Have we sown the seeds of dystopia?

Lee Howell

476px Hans Holbein d. J. 065 238x300 Have we sown the seeds of dystopia?The word dystopia refers to a fictitious place in which everything has gone awry. It is the flip side of utopia, the word coined by Sir Thomas More in his fictional portrayal of a seemingly ideal society. Although such ideas have fascinated novelists ever since More’s musings in the 16th century, there is now reason to fear that we are sowing the seeds of a variety of dystopia which is all too real.

One of the main findings of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2012 report, published today, is that experts are concerned that fiscal and demographic trends could combine to reverse the gains brought by globalization, creating a fragmented, dystopian future. Population growth and chronic fiscal imbalances – or the inability of countries to pay down their debts – are highlighted as two key, interconnected risks which could cause a slide in living standards across the world.

The reality is already challenging. In the two years following the liquidity crisis of 2008, some 27 million people lost their jobs. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, many countries have experienced increases in rates of poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, divorce, domestic violence and child neglect. As the Forum’s new report highlights, it is impossible to disentangle one type of risk from another: economic crises swiftly feed into social crises in today’s interconnected world.

Looking ahead, social and economic threats are evolving differently across developed, emerging and poor countries. In developed countries, such as those in Western Europe and North America, and Japan, the social contract that has in recent decades been taken for granted – a better life for those who work hard, educate themselves and contribute to society – is in danger of being torn up. Workers nearing retirement fear cutbacks in entitlements like pensions and healthcare; young people must support a swelling elderly population while battling unemployment and bearing the brunt of austerity measures.

In emerging economies, the challenge is different: countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China are rushing to take advantage of a demographic window of opportunity before their populations age rapidly. But swift economic growth has fuelled an impatient expectation that a rising tide will lift all boats – despite gaping inequalities and social inequities. Meanwhile, in the world’s poorest countries, rapidly increasing populations of young people are growing up in extremely vulnerable circumstances, and overcrowded cities risk becoming powder kegs of discontent.

A global trend that links these three contexts is an increasing awareness and anger in the face of inequality. Rapid urbanization – along with increased Internet access – makes the gulf in living standards between rich and poor more immediately visible to more people.

There is a case that income disparity can spur achievement when social mobility works. However, when ambitious and industrious young people around the world feel that no matter how hard they work their prospects are grim, strong feelings of powerlessness and disengagement can take root, bringing us closer to a dystopian future. The wave of protests in 2011 should by now have been heard as a clarion call to stop the spread of the seeds of dystopia.

The 21st century must not allow for the emergence of a new breed of fragile states. These would be formerly healthy economies which, though not wrecked by war, would descend into lawlessness and unrest as they became unable to meet their long established social and fiscal obligations. In the streets would be ageing citizens lamenting the loss of social entitlements; joining them would be their grandchildren, furious at the collapse of their opportunities.

This storyline can still be changed. Even with today’s austerity, the world has at its disposal the human resources to manage its ageing populations and to ensure that scores of youth do not feel that the opportunities presented by economic growth are beyond their grasp. To make this happen, society needs a new kind of leadership that moves beyond managing short-term crises, and instead addresses the structural challenges of the world’s changing demographic with vision and values.

While the seeds of dystopia may be sown differently across developed, emerging and least developed economies, the experts who contributed to Global Risks 2012 suggest that solutions for each case may be surprisingly similar – improving leadership, providing youth with the relevant skills for future employment and boosting labour market mobility in a safe and well-managed way.

This way out, however, requires our leaders to demonstrate foresight and courage to prevent populist, nationalist and protectionist policies from taking hold.

Lee Howell is Managing Director at the World Economic Forum. He is responsible for the Global Risks 2012 publication.

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  • ishmael2009

    Interesting article. I think we have to remember, though, that for the overwhelming majority of people in the world, things are getting better not worse. Take China: whilst it has massive inequalities, and urban life can be pollution-choked and involve long hours, it is still hugely preferable to rural life for most people, which is why they move there (Read “Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China” by Leslie T. Chang for first hand accounts of why long hours in an urban factory is still so much better than life on the family farm for chinese women at least). 

    Let’s keep a sense of optimism, whilst being aware of the challenges the world faces. Things are getting better, despite what the miserabilists would like to believe.

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