Trends Transforming the Global Landscape

Global Trends and Key Implications Through 2035

The rich are aging, the poor are not. Working-age populations are shrinking in wealthy countries, China, and Russia but growing in developing, poorer countries, particularly in Africa and South Asia, increasing economic, employment, urbanization, and welfare pressures and spurring migration. Training and continuing education will be crucial in developed and developing countries alike.

The global economy is shifting. Weak economic growth will persist in the near term. Major economies will confront shrinking workforces and diminishing productivity gains while recovering from the 2008-09 financial crisis with high debt, weak demand, and doubts about globalization. China will attempt to shift to a consumer-driven economy from its longstanding export and investment focus. Lower growth will threaten poverty reduction in developing countries.

Technology is accelerating progress but causing discontinuities. Rapid technological advancements will increase the pace of change and create new opportunities but will aggravate divisions between winners and losers. Automation and artificial intelligence threaten to change industries faster than economies can adjust, potentially displacing workers and limiting the usual route for poor countries to develop. Biotechnologies such as genome editing will revolutionize medicine and other fields, while sharpening moral differences.

Ideas and Identities are driving a wave of exclusion. Growing global connectivity amid weak growth will increase tensions within and between societies. Populism will increase on the right and the left, threatening liberalism. Some leaders will use nationalism to shore up control. Religious influence will be increasingly consequential and more authoritative than many governments. Nearly all countries will see economic forces boost women’s status and leadership roles, but backlash also will occur.

Governing is getting harder. Publics will demand governments deliver security and prosperity, but flat revenues, distrust, polarization, and a growing list of emerging issues will hamper government performance. Technology will expand the range of players who can block or circumvent political action. Managing global issues will become harder as actors multiply—to include NGOs, corporations, and empowered individuals—resulting in more ad hoc, fewer encompassing efforts.

The nature of conflict is changing. The risk of conflict will increase due to diverging interests among major powers, an expanding terror threat, continued instability in weak states, and the spread of lethal, disruptive technologies. Disrupting societies will become more common, with long-range precision weapons, cyber, and robotic systems to target infrastructure from afar, and more accessible technology to create weapons of mass destruction.

Climate change, environment, and health issues will demand attention. A range of global hazards pose imminent and longer-term threats that will require collective action to address—even as cooperation becomes harder. More extreme weather, water and soil stress, and food insecurity will disrupt societies. Sea-level rise, ocean acidification, glacial melt, and pollution will change living patterns. Tensions over climate change will grow. Increased travel and poor health infrastructure will make infectious diseases harder to manage.

The Bottomline

These trends will converge at an unprecedented pace to make governing and cooperation harder and to change the nature of power—fundamentally altering the global landscape. Economic, technological and security trends, especially, will expand the number of states, organizations, and individuals able to act in consequential ways. Within states, political order will remain elusive and tensions high until societies and governments renegotiate their expectations of one another. Between states, the post-Cold War, unipolar moment has passed and the post-1945 rules based international order may be fading too. Some major powers and regional aggressors will seek to assert interests through force but will find results fleeting as they discover traditional, material forms of power less able to secure and sustain outcomes in a context of proliferating veto players.

A Group of South African school students in a classroom South African school students. Much of the growth in the world’s working age population over the next several decades will come from Africa as well as South Asia.

Trends Transforming
the Global Landscape

The post-Cold War era is giving way to a new strategic context. Recent and future trends will converge during the next 20 years at an unprecedented pace to increase the number and complexity of issues, with several, like cyber attacks, terrorism, or extreme weather, representing risks for imminent disruption. Demographic shifts will stress labor, welfare, and social stability. The rich world is aging while much of the poorer world is not and is becoming more male to boot. More and more people are living in cities, some of which are increasingly vulnerable to sea-level rise, flooding, and storm surges. So, too, more people are on the move– drawn by visions of a better life or driven by horrors of strife. Competition for good jobs has become global, as technology, especially mass automation, disrupts labor markets. Technology will also further empower individuals and small groups, connecting people like never before. At the same time, values, nationalism, and religion will increasingly separate them.

At the national level, the gap between popular expectations and government performance will grow; indeed democracy itself can no longer be taken for granted. Internationally, the empowering of individuals and small groups will make it harder to organize collective action against major global problems, like climate change. International institutions will be visibly more mismatched to the tasks of the future, especially as they awkwardly embrace newly empowered private individuals and groups.

Meanwhile, the risk of conflict will grow. Warring will be less and less confined to the battlefield, and more aimed at disrupting societies–using cyber weapons from afar or suicide terrorists from within. The silent, chronic threats of air pollution, water shortage, and climate change will become more noticeable, leading more often than in the past to clashes, as diagnoses of and measures to deal with these issues remain divisive around the globe.

The Rich Are Aging, The Poor Are Not

The world’s population will be larger, older, and more urban, even as the rate of global population growth slows. The effects on individual countries will vary, however, as the world’s major economies age and the developing world remains youthful. The world population is forecasted to jump from roughly 7.3 to 8.8 billion people by 2035. Africa—with fertility rates double those of the rest of the world—and parts of Asia are on course for their working-age populations to soar. This could lead to economic progress or disaster, depending on how well their governments and societies ramp up investment in education, infrastructure, and other key sectors.

Labor and welfare patterns are set to change dramatically, both in rapidly aging countries and chronically young countries. People over 60 are becoming the world’s fastest growing age cohort. Successful aging societies will increase elderly, youth, and female workforce participation to offset fewer working-age adults. Median ages will reach highs by 2035 in Japan (52.4), South Korea (49.4), Germany (49.6), and in several other countries. Europe will be hit especially hard, as well as Cuba (48), Russia (43.6), and China (45.7). The United States is aging at a slower rate—reaching a median age of approximately 41 by 2035—and will maintain a growing working-age population.

  • Chronically young populations—with an average age of 25 years or less— will challenge parts of Africa and Asia, especially Somalia, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Yemen. These states historically have been more prone to violence and instability. Even youthful states, however, will have increasing numbers of elderly to support, adding to their needs for infrastructure and socioeconomic safety nets.

