ever had to deal with before. We will need to come up with new approaches that are not only innovative in their conception, but collective in their execution.

In other words, the most profound problems we face today will not be solved through economics or even by technological advancement, but through the political process—both globally and domestically. Unfortunately we haven’t even really begun.