THE FUTURE IS ANOTHER COUNTRY
(Prepared for Good Weekend magazine, Nov 99)
The future is indeed another country, one where they do things differently. It is a country which we can only explore inside our heads no matter what the number-crunchers and modellers would have you believe. As the late BA Santamaria said, 'Nothing is certain till it happens.' Keep that in mind as you read on. As future-gaziers, we are limited to imagining possible futures and grandly labelling them 'scenarios'. Some of these scenarios would really surprise an Australian Rip Van Winkle waking up in 2025 and some would seem little different from today's society.
A worst case scenario would be an Australia without people perhaps, killed by a nuclear winter (no sunlight) and a Chernobyl-like cloud of radiation. It is a possibility which is still real but one which most see as receding since the Fall of the Wall.
At the optimistic end of the scale we can imagine various scenarios built around the idea of a confident and competent people constructing a society offering high quality of life to most Australians. Which road to such an Eldorado would a really lucky country choose? Self-regulated capitalism based on a strategy of free markets and small government? Managed capitalism based on 'tax and spend' interventionism by a strong central government? Subordinated capitalism based on greening, localising and capping the economy and fostering participation by ordinary people in all the decisions that affect them?
Such sharp ideological choices have never appealed to Australians and the least surprising future for Australia, provided that the outside world does not intrude too rapidly and too nastily, is that we will muddle along, changing what has to be changed, often lagging but generally going in the right direction. Historically, our lack of confidence to declare an 'Australian way' has led to an over-willingness to copy others but, for whatever reason, our pragmatic style has still produced a society which is successful by world standards. Under a 'hesitant pragmatism' scenario we would still continue to nudge established trends---economic, social, environmental---in preferred directions and chip away at entrenched problems. And other trends would emerge spontaneously as new ideas and technologies came into fashion.
Specifically, what are some of the developments that would fit unsurprisingly into a future shaped by hesitant pragmatism?
Unless there is a flood of official refugees or illegal immigrants or a turnaround in fertility or mortality rates, the population in 2025 stands to be somewhere between 21 million and 23 million, depending on where the sanctioned net immigration rate sits between zero and 100 000 people a year. A not-implausible fall in the fertility rate from 1.8 to 1.3 births per woman (as in today's Germany) would reduce these numbers by a million or so. Ignoring immigration, deaths will outnumber births from about 2025 onwards. Despite the efforts of business lobby groups it would be surprising to see net immigration topping 100 000 annually while voters retain their present clear preference for low immigration levels.
People born in Europe (including the United Kingdom and Ireland) would comprise 6-7% of the total population while those born in Asia would constitute 7-9%, depending on the level of immigration. Projections of the population by birthplace can be contrasted with projections by ethnic origin. The latter indicate that in 2025 some 62% of the gene pool would be Anglo-Celtic, 15% other-European, 16% Asian and 4% Middle Eastern.
Most of the country's much larger population would still live in and around a few capital cities. Sydney would be Australia's one global-scale city with a teeming population battling pollution and congestion as the price for being players in the global information economy. High fuel prices will hasten the inevitable move back to public transport. Elsewhere, the current trend for people to migrate to the north-eastern and south-western seaboards might or might not continue. Employment and lifestyle considerations would be important determinants of the outcome here. For example, Queensland, with its growing tourist industry, offers jobs and, in many people’s eyes, an attractive lifestyle.
Australia will be a slowly ageing society over coming decades. Some 3 million people, say 15% of the population, will be over 65 in 2015. By 2030 the dependency ratio (aged persons per person of working age) in Australia will be 0.33 compared with an OECD average of 0.37. This is not the major problem some warn of. Our age structure then would be comparable to Sweden's now, and we see the Swedes as travelling reasonably well. Older people will finance their lives by a mixture of state pension, job pension or superannuation, savings and some paid work. The pensionable age will rise. And if there were a looming ageing crisis, the myth that immigration is an effective tool for either permanently or temporarily reducing the average age of the population collapses under simple demographic analysis.
Not only will Australian families be ageing, they will be playing musical partners as they do so. Families and households will take diverse forms and, as women come to routinely work throughout life, there will be more two-income nuclear families, perhaps with more boys than girls as sex-selection procedures spread.
With luck, it will be a slightly healthier society with both males and, moreso, females expecting over 70 years of healthy life and seven years of poor health. And surely by 2025 we will have rationalised our clunky (nine systems) fee-for-service, cost-shifting (States versus Commonwealth) health system? Hospitals will have become treatment centres rather than treatment and recuperation centres as they are at present. General practitioners will largely be in group practices in order to share resources and streamline services. Do-it-yourself diagnosis and treatment with the help of Web and computer-based expert systems will increase. Vaccines will remain the most cost-effective tool in the public health system, including immunotherapeutic vaccines for cancer and auto-immune disorders such as diabetes.
