How People Think. . .

Ideas and identities define who we are, reflecting individual beliefs about oneself and one’s role in the world.  Beliefs provide moral guidance and a lens through which to understand and navigate the future.  They define who belongs to a community, group, society, state, culture, and civilization—and, critically, who does not.  Although resilient, ideas and identities are not static.  Discrete ideas and identities interact with one another—challenging or reinforcing beliefs about which values matter most and how people should be treated.  Both are also influenced by economic, political, social, technological, and other developments.  Expanding Internet access is likely to increase the salience of global and transnational identities and ideologies—such as religion or ethnic identities in some quarters, as well as secularism and liberalism in others.

People react more strongly to negative ideas than to positive.  Although life expectancy, livelihoods, security, and overall health and wellbeing have improved for most people around the world during the past few decades, most people remain gloomy about the future.  Across the globe a sense of alienation and injustice is fostered, based on real and perceived inequalities, lack of opportunities, and discrimination.  Generations of economists have noted the plusses and minuses of technological and economic developments that have changed the way people work.  Social theorists have highlighted the sense of worth and identity most people derive from work, and the lack of satisfaction—dating to Karl Marx’s “alienation,” if not earlier—that can result when people feel insufficiently engaged by their work.

  • Recognizing that most people need to feel good about their production may help explain growing signs of rejection of the “globalized” economy, facilitated by improved connectivity that fosters on-line communities and constituencies.
  • Even with greater access to more material benefits and technological entertainment and distractions, people may experience a loss of meaning and crave ideas that provide them with a sense of worth. As automation proceeds, one might expect such issues to come to fore in some advanced industrial societies.
  • Everywhere, information and communication technology enables people to connect and develop communities with whom they can share frustrations and anxiety.  However, these same technologies can foster polarization and lower the organizational costs of recruitment and collective action.

It is not clear that economic ideologies, such as socialism and neoliberalism, which had dominated much of the 20th Century until challenged by the collapse of communism and the 2008 financial crisis, will remain relevant in a world in which both low-growth and high levels of inequality dominate political agendas.  Other forms of political thought remain viable alternatives —in particular, nationalism, political liberalism, and religiously-based political thought.

Looking forward, deepening connectivity and the increasing speed of communication will cause ideas and identities to evolve more quickly.  Diasporas will play an increasing role in the shaping of ideas.  Extreme views will more easily find likeminded followers. Especially as Internet access expands in the developing world, shared experiences and identities will likely increase the salience of global and transnational bonds—such as religion or ethnic identities in some quarters, as well as secularism and liberalism in others.

Old ideas and identities will continue to prove resilient.  Nationalism will be prominent in those parts of the world where states or national communities seek to shore up their claims to power in specific geographies—especially as alternative ideas and identities become accessible through Internet connectivity and pose threats to national interests.  Such dynamics will play directly into the geopolitical competition between Western liberalism and authoritarian nationalism in China and Russia.  Conversely, nativism and populism will also rise in the West in response to mass immigration, growing economic inequality, and declining middle-class standards of living.

  • Technology, the expansion of women’s participation in economic and political life, environmental changes, urbanization, migration, and disagreements over the interpretation of religious and other cultural norms will shape each of these trends in the next 20 years.  Whether these drivers encourage exclusive or inclusive attitudes and actions is a key uncertainty.

Major Trends

Transnational Identities Will Become More Powerful.  During the next 20 years, information and ideas will move easily across borders.  Advances in information technologies—whether in the 15th century with the printing press and Gutenberg Bible, or in 1989 with the invention of the World Wide Web—usually facilitate the spread of religious ideas, in part because religions transcend borders and state authority.  Migration and displacement has had similar effects.  Religion has long proven a particularly potent source of tension, and we anticipate that frictions within and between religious groups and between religious and secular communities will increase in many parts of the world.  The spread of information, propagation of ideas, and awareness of conflicting religious beliefs and interpretations contributed in important ways to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th century and to Islamic and other religiously claimed terrorism of today.  The widespread accessibility of information technologies also provides a platform for extreme voices to find followers, support, and sympathizers in cyber space.  Such dynamics are likely to intensify as Internet access deepens in the developing world and as new information technologies like Virtual Reality allow for more seemingly intense and personal experiences and interactions across time and space.

