What Will the World Look Like in 2030?

One thing is certain: The next decade will look very different from what most people expect.

An illustration of a crystal ball with a spinning beach ball loading on top.
Sashkin/Shutterstock/Arsh Raziuddin/The Atlantic

In its first few weeks, the new decade has already brought a number of big surprises. Events such as Qassem Soleimani’s assassination and Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a new Russian constitution, which few political observers would have predicted in the last days of 2019, are reshaping the world.

When people imagine the future, they tend to assume that most things will stay the same, or that the trends of the recent past will continue in a linear fashion. But the world today looks very different than people expected it to look in 2010. And one thing that is virtually certain about this coming decade is that the world by 2030 will look very different from what most expect today.

This is a good reason to look ahead to the next 10 years with an eye for the unexpected. Although making firm predictions is always a foolhardy endeavor for political scientists, raising plausible outcomes that, from the current vantage point, may seem inconceivable is often clarifying.

In this spirit, here are 10 possible developments for the next 10 years.

1) Crisis of Populist Dictatorships

In the past several years, populists in countries such as Brazil and the United States, and India and the Philippines, have won high office by promising to return power to the people. Instead of fulfilling that pledge, they have concentrated more power in their own hands—attacking independent institutions and undermining free speech.

The longer these leaders stay in office, the more the effects of their misrule will be felt by ordinary citizens in their everyday lives. As examples in Turkey and Venezuela have shown, government officials may start telling teachers what they should say in the classroom. Citizens hoping to do something as simple as renew a driver’s license may have to pay a bribe. The economy may suffer as experts cease to have any influence on decision making.

And under stress, ordinary people may decide they’ve had enough, and stand up to their governments.

2) Fading Importance of Social Media

People spend an enormous amount of time and attention on social media today. But the real reason some platforms now influence everything including the contours of public discourse and the American presidential election is not that your cousin is addicted to Instagram; it is that key decision makers mistake the opinions of a small number of politically engaged—and ideologically extreme—people on social media for the views of the general public.

In decades past, newspaper editors knew that cranks and extremists were more likely to submit letters than average readers; they therefore took their opinions with a large grain of salt. Today, decision makers are obsessed with the modern-day descendants of those cranks. The recognition that Twitter and similar platforms do not represent the real world, however, might lessen the political influence of social media.

3) Cost of Housing Stagnates

One of the most remarkable trends of the past few decades has been the rapid increase in housing costs in the world’s major metropolitan areas. Rich investors desperate for profitable investment opportunities have helped drive the purchase prices of apartments to historic heights. In cities like New York, many luxury apartments now stand empty.

The recent pace of appreciation can’t be sustained for long. Though prices are unlikely to come down, their growth may slow considerably.

4) Young People Become Less Political

During the 2010s, young people were very politically engaged. Many of them were aghast at the rise of far-right populism and deeply concerned about inaction in the face of climate change. Thanks to social media, they could easily give voice to that anger. So the assumption that young people will continue to be highly political is tempting.

But in the past, many periods of political engagement were followed by calmer intervals. The student activists of the 1960s and ’70s, for example, were succeeded by the yuppies of the ’80s and the apolitical ironists of the ’90s. So it is just as likely that the current tide of engagement will start to ebb, with many young people slowly disengaging from politics.

5) The Rise of “Moderate” Populists

In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson has shown that anti-establishment populists can succeed by adopting moderate positions on culture and the economy, promising to spend more money on social services, and putting together a comparatively diverse cabinet. This creates a blueprint for a form of “moderate” populism—one that still assails (some) democratic institutions, but rejects the more extremist views on race and culture that are commonly associated with far-right candidates. If he succeeds in Britain, the populists of the next 10 years may look more like Johnson and less like Donald Trump.

6) Rising Wages for the Low-Skilled

For years, incomes in many developed democracies have risen for those at the top but not for those at the bottom. This differential has made many citizens deeply pessimistic about their country’s economic future.

But in the United States, this trend is now reversing. Wages started to rise across the board as the economy reached full employment in the last few years. In fact, in 2019, wages for low-wage earners rose about twice as fast as those for high-wage earners. If other developed democracies start to enjoy a similarly high level of employment—and sympathetic governments encourage a wage hike for those who most need it—the wages of the low-skilled may continue to rise more quickly than they have in the recent past.

7) Post-Woke

The 2010s ushered in what some commentators are calling the “Great Awokening.” Especially in the United States, white leftists embraced more radical views on identity than they had in the past. But while this change helped push deep systemic injustices to the forefront of public attention, it also gave prominence to some ideas that are unlikely to meet with wide approval. According to a number of “woke” writers, for example, forms of mutual cultural influence, such as a cook from one country preparing food from another, or dresses being inspired by traditional clothing, amount to unacceptable “cultural appropriation.”

Throughout the past several months, a broad array of left-wing figures—including Dave Chappelle and Barack Obama—have criticized some aspects of the Great Awokening. Perhaps this was inevitable: As these positions gain in power, more people start to pay attention to them, and their illiberal nature becomes harder to ignore. Once exposed, these views may start to fade from the public discourse.

8) Conservatives Become More Diverse

In most countries, including Germany and the United States, immigrants and religious minorities are more likely to vote for left-wing parties. In one sense, this is surprising: Immigrants tend to be socially conservative. In another, it is completely unsurprising: Many right-wing parties have driven minorities away by tolerating, appeasing, or even courting racists.

Most political observers assume that this trend will continue in the coming decades; in America, many political scientists even predict that the Democrats will eventually have an all-but-certain electoral majority because of the growth in the nonwhite share of the population. If conservative parties have any sense of self-interest, they will finally start to build a broader tent. And if they manage to appeal to immigrant voters with conservative values—perhaps by adopting the kind of comparatively moderate populism pursued by Johnson—Western politics may become less racially polarized.

9) Global Financial Inequality Falls

The wealth distribution in affluent democracies such as Denmark and Canada has become far more unequal over the past few decades. But across the world as a whole, income inequality has actually been shrinking: Because the incomes of poor people in India or China have grown much more rapidly than those of affluent people in Sweden or Australia, the world is more equal now than it was 10 years ago.

So long as parts of Asia and Africa can continue on their recent growth trajectories, this trend is likely to continue in the coming decade.

10)  Liberal Democracy Regains Its Allure

The 2010s have shown that liberal democracy is in need of serious repair. If developed democracies look less stable now than they once did, that’s in part because their citizens are far less satisfied with their political systems than they were a few decades ago.

But while democracies may be less stable, dictatorships remain unlikely to provide a true alternative, as I noted above. It may, then, not be too much to hope that the two basic values of liberal democracy—individual freedom and collective self-determination—will look stronger in 10 years than they do now.