The United States in 100 Years, A Prediction

Dan Bryan, December 17 2014

An artist imagines the future in 1900 (click for source).

What will the United States look like in 100 years?

As 2015 approaches, I have taken the time to perform a thought experiment on important areas of society and how they might look a century from now. Cynicism and pessimism abound about the United States and its future, particularly in the wake of the recession from 2007-09 and its aftermath. There is also a lot of pessimism today about race relations and demographics, income and wealth inequality, women's safety, the threat of global warming, the U.S. deficit and size of government, the potential for a police state, and other issues.

These are legitimate concerns to be vigilant against, but in the sweep of history they are very minor compared to what the United States has dealt with throughout the past. I believe that the level of prosperity in the 21st century will be fantastic. Thus, this article is largely an argument for optimism about the future, and the promise of the United States specifically.

In each section below, I will take a moment to compare how things were, more or less, in 1915 compared to today, and what we might expect in 2115. Of course, predicting the future is always an imprecise endeavor. Here is just a short list of quaint (yet often prescient) predictions for the 20th century that were made in 1900:

Autos and sidewalks, as envisioned in 1900. (click for source)
  • John Elfreth Watkins, Jr.

    • "Automobiles will be cheaper than horses are today. Farmers will own automobile hay-wagons, automobile truck-wagons, plows, harrows and hay-rakes."
    • "Giant guns will shoot twenty-five miles or more, and will hurl anywhere within such a radius shells exploding and destroying whole cities."
    • "Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later... Photographs will reproduce all of Nature‚Äôs colors."
    • "No Mosquitoes nor Flies. Insect screens will be unnecessary. Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been practically exterminated."
  • The Boston Globe

    • "Most of the baseball cranks of today are confident that the national game will continue to hold its prestige through the coming century, and that it is likely to be played at night as well as by day."
    • "The pneumatic tube service, by the way, will have reached its perfection long before the first half of the new century has flown. It will have become a most important factor in the domestic life of the people which also will have undergone great changes."

So what predictions have we for the next hundred years?

Economics

In spite of two World Wars and a Depression unlike any in the 19th century, the 20th century saw an unprecedented expansion of prosperity. While estimates are approximate, the U.S. GDP per capita in 1915 was about $8,984 in 2014 dollars1. It is estimated to be around $54,678 in 2014. If there is modest annual growth of around 2% for the next century, the GDP per capita in 2115 will be around $400,000. This is a level that is obviously quite prosperous, if not preposterous. Just as the economic growth since 1915 has revolutionized our own society, so too will the society of the future be affected. It is doubtful that the changes would even be recognizable to someone from our time.

In specific areas, there are entire sectors of the economy which barely existed 100 years ago. Computing and the internet is a subject unto itself, but even appliances like washing machines, dishwashers, refrigeration, air conditioning, and televisions were undeveloped or poorly developed. Food cost an average family around 40% of their income, and clothing another 20%. Much food and clothing were self-produced to reduce these expenses, which took time and imposed tedium onto everyday life. A lot of this tedium was shunted onto women and children. The prosperous classes avoided it by shunting it onto domestics, who formed an entire class of low-paid women's labor through the early 20th century. By our current time, food and clothing combined have dropped to under 20% of the average income.

A GDP of $400,000 per capita will grossly understate the increase in actual prosperity and quality of life for most Americans. One thing that is bound to occur is the increased virtualization of society which is today in its infancy. For instance, the country of Denmark has been entirely replicated in the game of Minecraft. A century from now, it will be the entire universe and many fictional universes to boot. Thus an entire virtual life will be possible. This will greatly enhance the life satisfaction of most people, yet it will contribute little to the measure of GDP. In fact, the concept of GDP will itself be seen as archaic by 2115.

