What Does 2034 Look Like? What We Can Expect from the Next 20 Years

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By Mike DuBose with Blake DuBose

At a recent roundtable meeting with business leaders on technology and the future, we were stunned to hear the successful owner of ten body shops say he’d be out of business in 20 years. He predicted that, because of advancements in smart and driverless cars, there will be very few new car wrecks in the not-too-distant future. In fact, based on our research, 90% of car accidents worldwide occur due to human error. If cars could detect danger using sensors and cameras and then communicate with each other, they could avoid the vast majority of crashes. Many automobile companies are already offering cars with advanced technology systems that can control the vehicles’ steering, speed, and brakes to avoid collisions, even in rush hour traffic. It’s only a matter of time before our cars will “recognize” our voices and take us safely to whatever destination we speak. In fact, Forbes magazine reported that four states have approved the testing of driverless cars on public roads, with Google leading the pack in developing the technology.

The emergence of driverless vehicles will have a profound impact, not only in terms of accidents avoided, but also in economics. Think of all of the businesses—including that of the body shop owner—that will be affected. According to the New York Times, millions of transportation-related jobs will be lost when driverless cars are in mass production. (Our business colleague, by the way, is already strategically planning for the future, researching and envisioning new ventures other than repairing cars.) These effects will also be experienced by many industries with secondary connections to automobile production, such as those where driving plays a large role.

The business world is tightly interconnected, as illustrated by the housing industry collapse of recent years. The collapse crippled or killed thousands of once-successful businesses in a variety of areas, affecting plumbers, electricians, furniture salespeople, landscapers, painters, carpenters, part suppliers, construction workers, carpet layers, tile installers, truck sellers, HVAC workers, insulators, and appliance vendors, to name just a few. We can also add the manufacturing companies that produced most of the supplies, equipment, and parts used in building homes and commercial buildings, as well as the businesses that supplied the raw materials from mines and forests, to the list. With its extensive fallout, the housing bubble nearly took down the mighty American economy, and we just narrowly missed the next Great Depression. Clearly, major changes in any industry can have far-reaching consequences throughout the supply chain.

Much has changed in the past few decades. Back in 1950s Darlington, SC, our black-and-white television with one channel was a big deal, and in 1968, gas was 16 cents a gallon. That was the year I saw the first gasoline station where you could pay by credit card (no need for attendants!) and heard that we’d soon be able to get cash straight from bank machines (now called ATMs). President Kennedy ignited an innovation revolution when he vowed that our nation would put a man on the moon by 1971, and technology has been developing rapidly ever since. Now, we have smartphones with the capabilities of desktop computers in a much smaller package, 3D printers that can create detailed models of pretty much anything (soon to include human organs), and programs that allow us to talk “face-to-face” with friends and relatives across the globe.

Some scientists estimate that technological advancements have doubled every decade since 1950, and now they believe that technology is doubling every eighteen months. By 2034, technology will have changed our businesses, jobs, and personal lives in even more profound ways. Although much is still uncertain and undecided, businesses absolutely must stay up-to-date on new developments and adapt quickly (I’m sure that Blockbuster, for example, wishes it had paid more attention when Netflix entered the stage!).

Most futurists say that we should look to the seeds of innovation around us now for hints at what the future may hold. For two years, we have been studying research from a variety of reputable websites, interviewing experts, and collecting articles from magazines and newspapers we read (like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today) that might shed light on what we can expect in the next two decades. We particularly sought any interesting experiments conducted by companies, scientists, and universities that could give us a glimpse into the future. When we revisited our archives, we saw patterns from multiple reliable sources and were inspired to include them in this article.

