- Original Article
- Open Access
Disquieting uncertainty. Three glimpses into the future
© The Author(s) 2017
- Received: 14 June 2017
- Accepted: 29 August 2017
- Published: 30 September 2017
The article sketches three major realms - the realm of world order, the realm of work, and the realm of social policy - that will in all likelihood undergo fundamental change in the years and decades ahead, raising deeply unsettling questions about their future. The account is framed by the concept of global modernity, which, while not spelled out in detail, guides the presentation of data and other secondary materials in the aim to demonstrate connections between, and, at least to some extent, common roots of, phenomena and developments that might otherwise appear to be quite disparate. The author does not present any solutions for the problems and challenges discussed in the article, but hopes to sensitize readers to their urgency and to stimulate fruitful ideas for what will ultimately have to be a collective endeavor involving not only scholars from around the world but also the general public.
- Global modernity
- Radical change
- World order
- Social policy
"[T]he idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behavior that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice"
John Maynard Keynes, 1937
The past four decades or so have seen what arguably amounts to the greatest and most dramatic transformation in human history. During this phase, various critical thresholds have been surpassed as a result of which many of the hallmarks of modern development for the first time reached genuinely global proportions, shaping the lives of people around the world and turning what until then had been a minority phenomenon into a lived reality for the majority of the human population . I call this the condition of global modernity.
The breakthrough of global modernity is an event of seismic proportions whose significance we are only just beginning to understand. It affects all spheres of life and all institutional sectors of society. Here, I focus on the economy. The world of today is rich beyond the imagination of even the most farsighted nineteenth century observers, and much of this wealth is the product of modern economic growth, widely believed to have taken off around 1820 . Following this take-off, the value of the world’s GDP increased by the equivalent of 22 trillion US$ until 1985. Nothing like this had ever happened before. But as spectacular as it must have appeared to any historically conscious contemporary, by today’s standards this “economic miracle” is in fact quite unimpressive. For as early as 2010, just 25 years later, global GDP had risen by another 30 trillion dollars . So the value added in a single quarter century is substantially greater than the combined total of the 150 years preceding it.
Spatially, much of the recent growth is concentrated in Asia, especially in East Asia. Thus, while per capita incomes grew by 62% in the United States and 74% in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 2009, these rates, remarkable as they are, pale in comparison to those exhibited by India (+ 230%), South Korea (+ 360%), the Asia-Pacific region (+ 594%) and China (+ 1.083%) [28: 9]. When interregional performance varies considerably over longer periods of time, then this changes the relative weight of regions in the world. The perhaps most consequential shift of this type in modern economic history was the rise of, first, Europe, then the West following (what is now often called the First) Industrial Revolution. Currently, we are in the midst of an equally consequential shift, this time from West to East. Calculated in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, the EU28’s share of global GDP was roughly 31% in 1980, while that of the United States stood at 25% according to the IMF. At the same time, China’s GDP accounted for as little as 2.2%. By the year 2012, the EU’s share was down to 19.2%, that of the US to 19.5%,4 while China’s had risen to roughly 15%.5 Looking at Asia as a whole, the continent’s share of global GDP increased from less than one quarter (23.2%) in 1990 to 38.8% 25 years later (2014), just surpassing the combined output of the EU and the US in 2012 (38.7%). These trends have since continued. By 2020, the joint economic product of the EU and the US is expected to have declined to approximately 30% of world GDP, while that of China alone should have risen to as much as 19%. Five years later, in 2025, Asia is projected to account for 45% of global GDP and to be home to by far the largest fraction of the world’s middle class [14, 50].
Similar shifts are taking place in education (or human capital formation; see below); science and technology (or R&D)6; and, last not least, military spending/build-up/capacity.7 Taken together, their impact is huge, representing nothing less than a world-historical turning point. They bring to a close several centuries of Western global dominance and supremacy, giving rise to an increasingly polycentric world wherein the West ceases to be the single most important driver, model and beneficiary of modernization and is reduced to one of several players, no longer able to determine the rules of the game and the parameters of change for all.