The cost of most items and services will be almost nothing compared to our current levels, and by the logic of GDP they will thus contribute almost nothing to the numerical measure of prosperity. For instance, in the field of 3D printing many things which today cost hundreds or thousands of dollars might be printed out for negligible cost a century from now and might even be called "necessities" by some. These printed items will contribute little to the nominal measure of GDP. But in the actual effect on everyday life, the technological advancement will have contributed immense benefits.

As for the environment, nearly all of our energy will come from solar and renewables (probably within the next 25 years), and technologies will be developed to regulate the content of carbon in the air. While carbon levels are higher today than in 1915, the air itself is of better quality (in places like the U.S. or U.K.). This trend will thankfully continue. It is only a matter of time until we nearly eliminate carbon emissions and slowly heal the atmosphere of planet earth.

It is true that growth in GDP does not always make its way into the broader society efficiently -- that income inequality ensures that only the top strata of society enjoy the benefits of growth. While sometimes the case, there are two points to make in this regard.

First of all, political movements on behalf of the working class have frequently served to correct the most egregious inequalities. The Great Depression led to overwhelming Democratic majorities, which led in turn to 30 years of new programs to increase wages and build social programs. This type of thing could surely happen in the future, if enough people felt aggrieved at their economic lot. Many millions of contented conservatives in the 1920s switched their vote to the other side when circumstances changed, so current voting patterns do not offer a clear path to what might happen in the future. Just because this does not happen as quickly as most liberals would like it to when there are economic problems, does not mean that it is not eventually a factor.

Secondly, GDP per capita gives a raw number, but it's not entirely correct to say that somebody who makes $100,000/year is three times as well off as somebody who makes $33,000. For example, the price of basic necessities such as running water, electricity, reliable food, clothing, and so on has fallen greatly in the past century. Yet these things provide utility far beyond the dollar amount of their cost. A prosperous person may spend $5,000 on a trip to France or Japan. A less prosperous person may spend $500 on electricity in that same year. However, in this scenario the vacation does not provide 10 times the utility or happiness in life as having reliable electricity does. Although many people tend to underestimate the importance of low-level essentials, it seems reasonable to value reliable electricity 1,000 times more than any vacation I can conjure up in my imagination.

In short, even if inequality might be much "worse" than today, being "poor" in 2115 will be better than being "rich" in 2015. Just as if you compare today to 1915. After all, many "rich" people in 1915 did not have electricity or reliable hot water. Just as today many "rich" people do not have nanobot-enhanced immune systems, reliable defenses against Alzheimer's, 3D printed automobiles, or healthy fulfilling relationships enhanced by virtual reality.

1 - This states a 1915 GDP per capita of $4,964 in 1990 U.S. Dollars. This converts $100 1990 U.S. Dollars to $184.81 2014 U.S. dollars.

Computing and Artificial Intelligence

Modern computers did not exist in 1915. Thus, most any computing in place today represents an infinite improvement from what we had a century ago. Yet by 2115, we can expect such improvements as to make today and 1915 look similar by comparison.

We are the cusp of a great era of artificial intelligence. This will synchronize with every other aspect of life, improving all of them.

Take transportation as one example. Transportation will be self-controlled, automated, and optimized to reduce cost, energy, and collisions to almost zero. Most people are aware of self-driving cars, and their commercial implementations are sure to arrive over the next decade. The savings in human time and labor (think cab drivers and the like) from this innovation alone will be immense. People who spend an hour or more commuting each day will have that time available for self-edification or entertainment. Additionally, about 33,000 lives will be saved each year from the end of traffic accidents, not to mention the myriad serious but non-fatal injuries that many others suffer. Savings to the economy from this improvement alone could be $300 billion per year or more.

Moreover, once cars are automated, it surely won't be long until trucks, trains, buses, ships and airplanes follow suit. Of course this will revive the age-old debate about technology and employment, but the overall increase to societal prosperity will win out. A quarter of trucking costs are from driver salaries, for instance, which finds its way into higher prices today for anything shipped via that method.