But first, why? Why spend so much time trying to figure out the future? First, we are extremely curious folks who love the challenge of conducting research, gaining knowledge, and sharing it with others. Second, businesses need to know what is going on in the market to prepare for the future (something we learned in the early 2000s, when we were forced to close a training division, once making seven digits in annual revenue, because we failed to develop online courses). Third, we want to help guide our children and grandchildren toward education and skills that not only incorporate their passions, but also prepare them for the new jobs of the future. (Currently, about half of all college graduates—especially those who majored in “dying” fields like print journalism—are working jobs that do not require degrees.) Fourth, those of us who currently have jobs need to begin broadening our education and experience to ready ourselves for the workplaces of the future.

So let’s get into our time machine and see what 2034 may hold!

Employment: According to a 2013 paper by University of Oxford researchers (and other studies), about 47% of existing jobs will be eliminated or greatly changed over the next twenty years as many of the tasks that humans currently perform become automated. As Weber reported in the August 2013 Wall Street Journal, “The shift towards automation isn’t just happening in manufacturing plants, but also in the back offices of banks, airlines, call centers, warehouses, and corporate offices.” Recently, we watched a modern trash truck with one driver cruise through the neighborhood. The truck’s robotic arm lifted the trash can, dumping it faster and more efficiently than the two men who used to hang on the back. Two jobs were lost to modern technology on that single truck!

Innovation will be a threat to many types of jobs, including accountancy, legal work, and technical writing, researchers say. This is nothing new in human history: as Cowen observes in an April 2014 New York Times article, “Back in the 19th century, steam power and machinery took away many traditional jobs, though they also created new ones. This time around, computers, smart software and robots are seen as the culprits.” A May 2014 New York Times article by Miller and Birmingham also cites higher education workers, diamond miners, airline pilots, drivers, auto mechanics, automobile insurance sellers, and consumer banking representatives as those most at risk of losing their jobs to automation. In fact, most commercial airliners can already take off, fly, and land essentially by themselves; if they desire, pilots can sleep while the computer guides the plane!

However, robots and machines aren’t good at jobs that require social and emotional intelligence, like event planning, psychology, business management, customer service, and public relations, as well as other jobs that demand creativity and negotiation. Thus, activities that rely on human interaction (particularly, caring for the rapidly growing elderly population) will still carry value as we move toward 2034.

Education: Jobs that used to require only a high school education now demand a college degree. The traditional secondary school system will still exist in 2034, but more students will take some (or all) of their classes online from their homes. The South Carolina Virtual School System began in 2007, and in 2013, more than 11,000 students passed 72 courses, including math, science, and languages. The South Carolina Department of Education’s 2013 Virtual School Report says that 16 home school associations, 49 private schools, and 33 adult education centers participated. By 2034, the number of students who take online classes is expected to increase substantially, especially as Internet bandwidth grows and its availability extends into rural areas. Talented and passionate online instructors will teach hundreds of students at one time and will even address different learning styles. More virtual school districts will form, and the advancement of facial recognition technology will allow students to take tests at home (rather than traveling to a testing center as they do now).

In recent decades, many high schools have emphasized academic courses over shop and other vocational classes, reducing the availability of skilled tradespeople. According to Stewart Mungo of Mungo Homes, one of the top 50 largest home builders in the US, “When the recession hit and many tradesmen were out of work, they found other employment or retired and did not train any apprentices. It’s getting harder to find skilled home builders because our schools are not educating them for the workforce and the recession robbed us of the senior technicians who were training the next generation of workers.” Because of the great demand, students who pursue a trade such as welding, carpentry, or auto mechanics can earn $50,000 to $100,000 per year after graduating. We predict that businesses in 2034 will work more closely with high schools to prepare students not destined for college for these lucrative trades.

There are nearly 7,000 accredited higher education institutions in the United States, many of which offer at least some of their coursework in the form of online classes. According to a 2013 Times Magazine article by Jon Meacham, higher education has never been more expensive, and costs will continue to skyrocket. The article also cites a study stating that 36% of college graduates assessed in the study did not have significant cognitive gains after four years of academic training (in other words, attending college didn’t give them any new intellectual abilities).

