Tech opportunities in areas like 5-G, cloud computing, healthcare, and finance took up the last posting. This one examines opportunities in meeting two huge issues facing the world’s economies: the growing number of older retirees in populations and the big kahuna of climate change. Seldom do all the answers to these or any other problems lie in technological solutions, but tech certainly will have a role to play and a prominent one.
The growing proportion of older people in the population has reached historical proportions, in the United States and throughout the developed world, including China. Increasingly, it will impose on economies. Because birth rates in the developed world have remained low for such a long time, Europe, Japan, China, and the United States have a dearth of young workers to replace the large and now retiring baby-boom generation. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the proportion of this country’s population of retirement age has expanded from 9.4 percent in 1960 to 17 percent in the 2020 census. Not all of those over 65 have left off working, but the Bureau reports that the country now has under 4 people of working age available to support each person of retirement age.
The medical burden imposed by this demographic situation is obvious. But there are still more fundamental economic ramifications implicit in this fundamental labor shortage. These four workers will be hard pressed to produce enough of a surplus beyond their own needs and those of personal dependents to support one retiree and also promote the investment needed to foster economic growth. Without mitigators, there is a threat that these demographics will slow growth or even stop it. Immigration will help, provided that the newcomers carry the training and education needed to substitute for the retiring boomers. Technology can provide significant mitigations as well.
Here the advance of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics is critical. To date, the strides made in these areas have so saved on labor costs that American industry has begun to re-shore operations despite a still significant wage differential between American and, say, Asian workers. The nation’s demographic need will add to opportunities for AI and robotics, as a substitute for short labor and by enabling older Americans to work longer by reducing the physical demands of work. Because these sophisticated devises require more training and retraining over time, their existence will also offer different tech opportunities in answering training needs.
Climate change will also enhance tech opportunities, and on several levels, many beyond the search for alternatives to fossil fuels. One lies in enhancing the effectiveness of solar and wind. Wind and solar, though always mentioned first in discussions of climate change, have proved themselves to be unreliable and otherwise wholly inadequate to the task of fueling the world’s power needs. They are also expensive. If they were cheaper, they would not need the heavy subsidies expended for their development. No doubt tech can find ways to improve their effectiveness and lower their costs, but even greater opportunities lie in developing other alternatives. Nuclear is gaining attention, especially smaller reactors that seem to remove the public fear of disaster. Hydrogen technologies are still largely experimental but have a distant promise. Fission lies on a much longer timeline.
While such alternatives get attention and certainly offer promise, opportunities also lie in efforts to manage fossil fuels. Certainly, gains are available in carbon capture and emissions control that can make fossil fuels less ecologically threatening and hopefully not ecologically threatening at all. Even if such solutions fall short of this ideal, they can fuel economies less harmfully during the time needed to develop and apply cleaner answers.
Hardly ever mentioned in the media but nonetheless a tremendous field in which tech can act is in mitigating the ill effects of climate change. Techniques of flood control, for instance could provide an answer to the greater frequency and severity of storms supposedly caused by climate change or of rising of sea levels. Additionally, there might be opportunities in bio-engineering crops that do a better job of removing carbon dioxide and other emissions from the atmosphere. There might be still other opportunities in designing crops to cope better with the excess dryness or wetness supposedly caused by climate change. The urge to return the planet to some prior balance, one with which people will be happier, is understandable. Short of such a romantic ideal, however, tech can find ways that allow people to live more comfortable and safe lives despite a changing climate.
Technology is the future. It always is, in one form or another. Today’s world – because of its many troubles and not despite them – offers a wide range of opportunities and within those opportunities lies the potential for great gain, for the world at large and to those innovators who can bring it the answers it needs.
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