Ageing Genes: Planning for Discontinuous Futures (2000)

By Sohail Inayatullah

Even amidst the “future shock” of the last fifty years, the future has been stable. It has been an image of the future defined by Continued Economic Growth: a suburban home, escape from manual work, a better life for one’s children, a nuclear family along with traditional notions of retirement (birth, student, work and retirement near the ocean/golf course) and working patterns (5 days a week, 9 to 5).

Financial futures – planning for long term security – is quite an easy task when change is similar to the immediate past. In such a climate, irrespective of when one invests in the share markets as long as one keeps on investing, in the long term, things work out. Of course, say the planners, investing should be balanced (some in value stocks, some in growth stocks, some in a house, some in cash) and the sooner you start, the better. Life, critical illness, and income insurance are useful as protection in case the tragedy that usually happens to someone else happens to you.

But in the year 2000, can we confidently assert that the long term trend of this century – of upwardly rising markets, of the move from industrial to post-industrial, of increasing wealth for the top and for the middle class in OECD nations – will continue?

How we saw the future a generation ago

Going back a generation, researchers in a ten nation survey asked 9000 people 200 questions focused on the year 2000. They were asked to predict and prescribe the future (Images of the World in the Year 2000 by Johan Galtung and Robert Jungk). What they saw was the dark side of the “Continued Growth” future. Says editor Galtung: “More sexual freedom, less attachment to families, more divorce, more mental illness, more narcotics and more criminality, a future of highly materialistic, egocentric individuals striving for personal pleasure and benefit.”  What people have experienced is a gap between the image of the future – an endless array of new technologies leading to progress – and the reality of their own, increasingly meaningless lives. They have seen the postmodern future, for Australians, youth suicide is the best indicator of this.

It is this anomie that has historically characterized a time between eras. And this is the big question – not are we between new eras – but what will the new era we have entered look like? Can we plan for such an era? Do we desire a different future than the future we are unconsciously living?

The new era

Will the new era be a rejection of progress and a return to a slower life that is far less complex, far less global, far less dependent on technological solutions to social problems? In visioning workshops conducted in four nations – Taiwan, New Zealand, Thailand and Australia – two futures emerged (Inayatullah, Managing the Future: A workbook). The first is the continued growth scenario and the second is an organic, green future. In this alternative future, technology is still central but relationship with nature, god and neighbors is far more important than getting the new yacht. Capitalism might still be around but it would be, as writer Jeff Gates argues, a shared capitalism with far more economic democracy, with workers owning companies and thus working harder and smarter since they would receive a greater share of the profits.

But the future may be dramatically different than the organic Green or the Continued Growth future. It is not just the sense that something is wrong with the Continued Growth image but the growing prominence of three trends that challenge its unabated continuation.

Ageing. First, an ageing population means retirement pensions are difficult to sustain (the ratio of worker to retiree will dip from the current 3.1 to 1.5 to 1); second, who will purchase stocks when baby-boomers sell for their retirements; third, whose hard work will drive the economy? Immigrants, perhaps, but only if they are let in. Fourth, can we imagine a world with the average age  of 40 instead of the historical 20, where will innovation come from? Another equally crucial question is: will the elderly be happy or miserable?

The facts are not good with depression, ageing related health costs and disability the likely future. In Queensland, Australia the porportion of those over 60 years will increase from 15% in 1995 to 23% in 2031. Already 25% of those over 65 demonstrate functional psychiatric disorders.

Genetics. The discoveries are daily and may mitigate the decline in elderly health. The creation of synthetic DNA, computers that use DNA instead of chips to store information, cloning, designer babies, the delinking of sex and reproduction have occurred or are on the horizon.

And it is not just the science but our own desires that will carry us into an unrecognizable world. Few would object to gene therapy for curing illnesses or preventive gene therapy for fetuses. But the slippery slope will be quick from genetic prevention and genetic health to genetic enhancement, the creation of smarter and taller children. Already Wall Street genetic companies are starting the quick rise upwards, not yet like .com companies but that is the next likely wave. The question is: what type of world are we creating? Can stupid workers be created for housework (with slightly modified brains)? Will it be Gattaca or Mad Max that will result? How different will the double-helix generation be from the .com generation and or the today’s generation x?

To assume that the genetic future is a far away is a huge mistake. With the mapping of human genome soon to be concluded, social engineering on a massive scale is next. Who among your friends has the criminal genes and who the entrepreneurial gene? Will insurance companies give life and critical illness insurance to those with inappropriate genes? Should they? How will prisons be transformed? Are there any industries that will not be dramatically changed by genetic manipulation? And what of sex? Some people will make children the old fashioned way, most will not.  And with germ line engineering, the genetic structure of future generations will be forever modified (eliminating diseases and “undesirable traits) (

Jobs and work

The jobs that result as well are impossible to forecast. Already, a multitude of job categories are being created that did not exist a few years ago. Profits for companies such as Intel are being created in products that did not exist even a year ago, 80% in one year reports Intel co-founder Gordon Moore.

While certainly genetic counseling will be a boom career, the deeper question is: will there be jobs in the future? Again not a question with a simple answer.  There are three scenarios. The first is: 10% work and 90% don’t. The big issue is: will the 90% get a universal agreed income, a global poverty dole or will they be in technology heaven, the consumers of the endless products created by nano-technology? The second scenario is: 30% work full time, 40% work in contract work and 30% remain unemployed. The last scenario is: full employment. This remains the dream of all liberal  governments but with women working and technology eliminating work it is the least likely, the unrealizable fantasy. With the internet eliminating the middleman  resulting in massive lay-offs of middle managers, the future of work is not bright if you are a typical MBA.

And what will the financial planner do? With highly interactive artificial intelligence (AI) web based programs that work with you, defining and helping achieve your financial goals, why go to a financial planner? Already, many prefer AI psychotherapy plans. AI financial planners – webbots – will be able to instantly and continuously search through the globe for appropriate shares and mutual funds – and other financial instruments- and they will always be on top of the latest tax strategies. The human financial planner will have to have a dramatic value-added edge to compete with the AI planners.

The big question remains: Can a future that is about to be foundationally transformed by ageing, genetics and the internet be stable and secure? Can it be planned for? Or instead of planning for the future is it better to ensure swift responsiveness to a changing future and the development of personal and institutional confidence to do so?

When your financial planner gives you high-growth, medium-growth and slow-growth scenarios for your investments, ask him: what if the world dramatically changes, transforming the assumptions that have made the Continued Growth world, changing how we work, how we age and the very basis of life?