The erosion of the westcentric world order is a gradual process, so it took a while before it received widespread attention. However, since about the second half of the last decade, its inevitability became apparent to a growing number of analysts (see, e.g., ), coupled with the understanding that this will change the opportunity structure of economic and political actors around the world. What exactly the shape of a future world order will look like is unclear, but leading players expect the changes to be profound. For instance, in its Global Trends 2025 report the United States’ National Council of Intelligence [62: vi] predicts that "the international system – as constructed following the Second World War – will be almost unrecognizable by 2025".8 Existing institutions of global governance (such as the United Nations Security Council, the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization) face growing pressure to adapt to the new realities and have seen the emergence of new institutions (such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) which partly complement, partly compete with them. Others have morphed into larger, more inclusive bodies to accommodate new players (e.g., the transmutation of the G7/8 into the G20 in the wake of the latest global financial crisis). Under the Obama administration, the United States was “pivoting” toward the Asia-Pacific, partly raising, partly defusing tension by keeping aspiring regional hegemons (mainly China) in check, while also, by moderately retreating from other regions, creating power vacuums that opportunistic players were quick to step into (cf. the examples of the Middle East; Ukraine). Under the new Trump administration, the US appears to resort to growing isolationism and unilateralism, withdrawing from prior political, trade and environmental commitments (cutting UN funding; pulling out of TPP in the Asia-Pacific and out of the Paris climate agreement), toying with economic protectionism, and putting in doubt long-standing military alignments (such as NATO). The aggregate effect may well be that the country unwittingly vacates the global leadership role it had enjoyed for decades. For this opens the door for others to fill its place (as donors and sponsors of multilateral organizations; as trade partners; as security providers) and/or induces them to reconsider their interests, positions and strategic options. Regional blocks such as the EU or ASEAN are struggling to counter the declining power of (smaller) nation states but face growing difficulties of internal cohesion and unitary policy-making.9 Meanwhile, limited statehood in world regions lacking “domestic sovereignty” [52, 74] offers niches for newly (educationally, technologically, etc.) empowered non-state actors who are becoming progressively able to perpetrate large-scale “informal” violence  within and beyond the borders of their countries of residence. Concurrently, the mediatization of politics , intensified by the digital revolution, expands the repertoire of statecraft, while at the same time multiplying and amplifying the voices engaged in international relations, thus partly supplementing, partly subverting, and partly substituting conventional diplomacy, which alters the entire foreign policy landscape (see, e.g. [68, 96]). All of this gives rise to geopolitical uncertainty and increases the volatility of existing arrangements.
Less visible than these and other developments are movements away from political oversight and control that are taking place within important institutional sectors of (world) society and that have been likened to processes of self -"constitutionalization”. The economy, the law, science, health, medicine and even education have all established increasingly autonomous governance systems in recent decades that follow a sectoral logic of domain-specific regulation rather than a political logic of territorial segmentation and subordination to a national agenda . As has been noted repeatedly in the literature on economic globalization [76, 83], this development was to some extent sanctioned, if not initiated, by the political system itself. Yet, over time it spawned a distinct type and layer of order that increasingly defies political control (see [27, 86]) and/or turns what used to be seen as the central agents of policy-making into policy takers  whose “scripts” for action (in such fields as norm making, agenda-setting, even policy formulation and implementation) are crafted by a diffuse but authoritative “world polity”  comprising global (“world” rather than “international”; see ) governance organizations, law courts, corporations and business associations, NGOs, think tanks, advocacy networks, professional associations, expert epistemic communities, social movements, and others (see, e.g., [10, 17, 24, 38]). In short, many of the policies perceived and portrayed by national governments as resulting from their sovereign right to govern without interference from the outside must in fact be viewed as being exogenously driven, a condition that applies even to the most powerful states.
How the various forces and actors that are engaged in these processes and that have a stake in their outcomes interact, coalesce, and subvert each other in the making and remaking of global (dis-)order is not well understood. They do, however, have a significant impact on the possibility space for purposive (political) action aiming to shape and possibly improve the life chances of global citizens.
The disruptive changes that are underway at the level of world order are matched by equally disruptive changes in the way we live, work, and relate to one another following recently accomplished technological breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, big data gathering and processing, 3D printing and other fields that are ushering in what has been variously labelled a “Second Machine Age” , a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”  or simply “Industry 4.0”. The partly very upbeat literature is full of praise for the expected benefits and opportunities this promises for aggregate wealth creation and economic growth, but also warns against underestimating associated risks and downsides which it says require careful management to prevent major social problems.
