"The past is a different country; they do things differently there."
In my last essay I discussed the likely and predictable environmental and technical constraints on writing fiction set in the 21st century, specifically looking at 2032 and 2092 as yardsticks. But I said virtually nothing about probably the most important factor in defining what our world might look like in the near future — namely, how we perceive it, and how our perception of our world feeds back into the way we behave (and how this in turn determines its shape).
This is of necessity a much fuzzier and more incoherent, flexible view of the future. But let's start with the predictive element that looks most likely — that the future will be about cities full of elderly people who are afraid of the sky — and then ask what this means.
A key prerequisite for a society of old people is a demographic transition from large families with many children to small families (typically of 1-2 children, with 3 or more being outliers). This phenomenon has swept around the planet since the 1930s with increasing force, driven by several triggers: antibiotics and modern medicine mean that almost all children survive into adulthood (prior to the 20th century around 50% of children died before reaching the age of 5), the cost of raising and educating a child sky-rockets as a society industrialises and requires a more educated work force: and female education and emancipation almost inevitably leads to family planning.
Long term economic consequences of the demographic transition are still unclear, but we can be fairly sure that post-DT societies need new models for nursing the elderly (you can't simply shuffle them off to a back room and split the work load among five or six daughters). There may be cyclic deflationary pressures (as populations shrink, real estate becomes less valuable), age-induced recessions (as the ratio of workers to [mostly elderly] dependents in a society skews towards the elderly), and so on. The medical care costs of the elderly are higher, but in turn, care for the old is labour intensive (and may offer some hope for how we find jobs for the employable people who've been shoved out of work in agriculture and industry by automation). There's also some indication that the demographic transition is semi-reversible, with some countries that went into steep sub-replacement decline suddenly experiencing baby booms (notably France and the UK in the past decade).
More controversial is the interaction between future shock, the demographic transition and religious indoctrination.
One response to the rapid pace of technological and social change is what Alvin Toffler characterised in 1970 as future shock: a syndrome characterised by inability or refusal to adapt to change, rejection of new patterns of social organization, vehement adoption of superstitious, new age or fundamentalist religious beliefs, and social reaction. We can see the symptoms of future shock all around us today. Among the reactions to change are a rise in extreme fundamentalism, and also (in societies undergoing or just having undergone the demographic transition) the use of religious justifications to restrict womens' reproductive freedom. (Males with social privilege are threatened directly by female emancipation, especially in traditional societies where large family size is a status/wealth symbol. It's also a direct threat to male sexual privilege in developed nations).
Restrictions on female reproductive autonomy also serve to induce women to remain within a faith community by making it hard to leave, which in turn ensures that their children are raised within that particular memetic complex. The War On Women's Reproductive Freedom is probably best seen as an adaptive backlash against the background of rapid change, but I think it's doomed to fail in the long term because forces driving the demographic transition (notably the increasing cost of raising a child to adulthood, combined with the decreased rate of infant mortality) aren't going to go away; the ultra-religious are going to end up having to choose between smaller families or living in ever more abject poverty. (Even trying to evade the pressure by home-schooling is problematic, because it's going to be the women who deliver the schooling, which in turn means that the women are going to have to be literate ...)
Keeping on the subject of emancipation: the long-term trends are running in favour of female education and emancipation, and against discrimination on the basis of spurious assumed genetic grounds (classical 19th century European racism). I'm not proposing that bigotry in general is in decline because there are startling blind spots all over the place, and crazy-sounding shit so wild I couldn't put it in a work of fiction. (Bigotry is fractal, and today's victim is tomorrow's oppressor.) I do think that homosexuality is slowly but surely being mainstreamed in western culture, despite opposition from threatened masculinists (and conservative women who see female homosexuality as threatening to undermine their status or lifestyle choices).
Speaking of supernormal sexual stimuli, Peter Watts has speculated that just as Photoshop retouching has corrupted our idea of beauty sufficiently good VR or teledildonics may offer us sexual experiences via machine that are so much better than person-to-person real world sex that, well, nobody wants to make the nasty any more. I'm not sure it's going to go that far, any more than pervasive access to porn on the internet has debauched and depraved our entire society in the past decade or so, but some subcultures/sexualities are unlikely to be mainstreamed because they are frankly harmful to third parties. It is interesting to speculate that teledildonics or VR may not only offer a distracting supernormal sexual stimulus to us, but be tailored to channel individuals with paedophile, necrophile, or other societally unacceptable desires into a non-harmful direction. Or at least in a direction that doesn't harm human beings. (Currently child pornography is illegal because it is argued that paedophiles use it for grooming children by convincing them that it's normal. But what if the child pornography in question could give a paedophile a more fulfilling sexual experience than anything they could experience with a real child, and could not be used for grooming?)