Worldwide, the number of people reaching working age during the coming two decades will decline sharply from the previous two– from 1.20 billion in 1995-2015 to 850 million in 2015-35, according to UN projections. Most of these new workers, however, will be in South Asia and Africa, many of them in economies already struggling to create new jobs in the modern global economy due to inadequate infrastructure, limited education systems, corruption, and lack of opportunity for women.

  • Integrating more women into the workforce will be particularly challenging due to longstanding cultural norms, but a study by McKinsey Global Institute assesses that such moves could boost output and productivity. According to the study, global GDP could rise by more than 10 percent by 2025 if roles and relative compensation for women across each region were improved to match the levels of the mostequitable country in that region. McKinsey highlighted improvements in education, financial and digital inclusion, legal protection, and compensation for care work as crucial to gains in gender economic equity—and ultimately beneficial to all workers as well.

More People Are Living In Cities. Demographic trends will boost popular pressure for effective public policy, especially in providing services and infrastructure needed to support increasingly urban populations. Just over half of humanity lives in cities today, a number forecast to rise to two-thirds by 2050. Aging countries that adapt health care, pensions, welfare, employment, and military recruitment systems are likely to successfully weather demographic trends while countries with younger populations would benefit from focusing on education and employment. Immigration and labor policies will remain divisive in the near term,although over time—and with training and education—such policies could address critical labor shortfalls in aging societies.

Estimated Change in Working-Age (15-64)
Population 2015-35, Selected Countries

The world’s working-age population will grow the most in South Asian and African countries, where education levels are among the lowest—putting them at a disadvantage in the evolving global economy, which will favor higher-skilled workers.

The biggest working-age decreases will be in China and in Europe, where employment opportunities will probably be greatest for skilled laborers and service-sector workers.

Worldwide, low-value-added manufacturing—historically the steppingstone to economic development for poor countries, and a pathway to prosperity for aspiring workers—will tend toward needing ever-fewer unskilled workers as automation, artificial intelligence, and other manufacturing advances take effect.

Chart showing - Estimated Change in Working-Age (15-64) Population 2015-35 in Selected Countries

Note: The 40 countries highlighted in this chart are the countries with the largest increases and largest decreases of working-age population, in absolute numbers. Source: UN population data (median projection).

Global Urban Population Growth is Propelled by the Growth of Cities of All Sizes

The lion’s share of the world’s 20-percent population increase between 2015 and 2035 will end up in cities, as inflows of people from rural settings join already-growing city populations. Cities of all sizes will continue to increase in number, led by “megacities” of 10 million or more residents, which will be found on every continent except Australia.

Chart showing - Global Urban Population Growth Propelled by the Growth of Cities of All Sizes

Source: United Nations, Department of Economics and Social Affairs, “World Urbanization Prospects, 2014 Revision.”

  • Population growth will continue to concentrate in areas vulnerable to sea-level rise, flooding, and storm surges. By 2035, roughly 50 percent more people than in the year 2000 will live in low-elevation coastal zones worldwide, with the number in Asia increasing by more than 150 million and in Africa by 60 million. Many megacities, such as Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, and Manila, will continue to sink because of excessive groundwater extraction and natural geologic activity.

More Are On The Move . . . Migration flows will remain high during the next two decades as people seek economic opportunity and flee conflict and worsening environmental conditions. International migrants—or persons who reside outside their countries of birth—and forcibly displaced persons reached the highest absolute levels ever recorded in 2015, with 244 million international migrants and roughly 65 million displaced persons. In short, one in every 112 persons in the world is a refugee, an internally displaced person, or an asylum seeker. Growth in the number of international migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons is likely to continue due to major income disparities between areas, persistent conflicts, and festering ethnic and religious tensions. The number of people on the move will remain high or even increase as environmental stresses become more pronounced.

. . . And More Are Male. The recent increase in men compared to women in many countries in the Middle East and in East and South Asia signals countries under stress and the lasting influence of culture. Largely due to sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, and female selective neglect, China and India are already seeing significant numbers of men without prospects for marriage. Gender imbalances take decades to correct, generating increased crime and violence in the meantime.

World Population Living in Extreme Poverty, 1820-2015

Extreme poverty is defined as living at a consumption (or income) level below $1.90 per day in real, purchasing-power parity terms (adjusted for price differences between countries and inflation)..

Chart showing World Population Living in Extreme Poverty, 1820-2015

Source: Max Roser based on World Bank and Bourguignon and Morrisson.

The Global Economy Is Shifting

Economies worldwide will shift significantly in the near and distant futures. Wealthy economies will try to halt recent declines in economic growth and maintain lifestyles even as working-age populations shrink and historically strong productivity gains wane. The developing world will seek to maintain its recent progress in eradicating abject poverty and to integrate rapidly growing working-age populations into its economies. Developed and developing alike will be pressed to identify new services, sectors, and occupations to replace manufacturing jobs that automation and other technologies will eliminate—and to educate and train workers to fill them.

Extreme Poverty Is Declining. Economic reforms in China and other countries, largely in Asia, have fueled a historic rise in living standards for nearly a billion people since 1990, cutting the share of the world living in “extreme poverty” (below $2 a day) from 35 to around 10 percent. Two dollars a day hardly makes life easy but does move people beyond surviving day-to-day. Improved living standards, however, lead to changed behaviors while raising expectations and anxieties about the future.

Western Middle Classes Are Squeezed. A global boom in low-cost manufacturing—together with automation driven in part by cost pressures from increased competition—hit US and European middle-class wages and employment hard over the past several decades. At the same time, however, it brought new opportunities to the developing world and dramatically reduced the costs of goods for consumers worldwide.

Stagnant wages are the most dramatic sign of the relentless drive for increased cost-efficiency: real median household incomes in the United States, Germany, Japan, Italy, and France rose by less than 1 percent per year from the mid- 1980s through the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, according to the OECD. The post-crisis period has brought little respite, notwithstanding some improvement in the United States in 2015. McKinsey estimated that as of 2014, two-thirds of households in developed economies had real incomes at or below their 2005 levels.