Another area is augmented or virtual reality. One could argue that Homer and Sophocles presented a form of virtual reality long before the dawn of the United States, but as we know it today virtual reality did not exist in 1915 and is still in its infant stages. However, by 2115 we will probably reach a point where the virtualization of the world is so convincing that it may well replace much of the real world in everyday experience. Even more prevalent will be various forms of augmented reality. It is speculation to make statements on exactly how this will work, but the creativity of humanity and A.I. will find uses that are unforeseeable to persons of the present day.

What utility might virtual reality have, beyond mere escapism? Perhaps these virtual worlds can offer economic simulations, with perfect data, that are so accurate that real-world economic policy will be nearly infallible. Any number of medical, behavioral, or psychological trials could be set up in ways that are impossible or unethical to attempt in the physical world. Collectively these will impart a vast amount of new knowledge to humanity.

Another benefit may be the final decoupling of relationships and geography. People often drift apart because they are bound by economic reality2, and with our current technology it is only practical to maintain frequent contact with a small number of people. However, less time spent working and drastically better communications will make it possible to form and maintain close friendships with people on the other side of the world (not through the primitive forms of today, but through actual, three-dimensional virtual interaction). Group interactions will become much more practical as well, so four people on four different continents could easily hang out for an evening, as if they lived in the same city or the same building. Furthermore, virtual humans and robots could also be intelligent enough to form real companions. There are any number of forms that such technology could take. The psychological benefits of feeling more integrated with a community and having deeper relationships are hard to overestimate. They will likely make today's social norms look cold and atomistic by comparison.

2 - To wit, "As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other... This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added." In this quote, "external conditions" I take to mean the demands of making a living and raising a family.

Health and Nutrition

In 1915, it was still not entirely known what a vitamin was. Antibiotics had not been discovered. The average life expectancy was around 55 years. Almost 10% of infants died at birth and the maternal mortality rate was nearly 1% (900 per 100,000 live births). Even if someone was informed and did desire to eat a balanced diet, most fruits and vegetables were only available during limited times of the year.

Infant Mortality Rate from 1915(click for source)

The trend of improvement in human health since those days will continue and even accelerate. Human longevity will be stretched to its limits. Vaccines and antivirals will continue to advance in sophistication. We should see great if not total progress in the prevention of cancer. We should also see a replacement emerge for traditional antibiotics. All of this could happen through the benefits of nanotechnology or from other as yet unknown inventions. The fields of medical research in our time are far too myriad for any one person to remain conversant in.

Some theorists have speculated on ways that the aging process itself could be halted or reversed. Who is to say if there is scientific validity to such predictions? Certainly if they did come to fruition then the entire nature of child-bearing, population growth, and so on would be overturned. An entirely new set of laws and social norms would need to be created.

Let's assume a more incremental scenario. One where longevity continues to increase and where we discover cures and preventions for cancer, Alzheimer's, heart disease, and so on. This will certainly lead to a much older society. Other conditions might emerge that cause older people to languish, or we may cure the diseases listed above without a commensurate solution for the natural decay or the muscular and skeletal systems. Perhaps people of a certain age will live almost entirely in virtual reality systems, tended to and monitored by humanoid robots in a situation vastly better than that of today's rest homes and hospitals.

The diet of a person in 2115 will bear scant resemblance to the diet of today. Synthetic meats, better tasting than the animal versions, are likely to be perfected soon. This will greatly reduce the environmental problems associated now with the factory farm system, probably reduce the cost of "meat" to a fraction of today's levels, and improve health by reducing obesity, gout, heart disease, and other fruits of the affluent diet. The same might be said for vegetables and other foods. Even pastries could be engineered to have high nutritional content and improved taste as the science of chemistry advances. Comfort foods such as fried chicken, cupcakes, creme brulee, chocolate, and so on could be manipulated to have the salubrious qualities of carrots or spinach.