Most of a May 2014 panel of educators invited by the Wall Street Journal to discuss the future of college campuses agreed that online coursework and degrees will grow rapidly in the future, although they do not believe that online courses will completely overtake traditional classes. Reflecting the growth in Internet-based classes, associate vice chancellor Ray Schroeder of the University of Illinois at Springfield said that nearly 45% of all credit hours awarded by his institution are earned online, and more than one-third of students take only Internet-based courses. All of the panelists noted that online degrees can greatly benefit those without the financial resources to pay for room, board, and other aspects of the traditional college experience. New York University professor Clay Shirky asserted that “far and away the most important effect of online education will be to bring in people who aren’t part of the current educational system at all, from people with degrees and jobs using them for retraining (which we already see a lot of) to people who could never have afforded an M.S. in computer science now [being] able to get one from Georgia Tech for less than $7,000.” According to the Times article, “The college graduate who can think creatively is going to stand the greatest chance of not only doing well but doing some good too.” This may include learning a trade and obtaining a college degree to enhance overall hireability, while also exploring their interests.

National Security and the Military: As long as the US has a presence on foreign soil, terrorism will continue to plague us, and it’s likely that there will be another major attack on the US in the next 20 years. In a June 2014 Wall Street Journal article, Gorman referenced a Rand Corporation Think Tank Report that said:“The threat to the U.S. from global jihadist groups has escalated in the past three years, with the number of militants doubling.” Based on our research and interviews, our national electric grid is very vulnerable and is a likely target. In fact, one senior utility manager said that he could disable an entire state by draining the lubricant and coolant from the transformers in six relay stations. The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets have been reporting this threat for the last two years, but few precautions have been implemented. Another senior utility manager said that if terrorists coordinated their attacks nationwide to mimic the 2013 shooting of a relay station in California, the U.S could be without power for months!

Many high-ranking military leaders we interviewed predict that Iraq and Afghanistan will most likely return to the hard-line states they were before US intervention, and Iran will probably develop nuclear weapons capability in the coming years. In response, the US military is rapidly developing new technology. In a May 2014 Wall Street Journal article, the Chief of Naval Research, Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, revealed some of the new weaponry being tested on military ships, including a laser cannon that delivers an accurate, invisible beam of energy that can take out a drone, missile, boat, or airplane hundreds of miles away—all at a post-development cost of $1 per shot. He reported that there will be unmanned submarines, boats, jets, and helicopters that can attack foreign invaders, protect ships, and deliver supplies to troops or those in need. A recent breakthrough could even allow the conversion of seawater into jet fuel!

Robotic warfare is also predicted on land and in the sky. Google recently purchased a company that partners with the US Defense Department to make robots with potential battlefield uses, and South Korea has already installed robots with machine guns along its border. The US Navy has successfully tested and employed a stealth jet the size of an F-15 which can travel at supersonic speeds and carry out pre-programmed attacks. Will we see anything like the infamous “Terminator” from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies in 2034? Maybe not, but our enemies will!

Improvements in facial recognition software could also help by identifying would-be terrorists and criminals. According to a May 2014 New York Times article by Natasha Singer, “the global business of biometrics—using unique physiological characteristics, like their fingerprint ridges and facial features, to learn or confirm their identity—is booming.” For example, newer Apple iPhone models now use fingerprint pass code technology to confirm ownership before allowing a person to access the smartphone. In 2034, we will likely be able to pass through the airport (and TSA security) using facial recognition technology, which is already being used now in some places. Cities and highly populated areas will also scan crowds using face recognition to identify threats or people of interest. In fact, some news outlets have reported that any photo you’ve posted on the Internet—to social media sites, for example—has probably been captured and stored by spy and security agencies.

Lifestyle: Companies are racing to create the next major lifestyle technology breakthroughs. For this reason, many large technology companies, such as Apple and Google, are now buying up small research and development companies that exhibit promising technology. Right now, there are 400+ million entrepreneurs in 54 countries across the world involved in new technology and innovation development, according to Stern.