Imagining a surprise
news headline in 2018 . . .
“Robin Hoodhacker”
Paralyzes Online Commerce,
Upends Markets
Nov. 19, 2018 – New York

Online commerce ground to a halt a week before the Christmas shopping season started in the United States, Canada, and Europe after numerous attacks by the persona “Robin Hoodhacker.” The attacks created chaos by altering online payment accounts by as much as $100,000 in credit or debts—sparking a frenzy of online shopping that has forced retailers to shut down all digital transactions. The disruption sent global financial markets into a free fall before trading was suspended in most exchanges due to uncertainty about how long and widely the hacking would persist.

Growth Will Be Weak. During the next five years, the global economy will continue to struggle to resume growth, as the world’s major economies slowly recover from the 2008 crisis and work through sharp increases in public-sector debt. Moreover, the global economy also will face political pressures threatening open trade just as China undertakes a massive effort to redirect its economy toward consumption-based growth. As a consequence, most of the world’s largest economies are likely to experience, at least in the near term, performance that is subpar by historical standards. Weak growth will threaten recent gains in reducing poverty.

  • China and the European Union (EU)—two of the world’s three largest economies— will continue to attempt major, painful changes to bolster longer-term growth. China will be the biggest wildcard, as it attempts to continue raising living standards while shifting away from a state-directed, investment-driven economy to one that is consumer- and servicecentered. Meanwhile, the EU is trying to foster stronger economic growth while struggling to manage high debt levels and deep political divisions over the future of the EU project.
  • Financial crises, the erosion of the middle class, and greater public awareness of income inequality—all with roots predating the 2008 downturn—have fed sentiment in the West that the costs of trade liberalization outweigh the gains. As a result, the historic, 70-year run of global trade liberalization faces a major backlash, undermining future prospects for further liberalization—and raising the risk of greater protectionism. The world will be closely watching the United States and other traditional supporters of trade for signs of policy retrenchment. Further liberalization of free trade may be limited to more narrow issues or sets of partners.

Changes in Real Income by World Income Percentiles
(at Purchasing Power Parity) From 1988 to 2008

The “Elephant Chart,” showing real household income changes between 1989 and 2008, shows that the period of the greatest globalization of the world economy—and the rapid growth it fostered in the developing world—brought large income gains to all but the very poorest of the bottom two-thirds of the world’s households, and to the world’s very wealthiest. The chart—and subsequent variations to it, which show slightly different relative gains between groups but the same broad pattern—suggests that globalization and advanced manufacturing brought relatively little gain to the top third of the world’s households apart from the very wealthiest. This segment includes many of the lower-to-middle-income households of the US and other advanced economies.

The data behind the chart only shows changes for each income percentile; individual households in any country could have moved up or down within percentiles and as a result seen substantially larger—or smaller—gains than these global averages.

Chart showing Changes in Real Income by World Income Percentiles (at Purchasing Power Parity) From 1988 to 2008

Source: Branko Milanovic.

Financial Shocks and Economic Doldrums

Debt-fueled economic growth in the United States, Europe, China, and Japan during the past several decades led to real-estate bubbles, unsustainable personal spending, price spikes for oil and other commodities—and, ultimately, in 2008, to massive financial crises in the United States and Europe that undercut economies worldwide. Anxious to stimulate greater growth, some central banks lowered interest rates to near—and even below—zero. They also attempted to boost recovery through quantitative easing, adding more than $11 trillion to the balance sheets of the central banks of China, the EU, Japan, and the United States between 2008 and 2016. These efforts prevented further defaults of major financial institutions and enabled beleaguered European governments to borrow at low rates. They have not sparked strong economic growth, however, because they have not spurred governments, firms, or individuals to boost spending. Equally important, these efforts have not created incentives for banks to increase lending to support such spending, amid new prudential standards and near-zero or even negative inflation. Efforts by Beijing, for example, to stoke growth since 2008 have helped maintain oil and raw-materials markets, as well as the producers in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East who supply them. Nonetheless, these markets have sagged with the realization that China’s growth— based largely on investment to boost industrial capacity—is unsustainable. In this low-rate, low-growth environment, investors have remained skittish. They have vacillated between seeking higher returns in emerging markets and seeking safehavens during periodic scares, providing only unreliable support for potential emerging-economy growth.

Technology Complicates the Long-Term Outlook

Most of the worlds’ largest economies will struggle with shrinking working-age populations, but all countries will face the challenge of maintaining employment—and developing well-trained, resilient workers. Automation, artificial intelligence (AI), and other technological innovations threaten the existence of vast swaths of current jobs up and down the socioeconomic ladder, including high-technology manufacturing and even white-collar services.

  • Finding new ways to boost productivity in rich countries will become more difficult. The demographic, improved-efficiency, and investment factors behind the post- World War II period of growth are fading. This challenge will be especially relevant as populations in the largest economies age. Advances in technology will help boost productivity in developed and developing countries alike, but improving education, infrastructure, regulations, and management practices will be critical to take full advantage of them.
  • As technology increasingly substitutes for labor and puts downward pressure on wages, personal-income-based tax revenues will grow more slowly than economies—or even shrink in real terms. Fiscal pressure on countries that rely on such taxes will increase, possibly making value-added taxes or other revenue schemes more attractive.

Technological Innovation Accelerates Progress but Leads to Discontinuities

Technology—from the wheel to the silicon chip—has greatly bent the arc of history, but anticipating when, where, and how technology will alter economic, social, political, and security dynamics is a hard game. Some highimpact predictions—such as cold fusion—still have not become realities long after first promised. Other changes have unfolded faster and further than experts imagined. Breakthroughs in recent years in gene editing and manipulation, such as CRISPR,a are opening vast new possibilities in biotechnology.