Meanwhile, about 1.5 million Australians will have diabetes by 2010, at a cost of more than $1 billion a year, unless people stop eating too much and doing too little exercise. By 2010, management of neurodegenerative disorders of the elderly, such as Altzheimer’s disease, will be a very major problem. Mental health problems in the community could rise dramatically as people’s capacity to adapt is challenged by accelerating change in four areas---personal contacts, ideas, organisations and possessions. This is what Alvin Toffler meant by ‘future shock’. The 'wild card' in the health pack could be the increasingly problematic dangers of ‘chemicalisation’ of our personal environments including air, water, food, clothing and housing.
What prospects for education? Depending on government funding policies, the proportion of children being educated in private schools could continue to rise. The mix of useful skills pursued by the education system will continue to move towards information processing, computing and mathematical skills. While not all skills would be taught in school, schools would remain the organisational hubs for managing learning.
At the tertiary level, education will increasingly be privatised and focused on meeting the economy's need for entrant workers to have highly technical skills. Conversely, the universities will increasingly lose their influence on public life, including setting and debating the national agenda. Learning for personal enrichment will become more the province of the young aged than the young.
Government funding for universities will continue to fall as technological advances make a sort of productivity growth possible in education. Broadband networks combined with intelligent software will facilitate the delivery of interactive learning media and communications to anyone anywhere. Rote memorisation will be a computer-assisted individual activity. Material to be rote-learned will be comprehensively packaged. Distance learning will become increasingly practicable and campus life will become a less important part of the university experience.
Governments of the future will find it increasingly difficult to earn the respect of those they govern. Firstly, governments are losing influence to international bodies and transnational corporations. Secondly, with social values dictating ever-lower taxes, the resources needed by interventionist goverments to tackle new problems with new policies continue to decline; not that the debate over the legitimacy of tax increases to fund improvements to Australian society is over yet. Relations between citizens and governments will be mediated by a ‘Charter of the Rights and Duties of Australian Citizens’ as suggested by Donald Horne. An increase in single issue, green and independent parliamentarians will reflect a weakening of loyalties to traditional parties.
The costs and benefits of state governments will come under increasing scrutiny. By 2025 the states may have been reduced to token status (the Sheffield Shield!) and their powers devolved to regional bodies closer to an electorate demanding genuine participation in the decisions that mould their lives. Commonwealth activity will be limited to defence, environment, law, revenue collection and distribution, economic management and international relations. Trade and defence will still be the focus of Australia’s overseas interests in 2025. At home, increasing use of private arbitration and mediation will have produced a de facto privatisation of the law.
Will we still be obsessed with the economy in 2025? Economically, Australia is already in transition from a declining industrial age to an emerging post-industrial, post-agricultural era, as evidenced, for example, by the growth of the service sector of the economy, particularly its exports of tourism, health services and education. Service industries, underpinned by information technology and telecommunications, will continue to represent a growing proportion of a growing economy. Energy consumption per dollar of output will soon begin to fall, ending a century of fossil fuel consumption rising in lock-step with GDP and environmental degradation. But environmental quality will only be improving in 2025 if total energy consumption is stable and total recycling widespread. Agriculture and mining will still be important and, along with urbanisation, still be the major threats to biodiversity and air and water quality.
The elite of the 2025 workforce will be those who manipulate and commercialise ideas. Others can look forward to an increase in unemployment and part-time work; more self-employment; unpredictable wages and conditions; and action against discrimination in the workplace. Aspects of today's working life which will have gone forever include: one job for life; little movement between occupations; vertical career paths; the clearly defined working day and week; hierarchical command lines; and the place of work as the central part of the individual’s life cycle. And unions cannot be written out of the script just yet. For those with time and money, travel and organised entertainment will occupy leisure time while home-based activities will occupy the less affluent.
Technological change will continue to drive much social change, creeping into our lives, changing the way services are provided, the productivity of labour, the range of goods we buy and the way we do things. But, ultimately, it is attitudes and values that give a society its distinctive flavour, not its technologies nor its industrial mix. For example, will Australia 2025 be a caring society? Future quality of life for Aboriginals and currently disadvantaged ethnic minorities such as the Indochinese will largely depend on whether the majority of Australians regard these groups with indifference, with hostility or with respect and as warranting positive discrimination.
The major religions, our historical source of values, will continue to lose their appeal, even as they more bitterly divide between liberals and fundamentalists. Social movements which are set for long term expansion include women's rights, minority rights and animal rights, environmentalism, and vegetarianism. Less predictable are the next generation's attitudes towards becoming wealthy, paying taxes, education, individuality and individualism, personal consumption, health, work, living in a global society, the dissociation of rural Australia and patriotism.
So, all up, will Australians in 2025 be happy little vegemites? We just do not know. People are very adaptable and just because some of the changes canvassed here might not appeal to today's readers, things will look quite different to those who grow up with them. As it always does, time will tell.