The world in 2020: Thrift, hard work, and no smoking

What will our lives be like a decade from now? In the second part of our series, <i>Independent</i> writers glimpse the future

Friday 01 January 2010 00:00

Social Affairs: No downshifting in the new age of sobriety, by Sarah Cassidy

By 2020 the people of Britain had grown accustomed to the "nanny state" telling them what to do. Smoking had been totally unacceptable for several years, after the smoking ban had been extended to outdoor public spaces such as parks, beaches and playgrounds. There was even talk of banning smoking in blocks of flats.

In the first few years of the decade, alcohol had become the new target for public health campaigners trying to put a stop to the British booze culture. Labelling on all alcohol drinks was altered to proclaim "drinking kills", prices rocketed to £10 a pint (riots ensued) and strict licensing laws put a stop to the round-the-clock drinking of the Noughties.

In 2015, the first business brought in mandatory urine testing for its employees, to identify anyone supping more than the recommended two or three units a day. Cash was also on the way out by then, and in 2017 the 10p piece became the smallest denomination. By the end of the decade, Oyster-style cards were being used to pay for most everyday items – to the anger of civil liberties groups, which argued that this allowed the authorities to track the public's spending habits. Whereas downshifting was a popular goal among workers in the early Noughties, the after-effects of the long recession saw a new generation of employees dying at their desks as they attempted to convince their bosses, and themselves, that they were indispensable. Talk about work-life balance and flexible working hours died out, replaced with more presenteeism and clock-watching.

By 2019, the traditional nuclear family was increasingly rare, with more people choosing to live alone. Virtual socialising continued apace, causing many people to go for long periods without face-to-face contact with anyone else.

The concept of growing old gracefully also disappeared, with ordinary people increasingly choosing to alter what they saw in the mirror. Advertisements boasting miracle transformations through cosmetic surgery soon spread from the back pages of women's magazines to the mainstream, leading to old and young alike popping out in their lunch hours for "procedures".

The elderly have become a force to be reckoned with: 22,000 people in the UK are aged 100 or over, many of whom live in all-pensioner towns cared for by kindly robots, who remind them to take their medication, eat their meals, warn them of trip hazards and check up on them by sensing whether they have been unusually still for long periods.

The economy: Very few dividends for society of savers, by Sean O'Grady

As 2020 approached, economists were relieved that the UK economy had actually managed to grow at all. All through the decade the country had struggled as families, firms and the Government sought to pay off its £1.5 trillion burden of debt.

Britons had turned, surprisingly, into a nation of savers, rivalling the Japanese for thrift. Spending was depressed, and the economy with it. The story of the decade was of different groups fighting for a bigger share of a cake that was hardly growing, and tensions that had surfaced in 2009 worsened.

The scale of the problem became apparent in the sterling "super-crisis" of December 2010. The coalition Government's plan to borrow even more to avert a "double dip" recession provoked a severe reaction, and the "new stagflation" threatened hyperinflation even as output stagnated. Fuel and energy prices hit all-time highs.

Credit agencies finally withdrew the UK's AAA rating and an unprecedented sell-off of sterling and a "gilts strike" followed. The Bank of England raised interest rates to save the pound from hitting half a Euro, but that only served to make speculators such as George Soros ("The Man who Broke the Bank of England – Twice") richer. In 2011, IMF chief Gordon Brown offered his services – "I'll do whatever it takes" – to barely suppressed giggles.

Emergency budget followed emergency budget, leading to the great NHS strike of 2013, when hospitals were disrupted after the Government tried to halt the NHS pension scheme. The schools strike of 2011 was patchier, but a sign of worse to come. Sporadic mutinies in the armed forces were dealt with calmly, and even fresh anti-union laws (the "Thatcher 2" programme) were not sufficient to prevent spates of wildcat strikes involving everyone from Liverpool grave diggers to Oxford dons.

There were renewed tensions over immigration as unemployment remained stubbornly high: only by 2015 did it fall below 2 million. "Hotel" charges for hospital stays helped to pay for much-needed repairs, but a special tax on dotcom firms raised little revenue and instead stunted their growth.

Bankers discovered Switzerland and the Gulf were more congenial to their risk taking, and the City faced a relative decline: as a result, the South East's inflated salaries and house prices fell unexpectedly. In December 2019, the UK slipped to number 12 in the world's GDP rankings, just ahead of Australia but behind China, Brazil and India – a humiliating end to a bruising decade.

Religion: Hip urban Catholics fuel fashion for Latin, by Jerome Taylor

For the past five years he staved off the inevitable, but now the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Sentamu, has some sad news to announce as the 2020 General Synod gets underway in York. The Anglican Communion has officially broken in two.

It was the move by a majority of Africa's bishops, along with traditionalists from America and Australia, to form a new "Common Cause" church at the start of the previous decade, in protest over gay bishops, that led to the resignation of Sentamu's predecessor, Rowan Williams, in 2015. Ever since, Sentamu has struggled to maintain Britain's leading role among the world's Anglicans. With traditionalists no longer a thorn in his side, the Ugandan-born bishop tells synod delegates that he will press ahead with the ordination of three new gay bishops and two women prelates by the end of the year.