Our bets are on Google and Samsung for the technology leaders of the future. As Jon Swartz notes in a May 2014 USA Today article, Samsung employs one-fourth of its employees in research and development. Swartz also interviewed Google futurists for the article, including Astro Teller, who runs GoogleX, the ultra secretive shop for Google’s far-out “moonshot” projects such as self-driving cars and Google Glass. “Google is in a renaissance period for audacious, so-crazy-it-might-work ideas,” Teller said.

In the future, technology could very well influence every aspect of our personal lives. For an article in the January 2014 Wall Street Journal, Stern attended the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show and reported back that, in the future, even our bodies will be draped in technology. By 2034, our electronic devices will be integrated into smartphone-based jewelry, advanced glasses, and clothing that can communicate with us and monitor our bodies’ vitals. In fact, some companies are working on technology that would alert your loved ones and call an ambulance if you had a heart attack or suffered a fall. Miller and Birmingham believe that cash and credit cards could be mostly replaced with cloud accounts that will be accessed via fingerprint, retina, and facial recognition technology. E-mail, keyboards, the computer mouse, and handheld smartphones will also become obsolete.

Currently, Google is the forefront of housing technology, developing comprehensive computer-based technologies that will manage every aspect of home life. As Brian Chen reported in a June 2014 New York Times article, Google’s recent acquisition of thermostat maker Nest Labs “gave Google a speedy entry into the nascent market of Internet-connected home appliances.” Such appliances will “communicate” with each other and their owners, combined with a central computer. Our homes will use fingerprints, face recognition, or computer chips embedded in the body to open, close, and lock doors automatically as we enter and leave. Robots will supervise our homes and react when something has changed, for example, alerting the authorities if an intruder is detected or shutting off water to a leaky pipe, even if you are not present. Houses will be pre-fabricated in manufacturing centers so they can be erected in less than 60 days, and new homes will have natural gas- or hydrogen-powered generators and solar panels that produce most of their energy. Fewer homes will be dependent on the outdated national electrical grid, which is vulnerable to blackouts due to terrorist attacks and increasingly violent storms caused by global warming.

“Smart” appliances and fixtures are just around the corner, too. Some toilets that are in development will include an automatic lift, seat warmers, and built in-bidets, and they could even play your favorite music!

Communication: Internet access will grow exponentially over the next 20 years, and 5G Internet speeds will be available even in rural and remote areas. Some current research says that Google may offer bandwidth nearly 100 times faster than that currently available. According to a June 2014 Wall Street Journal article by Barr, Google plans to spend more than $1 billion on a fleet of 180 small, low-altitude satellites that will extend Internet coverage from space to reach even the remotest regions of Earth. To help implement its strategy, Google has purchased SkyBox Imaging, a real-time high-resolution satellite imaging company.

Google’s intent is to bring the Internet to hundreds of millions of people, since two-thirds of the world is without Internet access. Barr’s article also noted that Facebook is counting on Internet access for new users as part of its strategic plans. Because the number of new Internet users is slowing, both companies view faster, more extensive access to the Internet for new clients as a strong profit center.

Within a few years, you’ll be able to communicate with individuals in different countries through Skype in real time. Language barriers will be removed: you’ll be able to speak in English to someone in Russia, and they will hear what you say in Russian (and vice versa). There are already iPhone apps that will translate from English to any of the world’s languages! One of our bankers, Youlinda Richardson of Bank of America, already uses her smartphone to assist customers who cannot speak English. Her clients type what they want to say in their language, and then an app converts the information to English, allowing both parties to communicate clearly with one another.