Two interrelated problems stand out: first, emerging technologies’ job automation potential; and second, growing labor market polarization deepening already high levels of social inequality that have grown continually during three and a half decades of globalization, market liberalization, and welfare state retrenchment.10 According to one influential study , about 47% of the workforce in advanced economies are at a “high risk” of technological substitution over the course of the next two decades.11 And while in the past the targets for automation were heavily concentrated in the low-skilled segments of the labor market, today sizable fractions of higher level skills and even professional occupations are becoming susceptible too, as general purpose technologies equipped with “synthetic intellect”  can perform increasingly complex tasks. Thus, it is estimated that worldwide, up to 100 million knowledge workers  in fields as diverse as the law, medicine, the mass media, finance, education, and even science could be replaced by sophisticated computer algorithms that (will soon have the capacity to) outperform humans in a wide range of cognitive tasks long believed to be the latters’ preserve. The innovations on which these advances depend are progressing at an exponential rate, taking even insiders by surprise. For instance, as late as 2004, leading computer specialists thought self-driving cars would not become a reality for decades to come. Yet, just six years later, Google revealed that its autonomous car had been driving successfully for some time, and business reports now suggest such cars could go into mass production as early as 2020. Foreshadowing this development, in August 2016 the first driverless taxis were put on the road in Singapore, and the operators are planning to make the service commercially available by 2018; similar trials have since started elsewhere .
These trials mark the beginnings of the end of driving jobs. Other jobs will likewise begin to disappear soon or have already started disappearing (retail cashiers, baristas, news reporters, stock market brokers, laboratory research assistants, radiologists, etc.). Optimists suggest the net job effect of emerging technologies may actually be positive, as eliminated jobs could be more than compensated for by new, safer and better paying ones requiring higher level skills. Others are more skeptical, arguing higher pay levels increase the incentives to substitute technology for labor and pointing out that the fast growing number of computer engineers is employed for precisely this purpose.12 And still others find the estimates of job displacement due to automation grossly inflated, noting that occupations usually combine multiple tasks only some of which can be shifted over to technology . Using a task-based approach, these researchers believe less than 10% of currently existing jobs are automatable in the OECD world, rather than almost half as predicted by Frey and Osborne.13 But be this as it may, there can be little doubt that the nature of work across virtually all occupations and professions is changing drastically, requiring new skills and capabilities whose acquisition will be a must for adequate task performance, but may prove too demanding for many current employees who simply cannot be retrained and have their skills upgraded to the needed levels. The consequences could be massive social dislocations and exclusion on a wholly new scale.14
A second negative consequence expected to result from the evolving automation wave is a growing segregation of the labor market into a relatively small high-skill/high-pay segment and a much bigger low-skill/low-pay segment due to a hollowing-out of mid-level skill/middle income jobs – a trend that began at least two decades ago but is likely to be accelerated in the near future . Moreover, as automation, while hurting some categories of workers more than others, substitutes for labor across the economy, it exacerbates the gap between returns on capital and labor, widely assumed to be one of the primary drivers of rising income inequality (see, e.g., [61, 71]), because it exerts downward pressure on wages despite gains in worker productivity. At the same time, advances in computer-driven technology reduce the relative costs of investment goods, leading firms to replace workers by machinery and, according to some estimates, accounting for as much as half of labor’s recent decline in the share of GDP [34: 7] Thus, while innovators, shareholders and investors benefit substantially, the lower middle and/or working classes in economically advanced countries find themselves in an increasingly tenuous position, adding to their already mounting frustration caused by income stagnation, relative deprivation, anxiety, sometimes even downright impoverishment, and serving as a catalyst for social unrest and conflict.15 In the developing world, on the other hand, automation could prematurely end or at least decelerate the emergence of an income stratum whose growing prosperity led several observers to predict the rise of a genuinely global middle class for the first time in modern history (see, e.g., ).
While addressing these problems may be urgent, it is also difficult. In contrast to previous technological transformations, the current, ICT-enabled “industrial” revolution is characterized not only by fast-paced technological change, but also by much lowered barriers to knowledge diffusion and appropriation, thus decoupling innovation/production from fixed territorial spaces (essentially the nations of the Global North) and anchoring competitiveness in unbounded, globally spread production networks  that form the central nodes of continuously expanded supply chains . Moreover, its effects are less concentrated in particular business sectors or workforce segments but exhibit a “finer degree of resolution” [11: 169], making competition more individual. At the same time, the constant acceleration of computing speed in conjunction with the synergies created by the simultaneous development of seemingly disparate but often surprisingly complementary technologies permits inroads into realms long thought to be immune to technological substitution. Impacts are therefore more sudden, more unpredictable, and more uncontrollable than in the past, defying much of the twentieth century policy toolkit and presenting unprecedented challenges for individual and collective actors alike. Policy-making depends on expectations about the future, but when no reliable indicators exist for determining which fields and occupations will be affected next, then it resembles poking in the dark.