Ahem. Getting back to the long-term consequences of the demographic transition, what is clear is that a population that is around 30-50 years past the transition has a lot more middle-aged or elderly folks than children, with various psychological effects. Past 95, very few surviving adults are physically active. Past 85, many adults are suffering from some degree of dementia (be it vascular dementia or Alzheimer's). Past 45, a low speed cognitive decline begins to set in among many people. Past about 40, we become less flexible and find it harder to adapt to new technologies and ways of thinking, or to learn. And past about 25, we acquire a sense of our own mortality (one reason why, in traditional mass conscription armies prior to the First World War, troops aged 18-24 were assigned to front line units and reserves aged 24-34 were assigned to garrison duty/reserve operations: it wasn't just their physical stamina that was in question, but their willingness to take risks).
Given the rising proportion of elderly people in our societies, I expect that over the next century a lot of medical research will focus on the cognitive defects associated with age. I expect the most debilitating ones to receive most of the research funding -- notably the dementia problem, and to a lesser extent middle-aged cognitive impairment.
Now, it's almost a cliche that the older people get, the more socially conservative/reactionary they become, relative to the baseline social beliefs of young adults. But right now it's hard to tell whether this is a consequence of slow neurodegenerative conditions or of social conditioning — by age 40-50 adults conforming to the majority definition of social success will have raised children and owned property and hopefully started a pension fund; they have a stake in society, and a lot to lose in event of adverse change. Also, with more fragile health, they are generally more risk-averse than youngsters. In the USA it's very rare to see a start-up company founded by anyone over the age of 35; family and health pressures are a huge deterrent against striking out in a new venture without employer-provided group health insurance. (In the UK, start-up founders are frequently older or middle-aged, because a socialised healthcare system removes this major barrier to entrepreneurial ventures.)
I'll note that one side-effect of mild cognitive impairment is a reduction in curiousity. Another is that the person in question tends to assimilate new information only insofar as it validates and supports their existing world-view and prejudices. Beliefs people hold by the time they reach middle age often become set in stone as they grow older. And if more people live into old age, we will see a society in which social change becomes harder to achieve. (Unless medical treatments for cognitive degeneration become available.)
We will probably see by 2032 (much less 2092) middle-aged or elderly adults who are healthier and more cognitively flexible than their counterparts in 2012. The definition of "middle age" is pushed back somewhat; the threshold for "elderly" may likewise be moved. If it turns out that much of the post-35 cognitive change is degenerative and can be treated medically then we may see much livelier middle-aged and elderly people with more flexible, changeable, tolerant attitudes (albeit still more cautious than the young because they've lived through hard times and expect them to come again). Intolerance and authoritarianism seem to be largely an emergent side-effect of abuse and deprivation — a response to existential fear. A post-demographic transition population where child-rearing efforts are focussed on a small number of children and women are educated will (I hope) result in adults who are less prone to fear and intolerance.
If we get life prolongation treatments that work — even if they only prolong our active lives towards the current limit threshold (of roughly 120 years) — then we can expect some more interesting social changes.
For one thing, the primary benefit of democracy over autocracy (that it provides a pressure valve by facilitating orderly transitions of power before any government can become unpopular enough to trigger a mass revolt) may evaporate if the working life of a political professional stretches from age 30 to 120: with the same faces repeatedly coming up from decade to decade there may be an emergent gerontocracy. Jobs with responsibility are going to be hard for youngsters to find, career progression will be slow, and the ability of the elderly to make long-term plans is going to be socially exclusionary towards the young — not a good recipe for avoiding inter-generational strife. Policing of youthful behaviour may become a major social flash-point, with ubiquitous surveillance deployed to produce a global panopticon that suppresses behaviour the elderly find alarming (such as anything remotely high spirited in a public place). The world of 2092 will not be a pleasant place for the under-45s, if this is the state of the medical art.
