Future proof: what public servants need to know now about the world of 2050

By on 25/05/2022 | Updated on 25/05/2022
Photo by Artem Beliaikin via Pexels

Leading economics journalist Hamish McRae shares the insight from his latest book The World in 2050, and predicts that a changing climate, a recasting of globalisation, and a need for democracies to ‘lift their game’ will all affect civil servants

Anyone who writes about the future of the world economy is open to the usual jibes about the inaccuracy of economists’ predictions. Given the failure of central bankers to foresee the current surge in inflation you can see why.

But I think it is worth writing about how the world might turn out over the next 30 years for two main reasons. One is that we all make implicit economic predictions in our life choices, from what career to choose, through to whether to buy a house, or indeed which country to live in. A study of the future does at the very least give people a template into which they can fit their ideas. The other is that it is possible to identify broad areas where we can make some solid predictions, as well as acknowledging that there are other aspects of the future where we are pretty much flying blind. (I also take some comfort from having done a similar exercise 30 years ago – I did manage to warn about Brexit, a populist revolution in America, and a global pandemic!)

In The World in 2050 I look at the likely changes that will happen to the world economy, in particular the ways in which the economic size of the different countries and regions will shift. There are some more or less inevitable outcomes, such as China passing the US to become the world’s largest economy. Some projections are shown in the graph below. And there are many imponderables, such as how well the world will cope with challenges to the environment.

In particular, I examine five main forces that will drive change. They are demography, the environment, trade and finance, technology, and ideas about government and governance. All have profound implications for anyone working in the global community of public and civil servants.

Demography is in some regards the easiest force to predict. We know quite a lot about fertility rates, below replacement rate in most of the developed world and in China, and falling elsewhere, though slowly in much of Africa and the Middle East. We can also have a reasonable idea about longevity. Migration changes where people might live, but does not change the overall numbers. So we can be confident that the population profiles of Europe, Japan and North America will not only become older, but that in much of Europe (but probably not the UK), Japan, and China, the populations will actually be falling. In the US, Canada, India and – on a massive scale – Africa, numbers will be growing.

That has obvious implications for the public sector. How will the smaller cohorts of working people support the rising ranks of retirees? What plans are needed to reform healthcare and pensions? And how should civil servants advise politicians about a world where China has passed the US to become the world’s largest economy? (Though by 2050, China’s star will be fading, while India’s will be rising fast). Politicians will lean on their civil servants to find answers to tough questions.

Concern about the environment throws up a string of other challenges, some of which we are aware of now, but some where we really are only feeling our way forward. Of course climate change dominates everything. Governments are also in the front line here, and the great question is whether the present actions they are taking will be sufficient to slow the juggernaut, or whether there will be some kind of discontinuity if and when it becomes clear that they are not. Public servants have already played a huge role in refocusing government environmental policy, including the Stern Review in the UK in 2006, which set out the economic case for tackling climate change. That role will grow over the next decade.

Trade and finance will be transformed in the coming years with the recasting of what we call globalisation, so that its benefits are retained while its costs reduced. We tend to forget that the great post-war institutions that facilitated the burst of prosperity from 1945 onwards – the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization – were built and run by international civil servants. Indeed they and the other bodies, notably the United Nations and its affiliates, have given a new direction to public service – service to the citizens of the world rather than to any particular national government. Politicians give leadership, as they must, but keeping trade and financial flows open requires huge, detailed efforts of millions of administrators. As trade patterns change their task will become ever more complex and ever more important.

As technology advances, as it inevitably will, there will be new demands on the public sector both to regulate how the private sector deploys technology for the good of all, and to use whatever is available to increase the efficiency and responsiveness of government services.

As far as regulation is concerned remember how recently the US high-tech giants – Apple, Google, Facebook and so on – have transformed the ways in which the world communicates. But we don’t know how technology will be used. The iPhone was launched in 2007, but even then Steve Jobs did not envisage the selfie, for that first iPhone did not have a front-facing camera. We know there will be other similar leaps forward in technology that we cannot predict, and we therefore also know that governments will scramble to keep up. Politicians cannot hope to master the detail, so the burden will be on their officials to guide them.

And efficiency? The public sector is essentially a service industry, and as such it faces the challenges that face all service industries. This is to achieve similar increases in productivity and improvements in quality that global manufacturing has managed to deliver. You can automate a car assembly plant but you cannot automate a hospital. But the combination of big data and artificial intelligence should enable all service industries, including healthcare, to deliver better outcomes. We just have to learn how to do so.

That leads to the final challenge, perhaps the greatest of all: governance. How do democratic governments satisfy the increasing demands made on them? Even those of us, like myself, who are confident of the robust nature of the democratic system must acknowledge that it faces a very difficult period. How well it comes through the next 30 years will depend on how well it meets citizens’ hopes and fears with effective action. It has, so to speak, to lift its game. The politicians are a tiny crust on top of a vast army of public servants. The lifting has to be done by that army.

I end the book by acknowledging my fears (one of which was that Russia would suffer some sort of destructive convulsion) and my hopes. My final hope is that we will build a more harmonious relationship between humankind and our planet. I do think we can and indeed must. We have nowhere else to go. That puts a burden on the people who work in public service at all levels and in all countries. They – you –  matter a great deal to the future of the world.

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About Hamish McRae

Hamish McRae is an award-winning business and economics journalist and one of Europe's foremost speakers on global future trends in economics, business and society. His book, The World in 2050: How to Think About the Future, can be purchased here: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/world-in-2050-9781526600073/

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