I have sketched three broad areas that are either undergoing fundamental change or whose institutional arrangements will require substantial adjustments to changes taking place in their environments if they are to stay relevant and/or to perform their functions adequately. In all three cases, the respective changes call into question deeply held convictions that have long served as taken-for-granted assumptions for “ordinary” people and social scientists alike: the premises that (1) the modern world is a westcentric world neatly divided up into self-contained, centrally governed national societies, (2) work constitutes the organizing center of the lifecourse, and (3) there is no such thing as a “free lunch”, meaning that the means of subsistence/needs satisfaction must be earned, typically through paid labor and payroll deductions for social insurance or its functional equivalents.
As suggested by the Keynes epigraph that opens this article, facing the uncertain that comes with the realization that the future will be different from the present is unpleasant because it can be a source of great anxiety. But clinging to the familiar, while understandable, does not help under conditions of radical change; epistemological conservatism is a poor guide for navigating uncharted terrain.
The concept of global modernity calls into question established modes of thought, conventions and institutions. A paradigm that does this has the capacity to stimulate ideas pointing beyond an unsustainable present. Its strength lies less in devising answers or proposing solutions to known problems than in posing questions that sensitize observers to new, emerging problems for which as yet no clear-cut solutions exist.
Another characteristic of this paradigm is that it prompts analysts to look beyond the geographical confines of the West. Most existing social science is conducted in Western locations and restricts itself to analyzing the Western world. The underlying premise is that to understand the West, one need only know the West, from which most transformative change emanates. This premise made some sense as long as the West was the center of the modern world. But that is no longer the case (, see also ). In the future, to understand local affairs anywhere in the world will increasingly require adopting a global perspective because these affairs are ever more enmeshed in global flows and networks of activities that affect them.
The author gratefully acknowledges helpful criticism and suggestions he received from two anonymous reviewers.
The phrase “global modernity” is not new, but mostly used in a loose, unsystematic fashion. My own conceptualization is rooted in Talcott Parsons’ distinction between the social system, the cultural system, the personality system, and the organismic system (or behavioral organism). Drawing on this scheme yields a four-dimensional concept of change, with modernization processes involving fundamental transformations in each dimension and all of them being interrelated. The scheme’s purpose is to sketch an analytic framework that demarcates the range of phenomena that must be minimally taken into account if we are to arrive at a meaningful understanding of (global) modernity. Its ability to capture modernity’s complexity is arguably unmatched by any of the alternatives currently on offer in the social science literature. Therein lies its heuristic value, which I cannot even begin to demonstrate here because that would require much more space than a short article offers. The same applies to the account that follows. The trends and data reported are of course not new. But the way they are framed and presented is, hopefully shedding a different light on known facts and raising awareness for connections and implications that would remain invisible if treated in isolation, as they typically are in the original sources.
Two other problems strongly affected by the developments which have given rise to the breakthrough of global modernity are climate change and ecological degradation – simply because this breakthrough dramatically amplifies the factors driving them (for a few hints, see ). Here, I nonetheless bracket them out because awareness of their actual and potential consequences is already quite widespread, whereas reflection on the problems addressed in the present article is only just beginning. That does not make these latter problems any more important. But they certainly add to the difficulties facing humanity in the early stages of this century, and they may well turn out to be equally urgent. Hence the need to attend to them as well.
In market exchange rate terms, the EU’s share was 23.7% in 2012, that of the US 22.2%; see Eurostat 2015, The EU in the World – Economy and Finance. http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/The_EU_in_the_world_-_economy_and_finance. Accessed 21 August 2017.
While the figures vary with the methods of calculation chosen, the magnitude of the observed change is roughly the same.
See Global Vision (2013) EU-28 is no Longer the World’s Largest Economy. http://www.global-vision.net/blogging-brussels--beyond/eu-28-is-no-longer-the-worlds-largest-economy. Accessed 21 August 2017.
Indeed, even the centers of innovation – and hence of technological change – are beginning to shift away from the West. For instance, a report of the European Commission  estimates that China’s innovation potential had increased to almost half the EU level by 2015, up from 35% in 2006.
According to Acharya , this order is already over or at least irrevocably dissolving. That it will not necessarily give way to an “Asian” order (as suggested by the “Asian Century” hype) is noted by scholars who take ongoing transformations seriously without being overhwelmed by them (see, e.g., ). Nonetheless, few observers doubt that Asia, particularly China, will play a central role in the shaping of any future order.