Technology will continue to empower individuals, small groups, corporations, and states, as well as accelerate the pace of change and spawn new complex challenges, discontinuities, and tensions. In particular, the development and deployment of advanced information communication technologies (ICT), AI, new materials and manufacturing capabilities from robotics to automation, advances in biotechnology, and unconventional energy sources will disrupt labor markets; alter health, energy, and transportation systems; and transform economic development. They will also raise fundamental questions about what it means to be human. Such developments will magnify values differences across societies, impeding progress on international regulations or norms in these areas. Existential risks associated with some of these applications are real, especially in synthetic biology, genome editing, and AI.

aCRISPR is the acronym for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats,” which refers to short segments of DNA, the molecule that carries genetic instructions for all living organisms. A few years ago, the discovery was made that one can apply CRISPR with a set of enzymes that accelerate or catalyze chemical reactions in order to modify specific DNA sequences. This capability is revolutionizing biological research, accelerating the rate at which biotech applications are developed to address medical, health, industrial, environmental, and agricultural challenges, while also posing significant ethical and security questions.

ICT are poised to transform a widening array of work practices and the way people live and communicate. The associated technologies will increase efficiencies and alter employment in transportation, engineering, manufacturing, health care and other services. These tools have been around for some time, but will become increasingly mainstream as developers learn to break down more jobs into automated components. Skyrocketing investment in AI, surging sales of industrial and service robotics, and cloud-based platforms operating without local infrastructure will create more opportunities for convergence and more disruption—especially in the near term— to labor markets. The “Internet of Things” (IOT)—where more and more interconnected devices can interact—will create efficiencies but also security risks. The effects of new ICTs on the financial sector, in particular, are likely to be profound. New financial technologies— including digital currencies, applications of “blockchain” technology for transactions, and AI and big data for predictive analytics—will reshape financial services, with potentially substantial impacts on systemic stability and the security of critical financial infrastructure.

Biotechnologies, are at an inflection point, where advances in genetic testing and editing— catalyzed by the new methods to manipulate genes—are turning science fiction into reality. The time and cost required to sequence a person’s genome has been slashed. Such capabilities open the possibility of much more tailored approaches to enhancing human capabilities, treating diseases, extending longevity, or boosting food production. Given that most early techniques will only be available in a few countries, access to these technologies will be limited to those who can afford to travel and pay for the new procedures; divisive political debates over access are likely to ensue.

Further development of advanced materials and manufacturing techniques could speed transformation of key sectors, such as transportation and energy. The global market for nanotechnology has more than doubled in recent years, with applications constantly expanding from electronics to food.

The unconventional energy revolution is increasing the availability of new sources of oil and natural gas, while a wide range of technological advancements on the demand side are breaking the link between economic growth and rising energy utilization. Advancements in solar panels, for example, have drastically reduced the cost of solar electricity to be competitive with the retail price of electricity. With more new energy sources, overall global energy costs will remain low and the global energy system will become increasingly resilient to supply shocks from fossil fuels, to the benefit, in particular, of China, India, and other resource-poor developing countries.

Emerging technologies will require careful parsing to appreciate both the technology and its cumulative effects on human beings, societies, states, and the planet. There is a near-term imperative to establish safety standards and common protocols for emerging ICT, biotechnologies, and new materials. Few organizations—whether governmental, commercial, academic, or religious—have the range of expertise needed to do the parsing, let alone explain it to the rest of us, underscoring the importance of pooling resources to assess and contemplate the challenges ahead.

  • Without regulatory standards, the development and deployment of AI—even if less capable than human intellect—is likely to be inherently dangerous to humans, threaten citizens’ privacy, and undermine state interests. Further, failure to develop standards for AI in robotics is likely to lead to economic inefficiencies and lost economic opportunities due to noninteroperable systems.
  • Biopharmaceutical advances will generate tension over intellectual property rights. If patent rejections, revocations, and compulsory licenses become more widespread, they could threaten innovation of new medicines and undercut the profits of multinational pharmaceutical companies. Governments will have to weigh the economic and social benefits of adopting new biotechnologies—such as genetically engineered (GE) crops—against competing domestic considerations.

Internationally, the ability to set standards and protocols, define ethical limits for research, and protect intellectual property rights will devolve to states with technical leadership. Actions taken in the near-term to preserve technical leadership will be especially critical for technologies that improve human health, change biological systems, and expand information and automation systems. Multilateral engagement early in the development cycle has the potential to reduce international tensions as deployment approaches. This, however, will require a convergence of interests and values—even if narrow and limited. More likely, technical leadership and partnerships alone will be insufficient to avoid tensions as states pursue technologies and regulatory frameworks that work to their benefit.

Ritual of Hindu God Ganesh Ritual of Hindu God Idol Ganesh Immersion at India’s Ganges River in 2015.

Ideas and Identities Will Exclude

A more interconnected world will continue to increase—rather than reduce—differences over ideas and identities. Populism will increase over the next two decades should current demographic, economic, and governance trends hold. So, too, will exclusionary national and religious identities, as the interplay between technology and culture accelerates and people seek meaning and security in the context of rapid and disorienting economic, social, and technological change. Political leaders will find appeals to identity useful for mobilizing supporters and consolidating political control. Similarly, identity groups will become more influential. Growing access to information and communication tools will enable them to better organize and mobilize—around political issues, religion, values, economic interests, ethnicity, gender, and lifestyle. The increasingly segregated information and media environment will harden identities—both through algorithms that provide customized searches and personally styled social media, as well as through deliberate shaping efforts by organizations, governments, and thought leaders. Some of these identities will have a transnational character, with groups learning from one another and individuals able to seek inspiration from like-minds a world away.

A key near-term implication of rising identity politics is the erosion of traditions of tolerance and diversity associated with the United States and Western Europe, threatening the global appeal of these ideals. Other key implications include the explicit use of nationalism and threatening characterizations of the West to shore up authoritarian control in China and Russia, and the inflaming of identity conflicts and communal tensions in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. How New Delhi treats Hindu nationalist tendencies and Israel balances ultra-orthodox religious extremes will be key determinants, for example, of future tensions.