Manipulation of the food supply is just one area where we have barely started making progress. Manipulating the human genome and body will be even more central to our advancement. The process of human evolution will become semi-controlled and greatly accelerated. Already there is debate on how far this should be taken. However, in a century this debate will look outmoded, much as we now look at etiquette books from the early 1900s as amusing relics of a past era. For instance, 30,000 Americans now suffer from cystic fibrosis with drastic reductions to lifespan and quality of life (here is an example of possible treatment). If two parents were known to be at risk for having a child with this disease, and there was a clear way to prevent it, then it's very hard to see how abstract concerns could possibly stand up to that reality.

In addition to disease prevention, the human genome could be manipulated to store less fat, grow more muscle, create more neuron connections, and so on. It's beyond my capabilities to speculate where this would lead over the course of an entire century. But I do predict changes that will make the default human body a picture of health, instead of a pre-agricultural relic.

Assisted suicide and euthanasia will also be commonplace among the very old, once the human body outlives the limits of medical intervention. Already there is a clear shift in favor of the practice, and away from traditional objections to it. Indeed, this is one area where medical practice and law have not caught up with the desires of a clear majority of Americans, based on current polling. Euthanasia would greatly reduce the suffering from disease over the final months and/or years of a person's life. It will also greatly reduce the cost of medical care in this country and will be seen as a way to economize as large numbers of elderly are pushed into the system (many medical expenses are accrued in the final months of life). I myself speculate (at 29 years old) that the most likely cause of my own demise will be medically sanctioned euthanasia in my old age.

Demographics

The idea of distinct, well-defined ethnicities will become increasingly untenable in the United States. Not because of our own enlightenment, but because individuals with heritage from two, three, four, five, or six different areas of the world will become commonplace and destroy the current system of classification.

Racial relations were rather straightforward in the United States of 1915. Around 90% of the population was white, 10% was black, and the latter group was largely held prostrate. Almost all blacks lived in the South -- the Great Migration being in its infancy -- and elsewhere they were kept out of many jobs and trades by the solidarity of various white ethnic groups. The nation was a few years away from incidents like the Tulsa Race Riots and other post-World War I disturbances, but the animus was well in place. In the South itself, outside of a small middle class, most blacks worked on farms as tentants in a a system that was structured to ensure indebtedness. Those attempting to move elsewhere or deemed objectionable for whatever reason could be arrested and put to work in prison-labor boondoggles for indeterminate stretches of time. There were about 1,500 recorded lynchings of blacks in the 20 years before 1915.

The nation was overwhelmingly white, but "white" as a concept was much less expansive than it came to be. Most people still lived amongst their European subgroups, such that there were Anglo, Scots-Irish, German, Irish, Italian, Swedish, Jewish, Polish, and other groups with their own preferred regions, cities, and neighborhoods. To wit, "The idea of an inclusive whiteness is arguably a 20th century concept, perhaps not gaining wide acceptance until the 1930s-1940s."

In contrast, 1915 was the year in which Madison Grant's book The Passing of the Great Race was first published, in which the tension between different white ethnic groups is clearly evidenced.

Today these various groups of white ethnics have so intermarried over the generations that many white Americans have a vague sense of their foreign ancestry. How many times have you heard someone say, "I'm a little bit Italian and German, and there's some Polish mixed in." or whatever else? As time passes this will apply to all Americans in general, and not just to descendants of the white ethnic immigrants. Indeed, when viewing people's ancestries by self-stated country of origin, rather than simply "white", the largest group (Germans) has less then 50 million inhabitants.

Exactly 50 years ago the immigration system was overhauled with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 with the result that 5.3% of the nation is now Asian and 17.1% is Hispanic. The American Indian population has also begun to recover from a level of almost zero in 1915. People from all of these groups intermingle to at least some degree, with the result that individuals of more than one race are steadily increasing in prevalence. Currently the national total is 2.9%, and closer to 5% for people under 18. The higher this percentage, the more quickly its growth will continue to increase, since the children of any multiracial person will automatically be multiracial themselves. I believe at bare minimum that 50% of Americans will be multiracial by 2115, with the remaining percentage widely scattered amongst what new immigrant and isolated homogenous groups are left.

