What Happens Next
The world isn’t getting any younger. These five thinkers present the challenges—and opportunities—the next generation will bring.
Elizabeth IseleCEO of Global Institute for Experienced Entrepreneurship
Older workers are the economy’s most underrated natural resource
Leng Leng ThangAuthor of “Generations in Touch"
Before we give them fuzzy robots, let’s try solving elderly loneliness with people
Sarita GuptaCo-director of Caring Across Generations
The most important job in the world is one no one wants anymore
Joseph F. CoughlinDirector of the MIT AgeLab
Old age shouldn’t just be about survival—it should be about fun
Where We Thought We’d Be
Hindsight is always 20/20. Here are some predictions that got the future right—or spectacularly wrong.
In “The Jameson Satellite,” a short story by Neil R. Jones, a man’s body is kept at absolute zero as it orbits around the earth. He’s perfectly preserved for millions of years—until the Zoromes, an alien cyborg race, show up. They’ve worked out a way to live forever by swapping out geriatric limbs and organs for mechanical ones: “When one part of the mechanical men wore out, it was replaced by a new part, and so the Zoromes continued living their immortal lives which saw few casualties.”
You spin me around
Editors at Science and Mechanics magazine proposed strapping the aging into an “Old Age Rejuvenator Centrifuge.” In this mind-boggling illustration, about a dozen people snooze on twin beds, set on “a large revolving disc” with their heads facing out and their feet facing up. They’d be whizzed around and around to allow centrifugal force to do its magic, supposedly helping cardiac and vascular disabilities. “This mechanism would facilitate the functions which during the day are inhibited by gravity,” they proposed.
The big freeze
After reading science fiction like Jones’s short story, the aforementioned Robert Ettinger envisaged a future known as “the Freezer Era.” He believed that thousands of people would be able to freeze and thaw themselves in perpetuity, spending months at a time having a nap in space, then being reanimated back on ground. This kind of Earth timeshare would “make room for others” on an overcrowded planet while also extending individuals’ lives.
- 1965 (for 2000)
Man + machine
Futurist heavyweight Herman Kahn (who was the inspiration for Dr Strangelove) thought that science advances would make people healthier and hereditary and congenital defects less common. For what science couldn’t fix, he believed we’d use “cyborg techniques” such as “mechanical aids or substitutes for human organs, sense, limbs” to extend the length of our lives.
Journalist Phillip Longman predicted an age war: As people keep living longer, unborn generations will have to deal with the problems that their elders create. With baby boomers unable to save for their own long-lasting retirement, for instance, their children would be saddled with the costs.
More from What Happens Next
Future of College
While the internet has made online learning virtually free, the price of traditional teaching is still soaring. When the job market is transforming more quickly each year, how can we reinvent education to keep up?
Future of Water
The world’s supply of cheap and clean water will likely plummet as the climate warms and populations boom. Can we find ways to conserve, cut waste, and find new sources before it’s too late?
Future of Gaming
With revenues topping $100 billion a year, the video game industry is poised to be this century’s dominant form of entertainment. As games become more addictive and expensive to play, how will they transform our social relationships as well as our leisure time?
Future of Home
Technology is transforming homes all over the world. In some places, cheap devices are powering and connecting homes long left off the grid. In others, newly automated and networked machines are reinventing convenience—but at what cost to privacy and human connection?
Future of Work
If automation continues at its current pace, 400 million workers around the globe will be displaced by 2030. In spite of the vast economic effects these changes will bring, will we seize the opportunity to reconceive the very meaning of work?
Future of Food
As global climate change worsens and the population expands, humanity must produce more food in the next 50 years than it has in the past 10,000. Are lab-made meat and automation the key to farming in the future, or must we tend to the soil we already have?
Future of Cities
By 2050, nearly 10 billion people will share our planet. As mega-cities rise and technology reshapes the urban landscape, how will these changes affect the vast majority of the world’s poor?
Future of Money
Anarchy reigns supreme in the future of finance, decentralizing the power of banks and, in some cases, the state. But will cryptocurrencies and the blockchains that underlie them solve our financial woes, or only worsen existing inequalities?
Future of Fact
Online manipulation and immersive media have begun to eradicate our shared notion of authenticity and trust. How will society change when we can no longer believe what we see, hear, or think?