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What America Could Look Like in 2050

“I feel like it is a race, and I do not have the crystal ball to see the outcome,” one reader argues.

Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked readers, what will America be like in 2050?

Replies have been edited for length and clarity.

JP anticipates a decline in faith:

America in 2050 will be a lot less religious, and will have fewer church structures. I am 31 and work at a church. Many churches, including ours, are still running on the “old church model” (my term) that has been established over the last 300+ years: building large structures, asking for donations or passing the basket, and driving engagement by appealing to people’s sense of duty or obligation. We know that a transition needs to take place, because in the next 25 years, we are going to lose a lot of believers to old age. What will we do without these volunteers and donors? Churches will begin to feel less like large institutions, and more like small, tight-knit communities. As a result, religion, and especially Christianity, will have a much smaller impact on public discourse and culture.

Ian expects racial and ethnic integration:

Despite the ever-present racism and xenophobia, America will find itself more blended. The right will still be unwilling to admit that this diversity and blending has made our nation stronger, not weaker. But extremism on both the right and left will still make the most noise. Division and hatred inspire events that are newsworthy, and the media will make the most of it. People will see the folly of 24-hour networks that are more opinion than news.

Caro is 80 years old and pessimistic about the future:

I won’t be around to see 2050. I could be sad about that but I am not optimistic enough to believe things will be “better” than they are today as far as being a shining beacon of democracy.

Our country has prized independent thinking and living so much so that it treats innovation as the end, not the means. Innovation just happens (in cars, computers, global trade, wars) because it can, and without regard for the long-term good of Earth. We live with the consequences of our desires to create “better living” for just us humans and not the full environment we live in (take the microscopic plastic present on every part of the planet).

When people can’t cooperate in devising ways to cope, they seek protection of a power that doesn’t require cooperation. That is the scariest thing in my country that I see.

Ben’s outlook is sunnier:

I expect shifts in U.S. industrial policy ushered in during the last two years will have a profound effect on the size and shape of the U.S. economy. Renewable energy will become a much larger part of our industrial portfolio, which will have downstream effects.

Checks, cash, and other forms of “paper” monetary transactions will either be extinct or very rare. An 11-year-old today will be 38 in 2050; the likelihood that generation will ever write a check, own a landline, or pay for cable is vanishingly small. Therefore we can also expect that any existing cable-TV enterprises will only exist through a streaming service (which could manifest in a variety of forms) or otherwise cease to exist.

We will continue to see a backlash against big business and a continuing momentum for labor movements. I don’t see any way our children will embrace current-gen social media, data economies, and monopolies with the same naive enthusiasm as previous generations. We will all be “online,” but whatever “online” looks like will not be the same.

I see most of these developments as net positives. But I also think that there will be some pains our society will be healing from in 2050 that haven’t yet happened. If you follow the trajectory of American politics from the 90s to today, there is a pretty clear through line that suggests the GOP is going to cause—and experience—a lot more pain and chaos before they get better. It’s very difficult to see what their end state will be, but the logic of the MAGA movement is escalatory by nature. Things will keep getting worse until some calamity forces a shift. In an ideal world, that “calamity” could simply take the form of massive electoral defeats, but we are in no way guaranteed that outcome.

Abraham speculates about changes in land use:

The nation is poised to become a more densely populated and urbanized landscape, with real-estate prices in cities beginning to find stability. While cities today have relied on land-use regulations that date back decades, a shift toward more liberal land-use policy will take place, fueled by rising real-estate prices which will gradually affect a broader spectrum of the middle class. A significant pivot will be noticed when property values begin to impact particularly high-skilled professionals, such as engineers and attorneys. In response, local city councils are likely to modify many established development norms such as minimum lot sizes, the emphasis on single-family zoning, and parking standards.

Cities will become more internally focused. The era of regionalism will draw to a close, with local leaders putting an emphasis on retaining resources within their city limits. It will become evident to municipalities that subsidizing infrastructure to support long commutes or suburban residents is not efficient or sustainable. Instead, the spotlight will shift toward optimizing resources and infrastructure within city confines for the benefit and pleasure of its residents, and a serious focus on attracting even more residents. Cities will still be stratified economically, but a silver lining will emerge as construction and development projects are more easily greenlit, offering a semblance of relief.

On the other hand, residents of rural regions are set to face significant economic headwinds. As wealthier individuals, equipped with comprehensive remote-work options, opt to flee away from what they perceive as congested urban centers, they will migrate toward these “quieter” locales. This migration will amplify the demand in these areas, driving up property values. The prevailing land-use policies in these regions will remain largely centered on single-family residences. Limited employment opportunities combined with a deeply entrenched, well-financed resistance to change will further exacerbate the financial situation for residents here. Even as urban areas begin to achieve real-estate stability, suburban and exurban localities will experience heightened real-estate market pressures. The residents of these areas, particularly those without the means to adapt, will feel the economic strain even worse than they do today.