At 92 years old, Pope Benedict XVI has been leader of the world's Catholics for a decade and a half, and shows no signs of slowing down – although his public appearances have become far more rare. The Latin Mass is all the rage among hip urban Catholics across Europe, as Catholicism continues towards a more traditional, and socially conservative, future. In Britain's cities, charismatic evangelical Christianity is now the dominant form of Christian worship. Each weekend, inner-city churches across the country are filled with fervent devotees speaking in tongues and listening to passionate sermons from firebrand American preachers – who started to look across the Atlantic with renewed interest after the election of an evangelical Republican US President in 2013.

Despite the ongoing threat of terrorism, and the expansion of the US "war on terror" into the Horn of Africa, Britain has resisted the urge to clamp down on Islamic worship in the same way as some European neighbours have. But community tensions rose when riots broke out in Dewsbury earlier in the year; rumours spread that a police officer had thrown a copy of the Qur'an into a bin during a raid on a mosque. The veil has been banned in France, Italy and – somewhat bizarrely given its tiny Muslim population – Poland.

Crime: One nation under CCTV, by Mark Hughes

It is January 2020, and for pickpockets and thieves who prey on city centre shoppers, there is nowhere to hide. Where there was once four million CCTV cameras in Britain, there are now more than twice as many. And they are more advanced than ever. Not only is every face in every shopping centre in Britain being constantly monitored, every conversation is being heard as well.

But this only affects the small minority of criminals who still insist on doing business face-to-face. Most theft is now committed on the internet, by sophisticated e-fraudsters who target online bank accounts. The majority of organised crime, such as drug dealing and smuggling, is also conducted on the web.

The theft of personal belongings is also rare, as most people have their own DNA stored in their valuables, from bikes to jewellery. This renders them instantly recognisable and far more difficult for thieves to sell on. Similarly, car theft is almost impossible, as most new cars come fitted not with key locks, but with fingerprint scanners which allow the vehicle to start only if the owner is in the vehicle.

Conviction rates for most serious crimes are up. Politicians say this is because every region of the country is benefiting from expert units, created after Britain's 43 police forces were disbanded and merged at the start of the decade. But most people think that with everyone in the country now forced to register on the DNA database, police officers need only find a tiny piece of forensic evidence and the case effectively solves itself.

These advancements have undoubtedly made it harder for the criminal fraternity, but one factor has shifted in the criminal's favour – the quality of opposition they are up against. The legacy left by severe public spending cuts brought in by the Government at the start of the decade left the police force of 2020 with far fewer experienced detectives. Instead, many crimes are being dealt with by a growing army of civilian investigators.

This "civilianisation" is a trend which goes right to the top. Since elected police commissioners were introduced in 2010, the men and women in charge of Britain's forces today have no policing experience. Most are local politicians, one is a former school teacher and another is the winner of Britain's Got Talent 2017.

Terrorism remains the number one threat. So much so that the whole of the UK is now a Section 44 zone, meaning that any police officer can now stop any member of the public without giving a reason. The legislation has been widened to allow officers to conduct on-the-spot body searches if necessary. The tighter laws also mean that anyone can now be arrested and held for up to three days, even if there is no suspicion of an offence being committed.

But the expectation that Britain's policemen and women would be given guns has failed to materialise. The police remain unarmed but do have tasers, stun grenades and tranquilliser darts. They also have hand-held computers – which they use to keep up with their paperwork while they are out on the beat.

The natural world: Simmering – while 'Jaws' attacks, by Michael McCarthy

Climate change and its effects dominated the environmental agenda in the years leading up to 2020, but not in the way the people of 2009 expected. The first definite marker of a warmer world which made people sit up and take note was the first serious shark attack on a swimmer off the British coast in 2014.

As had been predicted during the previous decade, as seas across the world warmed, marine life migrated northwards. Scientists were soon forced to admit that sightings of the great white shark – Carcharodon carcharias, the protagonist of Jaws, and the marine creature most dangerous to people – would soon become a regular occurrence off the UK. Previously, the limit of its range had been thought to be the northern part of the Bay of Biscay, but several sightings of sharks near Devon and Cornwall at the end of the previous decade had warned of what was to come.

Halfway through the new decade, people began to accept that the UK was warmer. It marked a victory for the Met Office's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, which had published a climate forecast for the years 2009-2019 at the end of the previous decade, suggesting that more than half of these 10 years would be "hotter than the hottest year" on record. It had already been proved right by predicting that 2010 would surpass 1998 in terms of temperature and set a new global record.

An atmosphere with more heat, moisture and energy in it could lead only to one thing: a more unpredictable global climate with severe heatwaves and droughts, more intense rainfall with subsequent flooding, and more violent storms. And so it did.

In 2016, a heatwave hit southern Englandwith temperatures of 40C (104F), prompting a mass exodus to the country's parks every weekend – and the premature deaths of 5,000 elderly people.

The flooding damage experienced in Britain in 2007 and 2009 was tiny in comparison to the Noah's Ark-like events of 2013. Elsewhere, storms of unprecedented violence made landfall, devastating an unprepared Miami.

The world in 2020 was definitely warmer, wetter and windier – and the people of Britain did not like the fact that even on a Cornish beach, they were advised to scan the water for fins before dipping their toes in the water.

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