U.S. Demographics by Age(click for source)

While there are numerous examples of multi-ethnic societies throughout world history, in this particular case we now have significant populations from every region of the globe. While some people will certainly still be all white, all black, all Hispanic, and so on, the mainstream of American society will be a 22nd century melting pot of ethnicities and nationalities unlike anything we see today. Even a country like modern-day Brazil will seem homogenous in comparison. In fact, the magnitude is likely to be unparalleled by anything in the history of mankind.

The level of inter-ethnic strife is not remotely comparable to 100 or even 50 years ago, if one uses metrics such as the frequency of riots or the number of people killed in racial violence. It will continue to decline through the 21st century to the point that today will look raw and contentious. To put things in perspective, as recently as 1967-68 hundreds of people were killed in large urban race riots. Any one of the Newark, Detroit, Chicago, or Watts riots resulted in more loss of life than every riot put together in the United States thus far in the 21st century. In another example, only 4% of Americans approved of black-white marriages in 1958. By 2013, 87% did. Amongst people 18-29, there is a 96% approval rate of such unions.

As to the average age and distribution of ages in society, we can ascertain with certainty that the population will be getting older for the next few years. Probably at some point this will stabilize. Fertility will continue to decline and this will certainly make the United States of 2115 a rather old society by modern standards. The total U.S. population will also peak and begin to decline, with rippling effects on the economy, education, finance, real estate, care of the elderly, and gender relations.

Politics

I hesitate to predict which specific coalitions will emerge, what the level of federal spending will be, and so on with particular issues -- just because it is barely possible to predict which party will be ascendent two years from now, let alone a hundred.

However, I am comfortable making a couple of broad predictions. First is that the parties will be less polarized by race and ethnicity a century from now. This is in line with the fact that the United States itself will be much more multiracial and less segregated than it is today.

I also believe that there will be much more cooperation in international organizations, if not the outright unification of countries with similar attributes and values. It is entirely possible that the United States and Canada will be one country in a hundred years. I wouldn't be completely surprised to learn that most of the countries of North America will unite and perhaps merge with the European Union and other advanced economies, as a precursor to one global government. This will be one of the great political debates as time moves forward -- how far to take this and how it reconciles with the current U.S. Constitution. Ideally, the U.S. Constitution itself would become the foundation of a more global system of government, with new countries and territories simply joining the U.S. as new states. But of course, I say that as an American. Keep in mind that world maps change quickly over time, and that such countries as Austria-Hungary, The Ottoman Empire, and Persia still existed in 1915.

I also believe there will be no major wars in the 21st century even approaching those of the 20th. In spite of high-profile actions in Syria, the world today is probably at its most peaceful state in all of human history. Even Africa has seen a marked decline in conflict just compared to 20 years ago. All of this because as people become ever-more interdependent, the logic of war ceases to make sense.

Battle deaths since 1900Battle deaths since 1900. (click for source)

Finally, I believe that social spending will increase in absolute size, while being smaller in proportion to the overall economy. As the level of prosperity increases past a certain point, the logic for such programs will wane. Simultaneously, the number of truly impoverished will shrink to the point that more expansive interventions in individual cases will become practical. We will probably see some implementation of a guaranteed minimum income, which may even replace some of our unwieldy social programs and departments. This seems like a natural way to assuage the concerns of excessive inequality, and it may even be seen as a universal right someday.

Gender

Women could not vote in 1914 and were not largely accepted into most professions. The most typical paid jobs for women were domestic help, textile and factory work, teaching, and probably prostitution. It was a very unusual woman who was able to break into the fields of law and medicine, or even find work in an office environment. 90% or more of married women did not work outside the home at all. The average woman had 3-4 children and basic items like tampons had yet to be invented. Domestic violence was likely much more common -- indeed the mitigation of spousal abuse was a reason why many women's activists supported Prohibition at its outset.