Populism is emerging in the West and in parts of Asia. Characterized by a suspicion and hostility toward elites, mainstream politics, and established institutions, it reflects rejection of the economic effects of globalization and frustration with the responses of political and economic elites to the public’s concerns. Both right-wing and left-wing populist parties have been rising across Europe—as leaders of political parties in France, Greece, and the Netherlands, for example, criticize established organizations for failing to protect the livelihood of European residents. South America has had its own waves of populism, as have the Philippines and Thailand.

  • Moreover, anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment among core democracies of the Western alliance could undermine some of the West’s traditional sources of strength in cultivating diverse societies and harnessing global talent.
  • Populist leaders and movements— whether on the right or left—may leverage democratic practices to foster popular support for consolidation of power in a strong executive and the slow, steady erosion of civil society, the rule of law, and norms of tolerance.

Nationalist and Some Religious Identities. A close cousin to populism, nationalist appeals will be prominent in China, Russia, Turkey, and other countries where leaders seek to consolidate political control by eliminating domestic political alternatives while painting international relations in existential terms. Similarly, exclusionary religious identities will shape regional and local dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa and threaten to do so in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa between Christian and Muslim communities. In Russia, nation and religion will continue to converge to reinforce political control.

  • Religious identity, which may or may not be exclusionary, is likely to remain a potent connection as people seek a greater sense of identity and belonging in times of intense change. Over 80 percent of the world is religiously affiliated and that share is increasing, due largely to high fertility rates in the developing world, according to a Pew Research Center study on the future of religion. Studies of American politics indicate that religiosity, or the intensity of individual expressions of faith, is a better predictor of voter behavior than the particular faith a person follows.

Governing Is Harder and Harder

How governments govern and create political order is in flux and likely to vary even more over the coming decades. Governments will increasingly struggle to meet public demands for security and prosperity. Fiscal limits, political polarization, and weak administrative capacity will complicate their efforts, as well as the changing information environment, the growing stock of issues that publics expect governments to manage, and the proliferation of empowered actors who can block policy formation or implementation. This gap between government performance and public expectations—combined with corruption and elite scandals—will result in growing public distrust and dissatisfaction. It will also increase the likelihood of protests, instability, and wider variations in governance.

  • High-profile protests in places like Brazil and Turkey—countries where middle classes have expanded during the past decade—indicate that more prosperous citizens are expecting better, less corrupt governments and society. They are also looking for protection from losing what they have gained. Meanwhile, slower growth, stagnant middle-class wages, and rising inequality in developed countries will continue to drive public demands to improve and protect living standards. This will occur at a time when many governments are constrained by more debt, more intense global economic competition, and swings in financial and commodity markets.
  • Greater public access to information about leaders and institutions—combined with stunning elite failures such as the 2008 financial crisis and Petrobras corruption scandal—has undermined public trust in established sources of authority and is driving populist movements worldwide. Moreover, information technology’s amplification of individual voices and of distrust of elites has in some countries eroded the influence of political parties, labor unions, and civic groups, potentially leading to a crisis of representation among democracies. Polls suggest that majorities in emerging nations, especially in the Middle East and Latin America, believe government officials “don’t care about people like them,” while trust in governments has dropped in developed countries as well. Americans demonstrate the lowest levels of trust in government since the first year of measurement in 1958.
  • Democracy itself will be more in question, as some studies suggest that North American and Western European youth are less likely to support freedom of speech than their elders. The number of states that mix democratic and autocratic elements is on the rise, a blend that is prone to instability. Freedom House reported that measurements of “freedom” in 2016 declined in almost twice as many countries as it improved—the biggest setback in 10 years.

International institutions will struggle to adapt to a more complex environment but will still have a role to play. They will be most effective when the interests of the major powers align on issues like peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance, where institutions and norms are well in place. Future reforms of international and regional institutions will move slowly, though, because of divergent interests among member states and organizations and the increasing complexity of emerging global issues. Some institutions and member countries will continue to cope on an ad hoc basis, taking steps to partner with nonstate actors and regional organizations and preferring approaches targeting narrowly defined issues.

  • A rise in veto power. Competing interests among major and aspiring powers will limit formal international action in managing disputes, while divergent interests among states in general will prevent major reforms of the UN Security Council’s membership. Many agree on the need to reform the UN Security Council, but prospects for consensus on membership reform are dim.
  • Lagging behind. Existing institutions are likely to wrestle with nontraditional issues such as genome editing, AI, and human enhancement because technological change will continue to far outpace the ability of states, agencies, and international organizations to set standards, policies, regulations, and norms. Cyber and space also will raise new challenges, especially as private commercial actors play a bigger role in shaping capabilities and norms of use.
  • Multi-stakeholder multilateralism. Multilateral dynamics will expand as formal international institutions work more closely with companies, civil society organizations, and local governments to address challenges. As experimentation with multi-stakeholder forums grows, new formats for debate will arise, and private sector involvement in governance is likely to increase.

The Nature of Conflict is Changing

The risk of conflict, including interstate conflict, will increase during the next two decades due to evolving interests among major powers, ongoing terrorist threats, continued instability in weak states, and the spread of lethal and disruptive technologies. The decline in the number and intensity of conflicts during the past 20 years appears to be reversing: conflict levels are increasing and battle-related deaths and other human costs of conflict are up sharply since 2011—if not earlier—according to published institutional reports. Furthermore, the character of conflict is changing because of advances in technology, new strategies, and the evolving global geopolitical context—all of which challenge previous conceptions of warfare. More actors will employ a wider range of military and non-military tools, blurring the line between war and peace and undermining old norms of escalation and deterrence.

Future conflicts will increasingly emphasize the disruption of critical infrastructure, societal cohesion, and basic government functions in order to secure psychological and geopolitical advantages, rather than the defeat of enemy forces on the battlefield through traditional military means. Noncombatants will be increasingly targeted, sometimes to pit ethnic, religious, and political groups against one another to disrupt societal cooperation and coexistence within states. Such strategies suggest a trend toward increasingly costly, but less decisive conflicts.