The role of religions.  More than 80 percent of the world is religiously affiliated and high fertility rates in the developing world are increasing that proportion, according to the Pew research center.  As some religious groups push more actively for governments to incorporate religion and its values into law and norms, social and political tension is likely to flare, whether the religious represent the majority or an active minority.  These developments will also incite fears among secular and religious minorities in these countries, potentially fueling exit or rebellion.  Many communities with growing religious affiliation—including in the Middle East and Africa—will expect their governments to incorporate religion and its principles into legislation and government policies.  They often see secularism and disaffiliation as Western ideas that reject God and the value of faith and undermine social coherence.

  • New avenues of religious influence will become geopolitically consequential in areas where traditional secular intermediary organizations—such as trade unions—weaken and other ideological options, such as liberalism, prove unsatisfactory as substitutes.  Many religious organizations—including Catholic Relief Services, Compassion International, and World Vision—are already essential to the delivery of basic public services, humanitarian aid and development.
  • The Catholic Church, with 1.25 billion followers, provides global leadership on issues ranging from peace and conflict to environmental stewardship.  Recently, the Church has addressed issues as diffuse as non-fetal stem cell research and nutrition and food security.  However, established religious organizations—similar to public institutions—will be increasingly scrutinized given the modern communications environment.
  • Competition within and between religious groups is likely to intensify over defining and controlling the faith—much as battles to control political parties have become more personalized and divisive.  In these disputes, radical minority religious activists will often push out moderate voices because dramatic action and anger tend to generate attention and mobilize dissatisfaction better than calls for compromise.  Charismatic and extremist leaders can gain disruptive capabilities, although violent and extremist groups that lack technocratic skill will struggle to provide governance.  Most religious people will not actively support extremism, but passive support or implicit acceptance of extremists will worsen tension between groups, and violent leaders will be acknowledged as actors on the world stage.  Religious divisions will be amplified when regional rivals or other outside patrons support competing sides.  Examples include Iran’s support for Alawites in Syria and Sunni regimes such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey backing their coreligionists.

The role of secularism.  One possible response to intensifying religious violence could be a turn toward secularism or away from religious affiliation in general.  Worldwide, those identifying themselves as religiously “unaffiliated” represent the third-largest grouping after Christians and Muslims, and polls suggest that the number of people not affiliated with religion, although not the percentage, is likely to grow worldwide—especially in the Asia-Pacific, Europe and North America.

  • Even states with high levels of integration between religious and government structures could see moderate growth in disaffiliation and secular ideas.  Opinion polls show a rise in Saudi Arabian citizens who identified as atheists. Tunisia’s ruling Ennahda party recently announced its will identify as Muslim Democrats rather than Islamist, citing in part a sensitivity to the connotations of the latter term.

Geopolitical Competition Will Take a Stronger Ideological Turn.  Liberalism is likely to remain the benchmark model for economies and politics over the coming decades, but it will face stronger competition and demands from publics to address its shortfalls.  Western ideals of individual freedom and democratic action will exert enormous global influence, judging by the aspirations of migrants and dissidents worldwide who are drawn to these principles.  Many developing countries will strive for modernization more or less along Western lines, but the allure of liberalism has taken some strong hits over the years as political polarization, financial volatility, and economic inequality in western countries have stoked populism and caused doubts about the price of political and economic openness.  Governments having trouble meeting the needs of their citizens will be strongly tempted to turn to nationalism or nativism to transfer blame to external enemies and distract from problems at home, while publics fearful of loss of jobs to immigrants or economic hardship, are likely to be increasingly receptive to more exclusive ideologies and identities.

  • The longstanding effects of the crushing of the Arab Spring uprisings include the de-legitimization of the institutions and norms of democracy and degradation of organized institutions for channeling political opposition.  Some disenchanted and traumatized former protesters, many of whom believe the West controls world events and is responsible for their plight, will look for alternatives to the liberal ideals they once supported.
  • Meanwhile, China’s recent economic success and the emergence of other non-Western powers will encourage some countries to consider alternatives to the Western liberal model to achieve their goals of a strong, stable, and modern society, even though China’s harsh repression, shocking levels of pollution, and rising public frustration have long been known.  Evidence that China’s government retains control of the country’s economy and can maintain growth—particularly as Beijing attempts a difficult economic rebalancing—will bolster its appeal as a model.
  • Russia’s uptick in nationalism focuses on ethnic, religious, and linguistic bonds instead of state citizenship, manifested by its invasion of parts of Ukraine, branding of opposition as ‘foreign agents,’ and legislation banning ”homosexual propaganda.” Some regional experts attribute these actions to President Putin’s efforts to create a common sense of purpose in response to loss of power on the world stage and domestic struggles.  Putin lauds Russian culture as the last bulwark of conservative Christian values against European decadence, saying Russia, with its great history, literature, and culture, will resist the tide of multiculturalism.  Russian nationalist aggression is likely to increase under Putin, which will provoke sometimes violent nationalist responses among its neighbors—like in Ukraine and Georgia—and spark feelings of disenfranchisement among ethnic minorities.