Goods and Services: Currently, Amazon and eBay dominate the online retail marketplace. If they don’t have a product in their warehouses, they can guide you to a retailer that does (and receive a rebate from the retailer). Massive numbers of citizens now have the opportunity to locate a product, research alternatives, seek consumer feedback, and then make a purchase online at the best price. Store-based retailers are feeling their online competitors’ dominance, and vendors like Lowes, Home Depot, and Best Buy are taking a different strategy, according to a June 2014 Wall Street Journal article by Banjo and Ng. They report that retailers are moving away from a single strategy (such as Home Depot selling building supplies) to promoting a wider range of consumer-related products (i.e., you will find a grill, charcoal, lighter, and other supplies to go with it for sale in their stores). Best Buy calls their new strategy “Floor Optimization,” and Staples refers to its own as “Beyond Office Supplies.” As Banjo and Ng write, “Retailers are facing what may be a permanent drop in traffic as Americans increasingly shop online for everything from diapers to drywall.” Shoppers made about 4% fewer shopping trips in 2013 than they did in 2012, according to a report by the research firm Nielsen. Sites that allow customer reviews are also improving consumers’ knowledge of which products are high quality and which should be avoided. Those businesses and professionals with consistently poor ratings will be out of business by 2034!

Energy: The US will still rely on coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels in 2034, but they will only supply about 50 to 60 percent of the world’s energy needs, as compared to the current 76 percent. Natural gas will become a domain fuel to power homes and businesses. Solar and wind power will grow in use as new technologies advance, and hydrogen power will become a larger player, even though the US is behind other nations in its development. According to a June 2014 Bloomberg News article by Christopher Martin, hydrogen fuel cells, which create very little to no greenhouse gases, are starting to displace fossil fuels as a means of powering cars, homes, and businesses. In fact, Hyundai will deliver a hydrogen-fueled consumer SUV to California this year and Toyota will introduce a similar car to Japan next year (which has invested $70 million to create 100 hydrogen fuel stations). Companies such as AT&T, FedEx, and Walmart, along with state electrical grids, are beginning to utilize hydrogen power as well. While interviewing a senior nuclear engineer, we learned that nuclear plants will likely become a major source of hydrogen, since the process of creating nuclear power builds massive amounts of hydrogen and oxygen. When electrical demands decrease during low periods like nighttime, the energy may be diverted to create hydrogen for car, truck, and home consumption, as well as oxygen for human use.

Wind power represents 43% of new electricity sources added to the grid, and currently can power 15 million homes. Nine states now derive 20% of their electrical needs from wind power. Although it only accounts for about 1% of total energy generated in the US, solar power is also gaining strength, especially because its costs have fallen from nearly $77 per watt in 1977 to less than $1 per watt today. Also, because many appliances and pieces of business equipment have become more energy efficient, the demand for electricity has fallen (and will continue to decrease). Gas mileage for cars will reach an average of 55 MPG in 2025 and will most likely hit 100 MPG by 2034. Electric batteries will see major lifespan improvements, so electric cars will become more advanced as well.

According to a 2013 Times Magazine article by Walsh, we will no longer import oil by 2034. In fact, we are currently exporting oil to Mexico and other nations that are willing to pay more than US consumers. According to some reports, exporting oil to where the most profit lies keeps American gas prices higher! From 2006 to 2012, American natural gas production increased by 30 percent, while coal use dropped from 50 percent to 37 percent.

In addition, a controversial new technology known as fracking uses water to extract difficult-to-reach natural gas and oil. Although fracking has environmental hazards and uses up a good bit of scarce water needed by farmers, it is also contributing to America’s energy independence. The downside, according to the article, is that if fossil fuel is cheap, it will be more difficult to wean consumers and automobile manufacturers off of them.

Like energy, clean water may soon be cheaper and easier to obtain. Michigan State University researchers have discovered a way to create drinkable water suitable for cattle from manure (which is 90% water), an extremely useful technology for drought-prone regions, especially in cattle-growing areas and developing nations. The scientists have determined that they could extract more than 50 pounds of water from 100 pounds of manure and are shooting for 65!