Disruptive Groups. Nonstate and substate groups—including terrorists, insurgents, activists, and criminal gangs—are accessing a broader array of lethal and non-lethal means to advance their interests. Groups like Hizballah and ISIL have gained access to sophisticated weaponry during the last decade, and man-portable anti-tank missiles, surface-to-air missiles, unmanned drones and other precision-guided weapons are likely to be more common. Activist groups like Anonymous are likely to employ increasingly disruptive cyber attacks. These groups have relatively little reason to restrain themselves. Since deterrence is harder, states have had to go on the offense and attack these actors more aggressively, which sometimes feeds the groups’ ideological causes.

War From Afar. Meanwhile, both state and nonstate actors will continue to develop a greater capacity for stand-off and remote attacks. Growing development of cyber attacks, precision-guided weapons, robotic systems and unmanned weapons lowers the threshold for initiating conflict because attackers put fewer lives at risk in their attempts to overwhelm defenses. The proliferation of these capabilities will shift warfare from direct clashes of opposing armies to more stand-off and remote operations, especially in the initial phases of conflict.

  • A future crisis in which opposing militaries possess long-range, precision-guided conventional weapons risks quick escalation to conflict because both sides would have an incentive to strike before they were attacked.
  • In addition, the command, control, and targeting infrastructure, including satellites that provide navigation and targeting information, would probably become targets of attacks for forces seeking to disrupt an enemy’s strike capabilities. Russia and China, for example, continue to pursue weapons systems capable of destroying satellites on orbit, which will place US and others’ satellites at greater risk in the future.

New WMD Concerns. The threat posed by nuclear and other forms of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) probably will increase in the years ahead due to technology advances and growing asymmetry between forces. Current nuclear weapon states will almost certainly continue to maintain, if not modernize, their nuclear forces out to 2035. Nuclear sabre-rattling by North Korea and uncertainty over Iran’s intentions could drive others to pursue nuclear capabilities. The proliferation of advanced technologies, especially biotechnologies, will also lower the threshold for new actors to acquire WMD capabilities. Internal collapse of weak states could also open a path for terrorist WMD use resulting from unauthorized seizures of weapons in failing or failed states that no longer can maintain control of their arsenals or scientific and technical knowledge.


Once the domain only of major powers, space is increasingly democratic. As budgets for national space agencies plateau, private industry will fill the void and pursue serious programs such as space tourism, asteroid mining, and inflatable space habitats. Full realization of their commercial potential, however, is probably decades away. An increase in space activity brings risks as well, and international action may be necessary to identify and remove the debris most threatening to an expanding global space presence. The immense strategic and commercial value offered by outer space assets ensures that space will increasingly be an arena in which nations vie for access, use, and control. The deployment of antisatellite technologies designed to purposefully disable or destroy satellites could potentially intensify global tensions. A key question will be whether spacefaring countries—in particular China, Russia, and the United States—can agree to a code of conduct for outer space activities.

“Gray Zone” Conflicts. The blurring line between “peacetime” and “wartime” will make it harder for adversaries to rely on traditional calculations of deterrence and escalation in managing conflicts. Strong-arm diplomacy, media manipulation, covert operations, political subversion, and economic coercion are longstanding pressure tactics, but the ease and effectiveness of launching cyber disruptions, disinformation campaigns, and surrogate attacks are heightening tensions and uncertainty. The ability to stay below the threshold for a full-scale war will lead to more persistent economic, political and security competition in the “gray zone” between peacetime and war.

Climate Change Looms

A changing climate, increasing stress on environmental and natural resources, and deepening connection between human and animal health reflect complex systemic risks that will outpace existing approaches. The willingness of individuals, groups, and governments to uphold recent environmental commitments, embrace clean energy technologies, and prepare for unforeseen extreme environmental and ecological events will test the potential for cooperation on global challenges to come.

Climate Change. Changes in the climate will produce more extreme weather events and put greater stress on humans and critical systems , including oceans, freshwater, and biodiversity. These changes, in turn, will have direct and indirect social, economic, political, and security effects. Extreme weather can trigger crop failures, wildfires, energy blackouts, infrastructure breakdown, supplychain breakdowns, migration, and infectious disease outbreaks. Such events will be more pronounced as people concentrate in climatevulnerable locations, such as cities, coastal areas, and water-stressed regions. Specific extreme weather events remain difficult to attribute entirely to climate change, but unusual patterns of extreme and record-breaking weather events are likely to become more common, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Projected Average Surface Temperature Change

The bold curves represent averages in global surface temperatures determined from computer modeling, but the actual trajectory will have many peaks (higher than average) and valleys (lower than average). The peaks are qualitatively important because they probably represent snapshots of future average climate conditions.

Chart showing the Projected Average Surface Temperature Change

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fifth Assessment Report, September 2013.

Past greenhouse gas emissions already have locked in a significant rise in global mean temperatures for the next 20 years, no matter what greenhouse gas reduction policies are now being implemented. Most scientists expect that climate change will exacerbate current conditions, making hot, dry places hotter and drier, for example.

  • Over the longer term, global climatological stresses will change how and where people live, as well as the diseases they face. Such stresses include sea-level rise, ocean acidification, permafrost and glacial melt, air quality degradation, changes in cloud cover, and sustained shifts in temperature and precipitation.
  • Current climate models project longterm increases in global average surface temperatures, but climate scientists warn that more sudden, dramatic shifts could be possible, given the complexity of the system and climate history. Such shifts in the climate or climate-linked ecosystems could have dramatic economic and ecological consequences.

Climate change—whether observed or anticipated—will become integral to how people view their world. Many ecological and environmental stresses cut across state borders, complicating the ability of communities and governments to manage their effects. The urgency of the politics will vary due to differences in the intensity and geography of such change. We expect to see increased popular pressure globally to address these concerns as citizens in the developing world gain awareness and a growing political voice.

