Click to follow
A new century is almost upon us - and

with it a strange new world of change and

uncertainty. The prospect should be exciting,

but to many people it is terrifying. Few of

us can easily imagine a future which is

not, at best, insecure; many fear social

breakdown, poverty, technological tyranny,

environmental catastrophe, war, despair.

Are they right? Or will more of the old

certainties survive than we imagine?

This three-part study of the predictions of

futurologists and other experts assesses

our prospects of future happiness in a

wide range of areas, and identifies key

`survival strategies' which should help you

to make the most of tomorrow's world

ONE HUNDRED years ago, when Europe's ruling classes contemplated the 20th century, they were pretty confident. Technology was advancing rapidly with a spate of new inventions, and economic development was spreading from Europe and North America to Latin America, much of Asia and parts of Africa. Though the more thoughtful people in the developed world were concerned about social tensions, there was great confidence in world capitalism, the force which was driving this economic advance. Yet within 20 years that confidence was to be shattered. The first half of the 20th century became a catastrophe - a catastrophe that was almost completely unforeseen.

That failure of vision is a good warning to anyone seeking to foresee the main developments of the next century. Futurologists have been so spectacularly unsuccessful at predicting the future that there must be a temptation for everyone else to assume that all predictions are worthless - that what will happen in the next century is unknowable. The temptation is all the greater given the evident speed of change in the world today: changes in the nature of work, in job security, even in family relationships. Yet we make predictions all the time, implicitly, every time we buy a house, or choose a career, or marry, or make a decision about our children's education, and there is nothing irrational about seeking to make such predictions explicitly. Indeed, the very uncertainty of the future makes it all the more sensible to consider and debate the assumptions upon which our long-term decisions are based.

Moreover, there are predictions about the future that can be made with something approaching certainty, as long as one is sufficiently disciplined about the time-scale one is looking at. To predict events 50 or more years ahead is to produce science fiction. But if one is looking forward just one generation, say 25 years, there are things which can be said with real confidence.

Take demography. We know now a lot about the future structure of the population not just of Britain but of the whole of the world. The population of the developed world will be much the same as it is now but have a much larger proportion of elderly people, while an explosion of population will have taken place in the developing world. Or take technology. We know that it takes the best part of 25 years for a technology to move from the laboratory into mass production. The developments now racing ahead in electronics were made possible by the invention of the microprocessor in the Sixties, and the vast bulk of the technology we will be using a generation from now already exists in some form. These are two profoundly important forces for change: demography helps set a pattern of demand for goods and services; technology helps fulfil that demand. An older developed world will use its purchasing power to buy a different balance of things: more health care and fewer pop concerts. Technology will cut the price and improve the quality of some things, like telecommunications, but do little to change others, like live theatre.

So as far as the practical side of life in a country like Britain is concerned, it is not too difficult to chart the most likely pattern of development through at least the next 25 or so years. The sort of jobs we will be doing, the way we run our personal finances, the technology we will use in our daily lives, the homes in which we will live - all these can be sketched in outline, and the articles which follow in this week's episode attempt to do just that. The points made will not be right in detail, but they give a framework into which people can fit their own ideas and judgements.

Subsequent episodes in the series look at other types of change: those which affect not the day-to-day business of getting and spending, but rather the way in which people interact with each other as human beings. These are less predictable. For example, one of the most dramatic changes of the last quarter of this century has been the retreat from marriage as an institution. The proportion of children born to parents who are not married has risen in every large industrial country in the world, with Britain towards the top of this particular league. Divorce rates have also soared. No one told these people to get divorced; individuals made these decisions themselves. Yet collectively such decisions form trends - trends which at some stage in the future will reach peaks and maybe go into reverse. Describing why family life might be different in 2020 is thus much harder than pondering, for example, how patterns of work will change. But it is so important to our daily lives that it is worth trying to imagine how such trends might develop; not to mention the impact that millions of individual decisions in health care and education will have on the way we will live.

Finally, there are decisions which are, by their nature, collective: decisions about the way our society tackles problems of law and order, of the environment, of culture and of ethics. Again, we have seen dramatic changes in the past 25 years, but there are signs now that we are reassessing the choices that we collectively have made. How is that reassessment likely to proceed over the next 25 years - not just here in Britain, but elsewhere in the world?

The three parts of this series are an attempt to answer such questions. Some of the predictions made in them will inevitably be wrong: to suggest otherwise would be absurd. But not to try to think through the forces which will change our world, some of which we can already glimpse, is to reject the possibility of shaping those forces. We need to think clearly about the future if the world is to become a better place for us.