Exclusionary Ideas and Identities in Democracies Threaten Liberalism.  Without a return to secure and more-evenly-distributed living standards, economic and social pressures are likely to fuel nativism and populism in the West, risking a narrowing of political communities and exclusionary policies.  A weakening of the rule of law, political tolerance, and political freedoms in the United States and Western Europe—the traditional strongholds of democracy—could delegitimize democratic ideas around the world.  Just as the world is watching the United States and Europe grapple with divisive politics and often uncivil rhetoric in debates over immigration, racial justice, refugees, and the merits of globalization, the world will look to see how India tames its Hindu nationalist impulses, and how Israel balances its ultra-orthodox extremes.  Such dynamics could result in democratic backsliding—as in Hungary and Poland—or a move toward authoritarianism, like in Turkey.  Without a strong response from other stable democracies, this trend is likely to accelerate.

  • Anti-immigrant and xenophobic politics among Western democracies will challenge established parties and complicate their ability to maintain popular appeal and implement inclusive policies that meet the needs of their increasingly diverse populations.  The national and international visibility of divisive populist parties and social movements—and the tendencies of incumbent governments to seek to preempt them with exclusionary policies—could increasingly undermine the global prestige of the Western democracies and their credibility in standing up for liberal values.
  • Racial tension is also likely to play a large role in politics in both developed and developing countries.  With the emergence of information and communication technologies, structural disparities in protection for different groups are becoming more apparent, and perceived violence perpetuated by the state and law enforcement against minority groups is especially likely to incite protest and tension.

Key Choices

Developments in technology, growing gender equality, and urbanization—each manifestations of modernity—will shape the future of family, religion, secularism, nationalism, and especially liberalism.  Each of these poses moral, legal, social, and political challenges that are likely to be navigated according to existing cultural norms that vary by country.  Among the most consequential choices will be how diverse belief communities, societies, and states choose to deal with technology’s potential to manipulate human biology and the environment.  This is likely to generate intense disagreement over what is morally acceptable, and fundamentally challenge traditional definitions of what defines human beings, human groups, and definitions of “self” and “other.”  Developments in technology that enable more people to voice opinions will also serve to highlight differences over societal notions of gender inclusion, urbanization, and changing political participation.

Technology and Life.  How people think about the very nature of life and how people love and hate is likely to be challenged by major technological advances in understanding and efforts to manipulate human anatomy, which will spark strong divisions between people, country and regions.  These developments will spur debates within and between belief communities, potentially leading to even starker distinctions between the religious and secular worlds.  Conflicting pressures on balancing privacy and security interests will have far-reaching consequences for governance, economic competitiveness, and social cohesion.  Key choices in technology will become increasingly political and ideological.