The resurgence of aggressive ethno nationalism/right-wing populism, the immigration crisis, and “Brexit” are only the most visible symptoms of these difficulties in Europe. ASEAN also shows signs of growing or at least continuing fragmentation, despite long-standing formal commitments to greater integration (see ).
Welfare state retrenchment is largely a phenomenon of the Western and the former Socialist worlds. The trends in other regions, albeit starting from a low base, have pointed toward expansion, not retrenchment, of statutory welfare systems (see, e.g., [36, 54]).
In the developing world, an even higher share (of up to two thirds) of the working-age population could be affected (see [21, 96:126ff.]), partly because its economic development relies heavily on manufacturing, and manufacturing jobs are highly susceptible to automation. Robotic automation is also making substantial inroads into agriculture, another important source of employment in the developing work. Where it does not directly eliminate jobs, it helps keep wages down. This problem is potentially exacerbated by the emerging trend of “re-shoring” manufacturing to the developed world (see, e.g., [67, 85]) because in some industries technological progress is reducing the need for human labor so drastically that cheap labor in the developing world no longer offers a significant competitive advantage. At the same time, automation is beginning to target many back office service and IT functions that had earlier been offshored to low labor cost locations such as the Philippines, India, Brazil or Poland. These jobs will not be re-shored but rather “no-shored” ([69: ch. 6]; see also ), i.e. evaporate – into the cloud(s) or into obsolescence.
See especially Ford , who also notes that part of the work these engineers do is ultimately destined to make themselves redundant.
See also PWC (Price Waterhouse Coopers)2017, UK Economic Outlook, March 2017, http://www.pwc.co.uk/services/economics-policy/insights/uk-economic-outlook.html. Accessed 21 August 2017,
which draws on the research of both Frey and Osborne [33, 34] and Arntz et al.  and focuses on the UK. This study estimates the job automation potential over the next 15 years to range between 21% in Japan and 38% in the USA. McKinsey Global Institute research suggests that 60% of all existing jobs have at least 30% of activities that are automatable with currently available technologies, thus both reducing the overall need for labor and meaning that more people will have to work with advanced technology. Globally, as many as 1.2 billion workers could be affected by this development, see .
In the developing world, this could reverse the vast reductions of extreme poverty accomplished during the past two decades – which, if it happened, might well increase the immigration pressure on the developed world.
One of the consequences of the decline of labor’s share in aggregate incomes (a trend observed globally; see ) is the growing number of working poor. A study on fast-food workers in the USA (see ) found that more than half of their families were enrolled in public assistance programs without which they could not make ends meet. Another consequence is that many of today’s young adults in the developed world are materially (much) worse off than their parents’ generation was at the same age stage despite substantial gains in educational attainment and skill formation . The growing discontent with political democracy and the rising support for authoritarianism in the younger age-cohort (see ) may be partly rooted in this development. In the United States in particular, lawmakers’ low responsiveness (see [35: ch. 8]) to the concerns of what Piketty [71: 297] sardonically calls the “bottom 90%” of the population could further contribute to this discontent.
World Bank (n.d.) Science and Technical Journal Articles. 24 March 2017, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IP.JRN.ARTC.SC. Accessed 21 August 2017.
The digital revolution, starting around the 1990s in the developed world, became a truly global phenomenon only around or after the millennium. About 1 billion people worldwide had access to the Internet in 2005. By mid-2016, this number had almost quadrupled to 3.7 billion users (see, Internet World Stats 2016, “Internet Users in the World by Regions, June 2016”, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm). This means the virtual market place (for goods and labor) now reaches over half the world’s population. Not surprisingly, online markets for contract labor are mushrooming, with employers in high-income countries hiring labor in low-income countries being the norm (see ).
This includes (and is accelerated by) the newly emerging on-demand or “gig economy”, which selectively utilizes discrete tasks performed/competencies possessed by specialist workers offering their services in a world-wide “human cloud” (see [2 64]).
The OECD [65: ch. 7] forecasts the remaining life expectancy of women aged 65 years to increase from today’s average 20.8 to 25.8 years in 2060. This alone would double aggregate expenses on pensions and medical care for the elderly. The prediction is based on a projection of current trends of longevity extension into the future. It does not reckon with major scientific and technological breakthroughs that might extend people’s lifespan far more radically. However, since breakthroughs that could make this happen must now be viewed as a distinct possibility, it would be unwise to rule out a scenario of very substantial life extension. Whether welcomed or dreaded, the consequences would be formidable.
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