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

2016 February 24
by Greg Satell

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.

– Greg

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Pascal permalink
    February 28, 2016

    Actually, there shouldn’t be a problem (except for how many # billions people can just “sit” on earth). Indeed, automatisation “should” make things much cheaper and make them accessible to most of us. But to do so would mean that one should accept that an ever bigger chunk of her own salary should be taken away by governments to fund other people’s needs. And this is psychologically though: not many people are ready for this. The point is that most of us on Earth want to “consume”, even if it no longer makes sense. We are now buying a new TV screen say every three years (I don’t know the exact figure). Decades ago, people would buy a new TV every 10 yeas, if not every 15 years. Yes, progress is good but “does it make sense”? The day we realize we don’t need a new flat screen or smartphone every year, then there will be way enough resources (“money”) for everybody.

  2. February 28, 2016


    I understand the point about a guaranteed minimum income, but even if it is a viable option, that wouldn’t solve the problems of environmental footprint, affect of longer life spans on chronic diseases and healthcare costs, rising political ambitions of the global underclass and technological forces at work.

    – Greg

  3. February 29, 2016

    Hi Greg,

    I was not talking about minimum income here. My main point was more about consumerism: the day values in this world will change (but will they?) then the impact on Earth will decrease.

  4. March 6, 2016

    They say change occurs when there is disruption.

    So what problems are there? Automation disrupting the status and identity from occupation that is the thread of the social fabric, while at the same time creating the potential for economic inequality as never seen before? Emergent diseases causing pandemic? Moral dislocation as the appeal and authority of religion is challenged. What about the disruption as more and more people see no future for themselves or their children? What could go wrong? Oh yah. You might not understand the specifics of it, but reduced family size and older parents while removing natural selection and calling it human progress is already creating a genetic load that is absolutely unsustainable. Inexpensive genetic sequencing is revealing that. I could go on, but I think that is quite enough to chew on if you are looking for problems.

    Somehow I just can’t get all worried about consumerism with the festering problems of racism and nationalism. Whoops. More problems. Then there is …. oh, you get the idea.

    So the future doesn’t fit in the containers of the past. Now that I believe. “Surely we have overcome greater ones in the past”. Are you sure? Actually you list some problems. I listed more. Maybe the problems aren’t even what you think. In any case to solve them you are certainly going to have to figure out what they are and your list is far too short to show the difference of the future from the past. Do you think politics can solve all those problems? Really? Cool. I wonder. If anyone claimed to know how to describe the problem and offered a reasoned solution, would anyone want it?

  5. Edward permalink
    March 17, 2016

    Greg here is something for you to ponder –

    Reportedly some mice were placed in a confined area and fed well. They bred like mice as the saying goes. They nurtured their young. Then the tide turned. There were too many of them. They ate their young..and a few other undesireable habits emerged.

    Is terrorism the first sign?

  6. March 17, 2016

    I don’t think so. Research has shown that terrorists are overwhelmingly middle class and well educated. So I think it is more a function of identity than actual physical hardship.

    – Greg

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