  • Human enhancements.  Technological advances in communications, biology, cognitive science, and pharmacology will increasingly blur the line between natural and enhanced human performance for even basic functions such as memory, vision, hearing, attention, and strength.  Many people probably will embrace such technical enhancements as critical to getting ahead in an increasingly competitive world, but some are likely to resist on moral or ethical grounds—because they are “unnatural,” or not available to the poor.  Differential access to such technologies will reinforce the divide between haves and have-nots.
  • Genetic engineering.  Health experts forecast that biotechnology research could yield breakthroughs against some cancers and other diseases, but expensive and limited early iterations of such methods probably would spark heated disagreements on access to healthcare if the techniques mean the difference between life and death.  Biotechnology is also propelling a broader trend toward personalized medicine, with customized approaches keyed to an individual’s biological and genetic makeup that hold high promise in transforming diagnosis, intervention, and prevention. Again, the ability of the wealthy to harness these technologies for elective procedures will contrast starkly with the developing world’s struggle to control diseases that already have known cures. Finally, advances in genome manipulation may create the potential for “designer babies,” human embryos that reflect a set of pre-selected characteristics based on social preferences—which will call attention to ideas about race and what constitutes an ‘ideal’ person.
  • End-of-life decisions.  As lifespans lengthen, millions more people worldwide will reach 80, 90, or even 100 years of age and beyond.  In the United States, a significant portion of healthcare spending occurs in the last six months of life.  In developing and emerging economies alike, caring for so many senior citizens could overwhelm personal and public budgets and health systems with current retirement ages and benefits.
    • Biotechnologies that extend life may also be made available to enhance the comfort of living, reduce pain, and extend basic human functions in ways that promote individual independence and reduce caregiver burdens.  Housing and public facilities will be designed to incorporate technologies that reduce the risk of falls and facilitate daily tasks for the elderly.  Trends that encourage home care create more options for elderly who choose die at home rather than in a hospital.
    • The demand for capabilities to improve humane choices in confronting death and dying will grow worldwide, including advances in hospice care that mitigates the pain and suffering of the terminally ill and provides psychological support to reduce fear and enable dying with dignity.
  • Privacy and security.  As monitoring and sensing devices become more affordable, ubiquitous and integrated, the line between what is technically possible and what is legally and socially acceptable will be tested.  Tools that determine identity and location could radically alter how work and criminal behavior is tracked, or algorithms that highlight patterns of behavior could be used to “predict” individuals’ health issues, criminal activity, educational potential, or job aptitude.
    • The widespread use of drones in civilian life will also alter the possibilities for privacy and could potentially be harnessed by criminal groups, undermining a sense of security.  Such technologies can also be used to stifle freedoms in authoritarian states.
    • Global governance of common-pool resources such as public health, water, food and other key resources will inevitably challenge current ideas of privacy, control and power.
  • Political participation.  Social media has radically lowered the transaction costs of mobilizing populations, but some social scientists worry that virtual activism will replace more concrete political participation—including voting—diluting the quality of the political process.  Worse, some worry that that new technologies fracture and polarize populations; social media, in particular, typically passes information and ideas through narrow, existing networks to members who self-select, rather than traditional forms of media, which project ideas to a broader audience.  This selective dissemination and receipt of information contributes to reinforcement and confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization.

Education.  Education will be one of the most determinative factors of success for countries and individuals because it determines options for occupations, wages, innovation, and development.  Rapid advances in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, fields in which a large portion of future jobs will reside, require continuous maintenance of skills.  As millions of youth seek education to match employment opportunities—and millions of adults look for continuing education and career training in rapidly evolving fields—alternative models are likely to emerge from a variety of sources.  Large-scale improvements in education access for women and girls will be determinative in improving women’s rights and changing expectations for gender roles.

  • Many states provide basic education to their citizens, but with politically determined—or censored—curricula.  Some regimes use public schools as a way to spread progovernment propaganda and instill a sense of patriotism.  Russia recently expanded efforts to spread pro-Moscow sentiment by building Russian language and cultural centers on campuses of elite universities in the United Kingdom.
  • Companies have an interest in maintaining a highly skilled and current workforce to keep pace with changing technology, and employers seeking to be competitive will include education in benefits packages or require continued education as a condition for employment.  The role of technology in the education process itself will also rise.  Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) are increasingly being used by elite universities and influential companies to train students and employees on a variety of subjects, and AI technologies will make individually customized learning programs routine.

Gender.  Demographic and economic forces are likely to make women’s roles and opportunities a more salient and contentious issue in nearly all countries.  Women will increasingly be included in formal work sectors, public and private leadership, and security planning.  Gender roles and expectations will increasingly be recognized as crucial to economic and security planning.  The trend toward greater equality will continue—if only for economic productivity—but progress will be slow and accompanied by domestic violence and backsliding in some areas where women’s empowerment is not yet socialized.  Some communities will probably revert to patriarchal value structures in the face of insecurity.

  • In the West, businesses are likely to moderately narrow pay and opportunity gaps for women to overcome slowing productivity through inclusion.  Increased visibility of women participating in social, governmental, and economic institutions around the world will provide models for communities where women are not as visible outside traditional gender roles.
  • Increased support for reconciling productive work with reproductive work will open new opportunities for women, as will the movement towards recognizing unpaid family caregiving as a significant labor contribution to society.  These developments will both drive and be driven by public policy and institutions.
  • Improved technology and infrastructure will ease the daily burdens associated with traditional women’s roles, freeing women for formal sector work and education.  However, climate change and associated challenges such as epidemics will affect women profoundly, given their traditional responsibilities for family care work, as would cuts by fiscally pressed governments to social safety-net programs that force elderly or other vulnerable groups to rely on family for support.  States’ implementation of welfare programs and health care will have profound consequences for women’s participation in labor markets.
  • Religious or cultural norms limiting the role of women in the economy are likely to come under pressure—from women seeking greater opportunities for social advancement and the economic need to expand the labor pool to boost productivity.  Issues of family and personal-status law—which directly affect relations between men and women—are likely to be social flashpoints.

