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4 January 2017updated 12 Oct 2023 10:58am

Robots, Brexit and the Anthropocene – welcome to 2020s Britain

Progressives have a lot to prepare for.

By Mathew Lawrence

Amid all the sound and fury over Brexit, progressives disorientated by 2016 should remember a vital fact – it is only the firing gun on a decade of much wider disruption.

As the UK negotiates its new place in the world, a wave of economic, social and technological change will reshape the country, in often radical ways. It is vital progressives better understand the forces driving these changes and the challenges and opportunities they will create. After all, progressives historically have won when they have a strong set of demands allied to a sense they own the future, and have change in their bones.

The IPPR’s new report, Future Proof: Britain in the 2020s, sets out the five key trends that will drive change in the 2020s and the major challenges they will create. 

1. We’ll be old, yet diverse

Who we are demographically will change. The population will grow, with the UK set to overtake France by 2030 and become the biggest country by population in Europe by the 2040s. We will age dramatically, with the 65+ population growing by a third, even as the working-age population remains static. We will also become increasingly diverse. By 2030, almost a third of the UK will be from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, rather like the US is today. Globally, meanwhile, the expansion in the global working-age population that underpinned the long pre-crash wave of economic growth is set to slow sharply in the decades ahead.

2. The debates will be angry

The aftershocks of Brexit will continue to remake the UK’s political and economic order. Leaving the EU is likely to put the country on a trajectory of lower growth and lower investment. This will worsen the public finances, with important consequences for the UK’s economy and public living standards. Many middle and low income households will experience another decade of stagnant income growth as a result. Migration is likely to become more controlled. At the same time, a genuine political debate, previously subservient to liberalising economic consensus, is likely to come to the fore. At its centre will be a divisive fight to speak for “the people”. 

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3. Asia will shake the world order

Brexit will be just one (important) part of a broader transformation in the global economy and the geopolitics of the 21st century. The economic world order will become more fragile as globalisation evolves, trade patterns shift, and economic power gravitates towards Asia. The institutions governing the global economy are likely to come under intense pressure as the American hegemony that underpinned the post-war international order falters. Instead, it will be the developing countries of the “Global South” that rise in economic and geopolitical importance. By contrast, developed economies will to struggle to escape conditions of long-term stagnation without co-ordinated efforts to boost investment and demand.

4. Robots will redefine humanity

Exponential improvements in new technologies – computing power, machine learning, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, health and resource technologies, and the Internet of Things – are going to reshape how we live and work. But they will also reorganise our social, economic and political institutions, and redistribute power and reward in society. In the longer term, machine learning and computing power will divorce intelligence from consciousness. Health technologies will allow for biological enhancements and species divergence, while space travel conquers the final frontier. In sum, technological and social transformation will change what it means to be human

Consider just two examples: by 2021, the average desktop PC will have the processing speed of a single human brain. By 2050, the average desktop computer is predicted to have more processing power than all of humanity combined. At the same time, two thirds of all jobs in the UK are at risk of automation in the coming decades. We might not have a post-human economy in the 2020s, but it is quite likely to be peak-human in terms of our role in the production process. Such powerful accelerations in technology have the potential to create an era of widespread abundance or a Second Machine Age that radically concentrates economic power. Which path we take – a future between Star Trek or the Matrix – will depend on the type of politics and institutions we build.

5. The Anthropocene welcomes you

Finally, we are transitioning into the Anthropocene, a new, profoundly unstable geological era, in which humans are the primary shaper of the Earth’s ecology and ecosystems. This is not just about climate change, though the scale of that challenge is daunting enough.

Biodiversity degradation, resource depletion and species extinction will accelerate in the 2020s to devastating effect. For example, we are currently consuming resources at about 1.5 times the Earth’s ability to regenerate them. We have only 60 more harvests if current rates of degradation of the world’s top soil continue. The nitrogen cycle – critical to sustaining life –  has been more adversely affected in the last 40 years than at any point in its 2.7bn year history. The systemic degradation of our natural systems is likely to intersect with our unequal, unstable economic and political systems, driving rising inequalities and conflict in the years ahead. To avoid this fate, we will need to build a politics ambitious and holistic enough to face the challenges of the Anthropocene.

This is the world hurtling towards us. Critically, in this world, the status quo will prove inadequate. The UK’s economic model is likely to deliver weak and unstable growth, rising inequality and stagnant living standards for many. Without reform, our political and fiscal system will struggle to build a more democratic, healthy society in the decades ahead.

In the conditions of the 2020s and beyond, politics cannot therefore return to the strategies of the past. The old approaches will not be robust enough to mitigate against growing insecurity, ambitious enough to reform Britain’s economic model, nor sufficiently innovative to affect deeper social and political transformation. Moreover, the economic conditions that underpinned the last period of progressive dominance – rising productivity, easy if unsustainable levels of credit, a global demographic tailwind behind growth – were historically contingent and unlikely to be repeated any time soon. In short, the old toolkit can only get us so far in the New Times ahead. 

If we are to flourish, the radical disruption of the coming decades should be met with new institutional solutions. This will require us to rethink notions of work, value and how they connect to identity and culture, as well as reimagining the institutions underpinning ownership, production, consumption and distribution. Above all, it will require economic policy with political objectives. Such an agenda responds to the sentiments widely expressed in the EU referendum – that the markets should be the servant, not the master, of society. IPPR’s newly launched Commission on Economic Justice will seek to give practical expression to that impulse, developing new approaches and policies to ensure we build an economy that works for all of us.

Above all, progressives will need to create a new “common sense” approach to modernity that contrasts with that envisioned by neoliberalism. This approach should be one that deepens and broadens economic and social freedom for everyone, not just a privileged few. This will require collectively shaping social, economic and technological change to extend democracy and allow humans to flourish. This means creating institutions that harness the growing power of technology to promote shared abundance, and building a common life that rewards purpose and kindness. These are ambitious goals. But the alternative is to be passive bystanders in the years ahead.  

Progressives face an accelerating wave of change. They must not be archivists, preserving an old order, but the architects of a better future.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and author of Future Proof: Britain in the 2020s. He tweets at @dantonshead.

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