Percent of Married Women in the Workforce(click for source)

There was a very sharp divide between respectable women, who remained demure until matrimony, and loose women. Prostitution was probably more common (although it's always hard to tell for sure), but the stain of this profession offered no chance of social redemption to the women involved. Romantic and social norms were enforced by practices such as having chaperones present during a courtship. In 1915, it was still a mark of low upbringing for a woman to appear alone in public after dusk. The clientele of bars was almost entirely male, and women generally could not smoke or use profanity in public without great scorn.

All of the trends since this time point in a single direction. Fewer children and less pressure to have them. More economic, intellectual, social, and sexual freedom. More equality between the sexes. And a lower frequency of marriage, plus a greater frequency of divorce. These trends will continue. Monogamy will slowly be seen as a mark of conservatism. Name changes will be seen as a loss of autonomy, and as a quaint, regressive practice. Non-traditional relationships will take up an ever-greater portion of the total.

As for birth control, it will be widespread for both genders and much more reliable than current forms. Abortion will be legalized, but it will be largely irrelevant. When people do wish to have children, there will be genetic engineering that will filter out rare conditions and select for intelligence, attractiveness, and so on. Because of this, any average person on the street, from either gender, will be roughly as intelligent as a Harvard Professor, and as attractive as a Hollywood star. Businesses and industries which prey on insecurity (cosmetics, weight loss, male enhancement, hair replacement, etc.) will have to adapt to such an environment. In romance and dating, people will relate to other much more as human beings when there is equality of physical attractiveness and a lack of objectification. This will apply to men and women both.

The concept of gender itself will become much more fluid, as has become the trend in recent years. There will probably be many nuances to this which do not reveal themselves to the contemporary eye of 2015.

This victory for the norms of the future won't be absolute. Many people of course will eschew such social changes, just as many people today live with self-styled "traditional" values. But the rejection will not be complete. Even most "traditional" couples today would have been considered quite radical by the standards of 1915. Few couples today are so conservative that they don't allow the wife to drive a car. Few couples of any persuasion are all that scandalized by shows like Everybody Loves Raymond or movies like Titanic or Million Dollar Baby, any of which would have been sensational fare a century ago. Even couples who are quite conservative likely dated without a chaperone. And there were no married women in 1915 who were nationally-known conservative politicians, such as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Nikki Haley, and so on. In fact, there was not a single member of the House or Senate in 1915 who was female.

In much the same way, look to the most forward-thinking couples of today, fast-forward a century, and you will be looking at people who are well behind the times when it comes to social norms and gender equality.

What Can Go Wrong?

The sea level might rise by several feet. There will be financial crises and depressions. Perhaps riots. Serious issues with water distribution. Civil wars in the world at large. Natural disasters. Random acts of violence. Terrorism. Serial killers. Congenital liars in the White House. Government policies and laws that strike the fear of tyranny into some group or another. Everything we've come to accept as normal. These things will not go away, for there were always be problems.

But these issues are trivial in comparison to the progress of the past century. If you could show the United States today to an average American from 1914, they might well die of shock. Yet the progress of our next century will leave our age old companions of poverty, violence, disease, war, and genocide even further in the dust.

This list is not meant to be all-inclusive, because attempting such a task would be impossible. One or more things I have stated above will certainly turn out to be wrong. Far more than any specific prediction, I hope that the overall message is that the benefits of the internet age have barely started, and that the progress of the 21st century will lift billions out of poverty and starvation, and into the realm of actualized human beings with fulfilling lives. For today we live in the most promising and exciting era in the history of mankind, enjoying the ultimate fruits of the democratic, Constitutional system of government.

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About the Author

Dan Bryan

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy.

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