Transportation: The rapid emergence of driverless trucks, airplanes, drones, and cars took many by surprise—even state and national departments of transportation! In fact, the head of the California Department of Transportation stated in 2014 that he and his staff thought it would be years before driverless cars would appear. Now, state and national transportation regulators are scrambling to develop guidelines and laws for the new driverless cars. By 2034, even large eighteen-wheeler trucks will be guided by robots, and packages may be delivered to your home’s front steps by a drone (eliminating the need for an expensive truck, fuel, maintenance, and related costs, such as insurance and a driver). In fact, it is predicted that hundreds of thousands of these drones will be airborne in twenty years!

A single driverless car currently captures 2.5 million 3D points of information about its surroundings each second (within a 200 foot radius). Sonar, radar, sensors, lasers, and 360 degree cameras linked to a computer are used to detect objects and people; calculate their distance, direction, and speed; and pinpoint the car’s location, traffic flow, and its destination, according to a March 2014 Wall Street Journal article by Ucilia Wang. Google’s project leader said that test cars can now handle thousands of urban situations that would have stumped their efforts just one or two years ago. He expects driverless cars to be on the road before 2020.

Google asserts that the driverless cars will reduce traffic fatalities by eliminating human error; the cars would drive themselves, while passengers could direct their attention to sleep, reading, or work. Don Howard, Notre Dame Professor and director of the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values, and Reilly Center board member Mark Mills also said in a New York Times article that driverless cars would have an immediate positive impact because they are programmed to avoid accidents. (There are 1.3 million people killed—33,000 in the US—and 50 million injured worldwide in traffic accidents each year.) They also say that the new technology will dramatically improve the quality of life for the world’s 40 million blind, one billion disabled, and 100 million people over the age of 80 by allowing them increased mobility. Their article asserts that drivers currently waste about two weeks each year in driving time and that self driving cars will reduce congestion by 300 percent and also free up downtown parking (since the car would drive itself to a remote location to park). Families will also be able to share the ownership or leasing costs of a single car because most automobiles sit idle during the day and night, whereas a shared car could be used to transport multiple family members based on a coordinated schedule. Look for robots in driverless cars to deliver your newspaper in the near future—although by 2034, newspapers and magazines will pretty much be gone as the paper-loving baby boomers die out!

Driverless cars will not have steering wheels, brakes, or gas pedals, although there will be an emergency help sensor that will bring the car to a halt along the roadway in case of trouble. In the meantime, look for human-driven cars to advance in technology with 4G networks and computer voice recognition. In the next few years, drivers will not need their smartphones to communicate while in the car.

The bottom line: Who knows what the future will bring? If I had listened to Blake 15 years ago, I would have purchased Apple stock for $10 a share. It would have been a great investment, as it was worth $645 a share at the time this article was written (and about to split)! This goes to show that it’s not only wise to keep up with technological developments, but it can also be lucrative to invest in them, too.

The future looks very promising, and life in 2034 is bound to be interesting. Technology is about to go into warp drive, and it will be exciting to see the innovation that is going to occur, both in two decades and along the way. Medicine will also advance rapidly, and we will cover predictions for these advancements in another “2034” installment with Surb Guram, MD. In the meantime, let’s sit back and watch the exciting show about to unfurl!

Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group. View our published articles at www.duboseweb.com.

Mike DuBose, a USC graduate, has been in business since 1981, authored The Art of Building a Great Business, and is a field instructor with USC’s graduate school. He is the owner of four debt-free corporations, including Columbia Conference Center, Research Associates, and The Evaluation Group. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and other useful articles.

Debra DuBose has been married to Mike for 42 years and co-writes articles with him. She holds college and graduate degrees from Winthrop University and Francis Marion University. She is a former elementary and middle school teacher.

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.

© Copyright 2014 by Mike DuBose—All Rights Reserved. You have permission and we encourage you to forward the full article to friends or colleagues and/or distribute it as part of personal or professional use, providing that the authors are credited. However, no part of this article may be altered or published in any other manner without the written consent of the authors. If you would like written approval to post this information on an appropriate website or to publish this information, please contact Katie Beck at Katie@dubosegroup.com and briefly explain how the article will be used and we will respond promptly. Thank you for honoring our hard work!