Dana expects huge catastrophes and heartening adaptations to them:

Sadly, I think the coastal cities will be underwater due to sea levels rising far faster than expected. Many species will be extinct. No more polar bears or penguins. Farmers will have robotic bees because the real bees will be dead.

Interest will be removed from existing student loans, and college and grad school will be free. A quarter of the country will be dead or disabled due to having had COVID 12 to 20 times. All houses and buildings will test someone’s breath for two seconds and detect if there’s any contagious virus before allowing the person to enter. Medical technology will grow with the help of AI and quantum processing, so aging will be much better, cancer cured, and some people will have a life span up to 120. Ageism will cease to exist because people will look in their 30s even if they are 95. Everywhere, public and private, will have video and DNA surveillance so crime will become almost exclusively cyber.

The education pendulum will start swinging back to children actually being expected to learn, and parents being expected to be responsible for their children. Capitalism will no longer be unbridled greed, as everyone has to do their part for saving the planet. Items will be made to last for years or decades. Community responsibility, pensions, and companies caring about their employees will make a comeback. Racism will no longer exist, as proof of sentient alien life will change the world’s outlook as we all become earthlings. We’ll begin to try to bring back polar bears, penguins, bees, etc. as we finally understand what matters and that we’re (“we” being everything living) all in this together.

John sketches optimistic and pessimistic scenarios:

The race in America between our better angels and lesser demons may be close to the end. I believe we are in a constant race between our rational, entrepreneurial, scientific efforts to build a better union and country and the demons attempting to tear it all down. But I feel like some technology advances in the near term will determine if there is a winner of this race. From climate change to health care, we Americans have the tools to make the world a better place and keep America a great nation. I can imagine fusion power moving the curve on CO2 emissions. I can imagine AI causing all kinds of strife, but our society moderates the worst outcomes with some positive benefits. Tailored, genetic-based health care could greatly extend the lengths of good, healthy lives.

But … if we don’t fix some serious problems, America is going to be smaller (due to sea-level rising), much hotter, even angrier somehow, and probably partitioned in some meaningful way. Again, I feel like it is a race, and I do not have the crystal ball to see the outcome.

Zack envisions his own retirement:

The year is 2050. I boot up my iPhone 11. Damn grandkids wouldn’t even know how to work a fine piece of technology like this. They just rub dopamine-infused goo directly on their brains (this goo has replaced entertainment entirely). I tap on the Atlantic app. I scroll past three pieces about how this upcoming election is The Most Important of Our Lives. I begin reading an article saying that November 2050 is set to be the hottest on record. “Bah, the weather is fine,” I say to myself in my fully underwater Palm Beach retirement community. The Amazon Alexa Surveillance Device is blasting my favorite oldies with only occasional ads. “Bring a bucket and a mop for this wet––350 SPF SUNSCREEN ONLY $75.99. STAY SAFE THIS WINTER. Give me everything you got for this wet—14 TIKTOK STARS WHO HAVE AGED TERRIBLY. CLICK HERE NOW.” My wife is in the kitchen cooking my favorite meal: high-fructose corn syrup. Life is good.

Paul is even more dystopian in his outlook:

Earth will be running out of drinking water. This will include the United States. Lack of water will cause food shortages. Neighbors will be fighting each other for food and drinking water. No one will offer any solutions before this happens because we are too self-centered. 2050 will be too late to change the results of climate change. Goodbye everyone.  

Thank goodness Eric was here to cheer me up:

The future of America is pretty bright, even if it doesn’t seem that way right now. That being said, we absolutely need to safeguard our assets if we want to flourish throughout the 21st century.

Demographically, we are in one of the better positions among developed countries. Looking at a Population Pyramid, the U.S. is in an excellent position now and toward 2050, especially compared to Europe, Russia, and East Asia. Where this could go wrong is if we Millennials don’t have children and we stop becoming one of the top destination choices for emigrants. As long as we prioritize high wages and economic growth, we will remain an attractive place for immigrants (and especially if we change existing policy to make it easier for highly skilled immigrants to come here). And if we keep our demographics from collapsing, we will continue to be the center of innovation in the world, and the strongest developed economy.

With the investments made now in renewable energy and the continuing investments in energy storage, the U.S. has a good chance of remaining the world leader in energy production. Where this could go wrong is if we regulate ourselves out of mining necessary minerals and new energy projects. I predict that as more people view climate change as a threat, the activist push for the government to prevent renewable energy-related projects on environmental grounds will start to dissipate.

Over the last century humans have shown amazing ingenuity in completely changing the world, and with more and more people getting educated and encouraged to innovate, I don’t see any reason why that would change. And as a lot of people are more aware of marginalized parts of our society and there is agreement on getting resources to those parts of society, we will continue to unleash all of our talent to solve our problems.

The only thing that can stand in the way of this is ourselves!

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