Urbanization.  First-generation city dwellers tend to be more religious than the broader population, turning to faith communities for support in the absence of extended family.  This is a dynamic that for Africa and Asia—the most rapidly urbanizing parts of the world—will represent both an opportunity for deepening organized religion and a potential source of religious tension.   Cities also tend to be more diverse, bringing people into contact with one another across cultural lines, potentially becoming a source of conflict.  Rapid city growth will strain infrastructure to support more people, while growing inequality and greater awareness of it within the confines of a city setting are likely to increase social frictions as well.

  • In and around growing cities, religious groups are likely to provide support by “taking care of their own” during times of economic volatility and weak governance, which could alleviate some public needs, but could raise tension with governments and other citizens over authorities and norms.  If religious groups demonstrate they are more effective than the state in meeting basic social needs and providing a sense of identity, justice and moral guidance, their membership and influence are likely to grow—sowing unease and potential resistance by those outside the group.  In religiously plural societies such as Lebanon, this could become a source of further conflict.
  • Urbanization will mix populations together, sharpening competition for jobs and resources and potentially increasing xenophobia against new groups in the short term—but typically promoting integration and acceptance in the long term.  Cities can create peculiar combinations of tolerance and intolerance for diversity.  Commingling groups can improve familiarity and tolerance, but working across cultural lines also has the potential to change perceptions of liberalism, including acceptance of human rights norms.  Academic literature suggests migration can transfer norms on human rights issues when people move to a society with increased attention to human rights—leading those people to view standards in their home country as unacceptable.  These views on what is acceptable behavior are often transferred back home even if migrants do not physically return.
  • Rapid urbanization also will probably spur political mobilization by boosting resentment for the status quo in cities and spawning new social and political movements, as they long have done.
  • Meanwhile, governments will reassess how to deal with minority demands for more rights and influence if those groups can raise the political costs of excluding them, or if political parties need to appeal across cultural lines for support.  In countries with small minorities, ruling governments have had little incentive to cater to groups outside their core constituency.  Governments also may be tempted to direct ire toward minorities to whip up their base.  However, as minority groups grow or become more skilled at exerting influence—through political, social, economic, or violent means—government leaders will find it more difficult to calibrate the line between resisting or accommodating minority demands.

How leaders and media portray diversity and adapt policies to incorporate changing populations will greatly influence how inclusive or exclusive identities will become during the next 20 years.  Influential groups, including the young and religious organizations, have the potential to shape the wider population.  According to polls and studies, younger populations tend to be more exposed to diverse groups and think diversity is natural, including connectivity and ties to people who are not geographically close.  Generations growing into maturity and political activity during the next 20 years are likely to redefine definitions of communities.

  • Studies have shown that public perceptions and media portrayal of violence has a greater influence on fear than the actual risk or threat.  Because of highly publicized terrorist attacks in places that have not recently seen violent conflict, international discrimination against Muslims and others from the Middle East and North Africa—who are largely perceived to be Muslim, whether they are or not—will continue in most non-Muslim majority countries.
  • A fundamental aspect of a culture is its view of the proper relationship between men and women; this issue is likely to catalyze social conflict when groups with differing views on women’s status are combined.

Competing silos of information and perspectives of truth and fact among proliferating influential actors are poised to complicate governments’ ability to generate compromise.  A combination of factors, including growing distrust of formal institutions and the proliferation and polarization of media outlets, are driving some academics and political observers to describe the current era as one of ‘post-truth” or “post-factual” politics.  This results in part from the growing number of individuals and agencies providing information to consumers.  Whether this atmosphere continues, or people and political groups adjust to growing flows of communication and trend back toward more-balanced perspectives, will be crucial in coming years.

  • As a result of this “post-factual” trend, individuals appear more likely to base their political views more on feelings than on fact and to seek out information that supports their opinions.  Conflicting information actually reinforces views that the new information is from a biased or hostile source and further polarizes groups.
  • To interpret the deluge of details, people turn to leaders who think like they do and trust them to interpret the ‘truth.’  According to the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer survey, a sizeable trust gap is widening between college-educated consumers of news and the mass population; the survey showed respondents are increasingly reliant on a “person like yourself,” and that these like-minded people are more trusted than CEOs or government officials.
  • A Pew study from 2014 showed that the highest percentage of trust for any single news agency among US persons polled was only 54 percent. Instead, individuals gravitate to social media to obtain news and to respond to events.