Latin America, Africa More Concerned About Climate
Change Compared With Other Regions

Chart showing Latin America, Africa More Concerned About Climate
Change Compared With Other Regions

Note: In the United States: 45 percent said “climate change is a very serious problem,” 41 percent said “climate change is harming people now,” and 30 percent said they were “very concerned that climate change will harm me personally.”
Source: Pew Research Center. Spring 2015 Global Attitudes survey. Q32, Q41, and Q42.

  • China’s experience is a cautionary one for today’s developing world, with new members of the middle class expressing greater concern about pollution, water quality, and basic livability. A 2016 Pew poll found that half of Chinese polled were willing to trade economic growth for cleaner air.

Climate change and related natural disasters, policy decisions, and new abatement technologies will create new investment and industry winners and losers, too. One large financial consultant forecasts that developed country equity markets will see sustained declines in most sectors over the next 35 years due to concerns about climate change. Meanwhile, most of the sectors in developing country equity markets will see investment gains. Agriculture, infrastructure, and real estate sectors in wealthy countries are also expected to benefit through 2050. Financial costs from droughts, storms, floods, and wildfires have risen modestly but consistently since at least the 1970s, according to research by development and humanitarian relief agencies worldwide—and are set to increase with more frequent and severe occurrences in the coming decades.

Climate change will drive both geopolitical competition and international cooperation as well. China, poised for global leadership on climate change, would likely keep to its Paris commitments but could weaken its support for monitoring mechanisms and gain favor with developing world emitters like India. Tensions over managing climate change could sharpen significantly if some countries pursue geoengineering technologies in an effort to manipulate large-scale climate conditions. Early

Imagining a surprise
news headline in 2033 . . .
Bangladesh Climate
Sparks Protests
April 4, 2033 – Dhaka

Bangladesh became the first country to try to slow climate change by releasing a metric ton of sulfate aerosol into the upper atmosphere from a modified Boeing 797 airplane in the first of six planned flights to reduce the warming effects of solar radiation. The unprecedented move provoked diplomatic warnings by 25 countries and violent public protests at several Bangladeshi Embassies, but government officials in Dhaka claimed its action was “critical to self-defense” after a spate of devastating hurricanes, despite scientists’ warnings of major unintended consequences, such as intensified acid rain and depletion of the ozone layer.

research efforts largely live in computer models to explore techniques to alter temperature and rainfall patterns such as injecting aerosols in the stratosphere, chemically brightening marine clouds, and installing space-mirrors in orbit. Other approaches focus on removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Given the lack of international standards or regulations for such activities, any efforts to test or implement large-scale geoengineering techniques would raise tensions over the risks and potential unintended consequences.

Environment and Natural Resources. Nearly all of the Earth’s systems are undergoing natural and human-induced stresses outpacing national and international environmental protection efforts. Institutions overseeing single sectors will increasingly struggle to address the complex inter-dependencies of water, food, energy, land, health, infrastructure, and labor.

  • By 2035, outdoor air pollution is projected to be the top cause of environmentally related deaths worldwide, absent implementation of new air quality policies. More than 80 percent of urban dwellers are already exposed to air pollution that exceeds safe limits, according to the World Health Organization.
  • Half of the world’s population will face water shortages by 2035, according to the UN. Rising demands from population growth, greater consumption, and agricultural production will outstrip water supplies, which will become less reliable in some regions from groundwater depletion and changing precipitation patterns. More than 30 countries—nearly half of them in the Middle East—will experience extremely high water stress by 2035, increasing economic, social and political tensions.
  • Melting ice in the Arctic and Antarctica will accelerate sea level rise over time. An increasingly navigable Arctic will shorten commercial trading routes and expand access to the region’s natural resources in the decades ahead. Glacier melting in the Tibetan Plateau—the source of nearly all of Asia’s major rivers—will also have far-reaching consequences.
  • More than a third of the world’s soil, which produces 95 percent of the world’s food supply, is currently degraded, and the fraction will probably increase as the global population grows. Soil degradation—the loss of soil productivity due to primarily human-induced changes—is already occurring at rates as much as 40 times faster than new soil formation.

Sharing Water Will Be More Contentious

A growing number of countries will experience water stress—from population growth, urbanization, economic development, climate change, and poor water management—and tensions over shared water resources will rise. Historically, water disputes between states have led to more sharing agreements than violent conflicts, but this pattern will be hard to maintain. Dam construction, industrial water pollution, and neglect or nonacceptance of existing treaty provisions aggravate water tensions, but political and cultural stress often play an even larger role.

Nearly half of the world’s 263 international river basins lack cooperative management agreement as well as only a handful of the more than 600 transboundary aquifer systems. Moreover, many existing agreements are not sufficiently adaptive to address emergent issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and water quality. Ongoing disputes in key river basins, such as the Mekong, Nile, Amu Darya, Jordan, Indus, and the Brahmaputra, will illustrate how water governance structures adapt in an era of increasingly scarce resources.

  • Diversity in the biosphere will continue to decline despite ongoing national and international efforts. Climate change will increasingly amplify ongoing habitat loss and degradation, overexploitation, pollution, and invasive alien species— adversely affecting forests, fisheries, and wetlands. Many marine ecosystems, particularly coral reefs, will face critical risks from warming and acidifying oceans.

Health. Human and animal health will increasingly be interconnected. Increasing global connectivity and changing environmental conditions will affect the geographic distribution of pathogens and their hosts, and, in turn, the emergence, transmission, and spread of many human and animal infectious diseases. Unaddressed deficiencies in national and global health systems for disease control will make infectious disease outbreaks more difficult to detect and manage, increasing the potential for epidemics to break out far beyond their points of origin.

  • Noncommunicable diseases, however— such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and mental illness—will far outpace infectious diseases over the next decades, owing to demographic and cultural factors, including aging, poor nutrition and sanitation, urbanization, and widening inequality.