On the other hand, if we get a handle on the senescence process itself and can either freeze or roll back the physical ageing process and treat the cognitive debilitation of age, then things may take a different (and to our eyes more surreal) turn. Physically young and mentally agile/flexible elderly people will be hard for youngsters to compete with, but will look similar — aside from different choices of style markers. And the cult of youth in 20th/21st century western civilisation will give the elderly youth an incentive to adopt youthful fashions, or to apply the brakes to the rate of change of fashion (however, my money is on the former). It's going to be hard to tell at a glance (without resorting to reality augmentation tech) whether the apparently 22 year old hipster in the bar is a real 22-yo hipster adopting an ironic pose because they're poor and locked in a dead-end part time job for the next 20 years before there's any hope of their obvious merit being recognised, or whether they're an 82 year old whose cynicism is born of genuinely having seen it all before.
Work is going to be a headache. We're already in a situation where, in most of the developed world, the full employment rate is in the range 25%-40% — that is, the proportion of people in the population at large who are employed full-time in a job that they are not over-qualified for. (Remember: a large chunk are under or over employable age, or unemployed, or employed part-time, or in the position of a law graduate working a counter in Walmart. The full employment rate is thus a better indicator of an economy's health than the unemployment rate — because below 4% unemployment there isn't actually enough liquidity in the labour market, and in any case, you can reduce unemployment easily by mandating a lower limit on weekly working hours, thus necessitating more employees to cover a job for 168 hours per week.)
There's an ideological road-block to survival here, and it is current generation capitalism (not to mention the Calvinist work ethic and a whole bunch of quasi-religious baggage). The truth is that we can't all work, and there isn't enough work to go round. Basing our social values on our fiscal utility is both short-sighted and inhumane. It's also horrifyingly oppressive, if you are 20 years old and looking forward to a century of labour at the bottom rungs on the ladder, or poverty. We're currently getting a crash course in what Karl Marx called the crisis of capitalism — its tendency to oscillate between boom and bust. Old, cautious, frightened people don't like busts. So unless they're deprived of effective political redress via the ballot box, they're going to vote for socialisation of risk. It's going to take another generation for the memory of the down-side of the Soviet Bloc to fade, but thereafter we may well see the pendulum swing back towards state planning and provision of universal services such as healthcare, a basic income, and education. Assuming, that is, that the highly acidic melting pot of capital globalisation doesn't dissolve the states before the mass movement of manufacturing capital from the developed to the developing world slows down and equilibrates.
In the short term lots more religious fundamentalism, coupled with an anti-feminist backlash (and racist "get off my lawn" ranting against foreigners taking our jobs, either by coming over here to work or by our corporations sending their factories overseas). Also, lots of Bad Crazy stuff. The USA will be particularly bad, as empires in retreat are always fecund breeding grounds for paranoia, anger, and strange religious heresies. This will die down slowly, as the fundamentalists run into the demographic transition and the wealth-or-fecundity trap, and the imbalance between the wealth of the developed world and the third world diminishes (due to a combination of capital flight on one hand and industrialization on the other).
Other factors will tend to support female emancipation and societal normalization of homosexuality. For example, in China sex-selective abortion has led to a skewed gender ratio, with 1.2 males per female in some areas. The result, however, is that young women contemplating marriage can demand that suitors provide them with wealth such as a house and a car; the social status of young women is indirectly boosted by the dearth of competition, and new families are actively seeking to have daughters. Meanwhile, the first Gay Pride event in Beijing passed peacefully last year, and it's reasonable to predict that social acceptance of homosexuality will in turn reduce the pressure on gay men to marry a beard. Extrapolate to the rest of the world: as countries develop, family sizes shrink, women acquire more education, we see a familiar pattern emerging.
Longer term, we can expect a more cautious societal background, with slower change. More dispossessed youth feeling put-upon by their long-lived elders (as is particularly notable in Greece and Italy. Politics may well slowly swing back towards a pattern of state provision of social services by mid-century; the alternative will be serious civil disorder as the surplus labour left high and dry by the receding tide of automated industrial production revolts.
Huge turd-in-the-punchbowl events that may Change Everything include: working, affordable life extension, a Singularity (i.e. the Rapture of the Nerds, as envisaged circa 1990), mind uploading or working human equivalent AI, a new religion or ideological complex with the growth dynamic of 6th/7th century Islam or 20th century Leninism, and a global epidemic of Martian Hyper-Scabies. But I'd pencil in all of the above as speculative, rather than something that can be counted on.