Looking 30 years ahead
Three years ago, I painted a picture of the world 30 years later, or the year 2042. “I live in a 20-year-old eco-friendly apartment home. It is fitted with solar panels on the rooftop and between the walls. A power generator in the basement provides the heating and air conditioning. The building emits zero carbon … The gym for seniors is entirely free, including meals. Free is taken for granted. We need not worry about childcare, education or life after retirement. There was talk of the country going bust for decades. But welfare benefits keep expanding. Politicians are racking their brains over how to increase social welfare spending even more and arguing over the financing. They completely forgot about Greece, which went under and was wiped out off the global map years back.”
I wrote this up for an assignment in a four-week workshop on the future. Jim Dator, a global leader in the futurology field, asked us to write and read our papers on the theme of the world 30 years hence. The eight journalists from Korea in the class, including myself, were generally positive about the future. We touched on the topics of China, global warming, low birth rates and aging societies and predicted that these problems would all be resolved by then. None of us pronounced doom for our planet or country. The observation was purely empirical. Mankind has evolved and progressed since its creation.
But the professor thought differently. He observed with a touch of sarcasm that Korean journalists were optimistic about their country’s future.
There was a look of surprise and inquiry in his face. The future of the world and Korea in his eyes was a dimension beyond ours. He did not believe aging societies and low birth rates were anathema. He encouraged us to think about prosperity without constant growth. What he referred to was a bigger and broader concept.
He said what should worry us is demographic increases, not decreases due to lower birth rates. Our planet could sustain 1 billion to 3 billion people at best. It is already over-populated with 7 billion people, and 80 million more being added every year. Four cities the size of Beijing are being created every year. By 2100, the population will hit 10.1 billion. Our planet will become overcrowded and unlivable. Water, air, food, and energy will be scarce. The conventional growth equation will no longer work. Dator argued his case that mankind will be able to save itself by ceasing to grow. Korea will reach that conclusion faster than any other countries, he said.
I was unconvinced then. But six months later, I was awed at his insight. The presidential election in 2012 changed the landscape. Welfare talk was at its peak. Giving into their general nature of being easily roused, Koreans went overboard and became obsessed with the idea of universal welfare. Every campaign promise came with a free-for-all label attached. Few were concerned with how that could be possible. Politicians shot down any negative questions because all they were concerned with at the time was a concept that sold well to voters. Few thought about the bill that would come due. Makeshift and patently false solutions were presented. At the end, a president was born with the flowery promise of welfare benefits without additional taxes.
Two years have passed. The money is gone and we are back to tax and welfare talk. It’s as if we have gone back to the campaign season. What have we done over the last two years? Debt has piled up. The economy has shriveled. Confidence is lost. The political stage is warlike with banners about taxes and welfare. If this contest continues on, we will never arrive at anything. We must all picture the world of 30 years from now. I cannot be as optimistic and hopeful as I was three years back.
I should rewrite the piece. “The income disparities among senior citizens have become dire. The poverty rate among the elderly has hit 80 percent. The country’s rank as the world’s most inequitable remains unmatched by other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Just 1 percent of the elderly is rich. National debt has quadrupled since five years ago. The country’s credit rating is the lowest among the OECD group. Exports and domestic demand long ago stopped growing. One young person is now responsible for 10 seniors. Cheap labor is abundant, but no one is working. Welfare and tax talk has become hard to imagine - as if it happened a long time ago in a fairytale.”
JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 5, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yi Jung-jae