Converging Trends Will Transform Power and Politics

Together, these global trends will make governing harder while altering what it means to exert power. The number and complexity of issues beyond the scope of any one individual, community, or state to address is increasing— and doing so at a seemingly faster pace than decades ago. Issues once considered long-term will more frequently impose near-term effects. For example, complex, interdependencies like climate change and nefarious or negligent applications of biotechnologies have the potential to degrade and destroy human life. Cyber and information technologies—complex systems on which humans are increasingly dependent—will continue to create new forms of commerce, politics, and conflict with implications that are not immediately understood.

Economic, technological, and security trends are increasing the number of states that can exert geopolitical influence, bringing the unipolar post-Cold War period to a close. The economic progress of the past century has widened the number of states—Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, and Turkey— with material claims to great and middle power status. This opens the door to more actors—and their competing interests and values—seeking to shape international order. Even with profound uncertainties regarding the future of global economic growth, leading forecasters broadly agree that emerging market economies like China and India will contribute a much larger share of global GDP than is currently the case—shifting the focus of the world’s economic activity eastward.

Technology and wealth are empowering individuals and small groups to act in ways that states historically monopolized—and fundamentally altering established patterns of governance and conflict. Just as changes in material wealth challenge the international balance of power, empowered but embattled middle classes in wealthy countries are putting extraordinary pressure on once-established state-society relations, specifically on the roles, responsibilities, and relationships that governments and citizens, elites and masses expect of one another. The reduction of poverty, especially in Asia, has expanded the number of individuals and groups who are no longer focused solely on subsistence but instead wield the power of consumption, savings, and political voice—now amplified by the Internet and modern communications.

  • The ICT revolution placed in the hands of individuals and small groups the information and the ability to exert worldwide influence—making their actions, interests, and values more consequential than ever before.
  • Nonprofits, multinational corporations, religious groups, and a variety of other organizations now have the ability to amass wealth, influence, and a following— enabling them to address welfare and security in ways that may be more effective than those that political authorities wield.
  • Similarly, the increasing accessibility of weapon technologies, combined with effective recruiting and communications, has enabled nonstate groups to upend regional orders.

The information environment is fragmenting publics and their countless perceived realities— undermining shared understandings of world events that once facilitated international cooperation. It is also prompting some to question democratic ideals like free speech and the “market place of ideas.” When combined with a growing distrust of formal institutions and the proliferation, polarization, and commercialization of traditional and social media outlets, some academics and political observers describe our current era as one of “post-truth” or “post-factual” politics. Nefarious attempts to manipulate publics are relatively easy in such contexts, as recent Russian efforts vis-à-vis both Ukraine and the US presidential election, including manipulation of alleged Wikileaks disclosures, demonstrate.

  • Studies have found that information counter to an individual’s opinion or prior understanding will not change or challenge views but instead will reinforce the belief that the information is from a biased or hostile source, further polarizing groups.
  • Compounding matters, people often turn to leaders or others who think like they do and trust them to interpret the “truth.” According to an Edelman Trust Barometer survey, a sizeable trust gap is widening between college-educated consumers of news and the mass population. The international survey reveals that respondents are increasingly reliant on a “person like yourself,” who is more trusted than a CEO or government official.
  • A Pew study from 2014 showed that the highest percentage of trust for a news agency among the US persons polled was only 54 percent. Alternatively, individuals are gravitating to social media to obtain news and information about world and local events.

The power of individuals and groups to block outcomes will be much easier to wield than the constructive power of forging new policies and alignments or implementing solutions to shared challenges, especially when the credibility of authority and information is in question.

  • For democratic governments, this means greater difficulty in setting and communicating a narrative around the common interest. It also complicates implementing policy.
  • For political parties, it heralds a further weakening of their traditional role in aggregating and representing interests to the state. Special interest groups have been rising at the expense of political party membership in the United States since the early 1970s, well before the Internet, but information technology and social networking have reinforced that trend.
  • For authoritarian-minded leaders and regimes, the impulse to coerce and manipulate information—as well as the technical means to do so—will increase.

The Changing Nature of Power

As global trends converge to make governance and cooperation harder, they are changing the strategic context in ways that make traditional, material forms of power less sufficient for shaping and securing desired outcomes. Material power—typically measured through gross domestic product, military spending, population size, and technology level—has always been, and will continue to be, a prime lever of the state. With such might, powerful states can set agendas and summon cooperation—as with the recent Paris climate accords—and even unilaterally impose outcomes, as Russia’s annexation of Crimea attests. Material power does not explain the impact, however, that nonstate actors, like ISIL, have had in shaping the security environment nor the constraints that major state powers have faced in countering such developments. It also does little to compel those who chose the path of non-compliance.

Securing and sustaining outcomes—whether in combating violent extremism, or managing extreme weather—will get harder because of the proliferation of actors who can veto or deny the ability to take action. Growing numbers of state and nonstate actors are deploying new or nontraditional forms of power, such as cyber, networks, and even manipulating the environment, to influence events and create disruption, placing increased constraints on the ability of “materially powerful” states to achieve outcomes at reasonable costs. States and large organizations now confront the increased possibility that those who disagree—whether activists, citizens, investors, or consumers—will exit, withdraw compliance, or protest, sometimes violently. In addition, expanding global connectivity through information and other networks is enabling weaker but well-connected actors to have an outsized impact.

The most powerful actors of the future will be states, groups, and individuals who can leverage material capabilities, relationships, and information in a more rapid, integrated, and adaptive mode than in generations past. They will use material capabilities to create influence and in some instances to secure or deny outcomes. They will demonstrate “power in outcome,” however, by mobilizing large-scale constituencies of support, using information to persuade or manipulate societies and states to their causes. The ability to create evocative narratives and ideologies, generate attention, and cultivate trust and credibility will rest in overlapping but not identical interests and values. The most powerful entities will induce states—as well as corporations, social or religious movements, and some individuals—to create webs of cooperation across issues, while exhibiting depth and balance across their material, relational, and informational capabilities. Sustaining outcomes will require a constant tending to relationships.