Preparing Your Child for Life in the 21st Century

Wondering what sort of world your child will grow up in is nothing new. What is new is the speed at which things are changing. Though life in the past was often chaotic, and sometimes dreadful, people at least understood it. They could prepare their child because they knew that his world would be similar to their own. But how does someone born in the 20th century prepare their child for Nanotechnology, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Intelligence? What advice can you give someone who may live for centuries?


A Longer Lifespan and Its Consequences

Life extension is one of those topics that inspire some and irritate others. For many, it has the whiff of pseudo-science and conjures up images of mad professors. And yet, barring accidents and wars, longer and healthier lifespans seem certain. But what about radical life extension? Thanks to medical advances and improved nutrition, many now reach their 80s in relatively good health. But they are still frail and slow, and few live beyond 90. In the coming decades, we may extend the lifespan to 110, 120, maybe even 150. Some believe we will halt and even reverse the aging process altogether.

Two points need to be emphasized. First, this is not pseudo-science. Serious, mainstream academics now take it almost for granted. The Oxford Professor Yuval Harari, for example, recently published Homo Deus, a book about the future of mankind. For Harari, hugely extended lifespans are not just likely but inevitable.

Second, not only will your child live a great deal longer than you (possibly even twice, or three times, as long), he or she will do so in good health. When this subject is raised, people usually shrug and say, “who’d want to be stuck in an old folk’s home for 60 years?” But they won’t be. In his book The World in 2030, Ray Hammond predicts that by the 2030s, 70-year-olds will look and feel like 30-somethings.

Now consider the effect on relationships. In countries like the U.K. and U.S., there has been an increase in late-life divorce over the last couple of decades. Indeed, so common is this that they have been dubbed “the silver splitters.” People now reach 60 and foresee another 30 years of relatively good health. What will happen when they foresee another 80 years?

Talking to your child about relationships will be tricky. What if your son meets a girl in his early 20s, falls in love and decides to start a family? To those born and raised in the final decades of the 20th century, this was perfectly normal. Commitment was hard of course, but you expected no more than another 50 or 60 years together. How do you prepare for 100 years with this person?

And remember, if regenerative medicine really does fulfil the hype, we will live our longer lives with the energy and appearance of someone in middle age. Could monogamy possibly survive in such a world? Or will the temptations be too great?

A longer lifespan will also make bereavement harder to endure. When no one expected to live much beyond 70, they consoled themselves with the thought that the grief could not last. Since life was so short, they were also psychologically prepared, and somewhat hardened. When people routinely live to 150, losing your child in a car crash in your 40s may be too much to bear.

The End of Gender

Your child may soon find itself in a “post-gender world.” The more conservative often find such talk irritating. Surely, they argue, a man will always be a man and a woman a woman. Well, yes, your son will not be able to bear a child, and your daughter is unlikely to grow a penis. It is cultural expectations that will change. Until very recently, society conditioned girls and boys to behave in certain ways. Boys played with toy soldiers and trucks, girls with plastic dolls and mini kitchens. And certain traits were considered masculine or feminine. Girls were discouraged from getting dirty or climbing trees, boys from wearing sparkly clothes or crying in public.

Some go further and argue that technological advance will make biological differences irrelevant. As early as 1970, feminists like Shulamith Firestone were arguing that pregnancy and childbirth enslaved women. They lived under “the tyranny of their reproductive biology” and could only be freed by things like artificial wombs. In the 21st century, women may well free themselves in this way as human cloning and parthenogenesis become the norm. If you teach your son to be “macho,” to hide his feelings, and to expect his wife to take a subordinate role, you are setting him up for misery and humiliation.

Attitudes to sexuality will continue to shift as well, and bisexuality will become more and more common. Sexuality isn’t entirely determined by nature; nurture also plays its part. For example, the British novelist Will Self recalled that while working on a novel about male homosexuality he began to find male friends attractive and even to have gay dreams. Teaching your child to view homosexuality as some kind of perversion would be very foolish. These views seem neanderthal even today; in the future they will seem ridiculous.

The End of Work

Work will also change. Or, to be more precise, there may not be any work for your child to do. Again, as with cancer cures or life extension, this is often met with skepticism. Still, the idea is nothing new. Towards the end of the 19th century, writers like Oscar Wilde and H. G. Wells welcomed a future in which machines did the work and humans enjoyed themselves. In 2013, the University of Oxford even predicted that 47% of jobs in the USA were threatened by automation.

How society will adjust is impossible to foresee. Naturally, parents worry that unless their child develops some exceptional skill they will be unemployable. But if A.I. and robotics do eat up most jobs, that does not mean an elite of rich tech geniuses and a majority who cannot feed their kids. Such a system would be unsustainable. More likely, the richer countries will introduce a UBI, or Universal Basic Income, paying a basic, liveable wage to everyone. Those with the skills or creativity to earn extra will do so. But for many, not working may be a viable option.

Consider the kind of education your child ought to receive. Futurologists complain that governments educate children for life in the 1920s, not the 2020s. What kind of work is your child likely to find? As machines and A.I. take more and more jobs, it will be the empathetic and creative who will be best placed to earn a living. In the near term at least, no machine will be able to comfort a bereaved old man. Artificial Intelligence also struggles with originality and creativity. However you educate your child, you certainly need to ensure they are comfortable around, and familiar with, technology.

Loneliness and Stress

If just three words could be chosen to describe the 21st century, then “hot,” “overcrowded,” and “overwhelming” would not be a bad selection. Stress is a major problem for modern, technologically developed societies. And it is likely to get worse.

First, your child is certain to come of age in a more crowded world. In certain places, especially Africa, the birth rate continues to boom. But even in those nations whose birth rate is slowing, such as Germany, the population will continue to rise. When people discuss population levels, they often ignore the possibility that aging may come under our control. Put simply, the number of people in a country like Germany will continue to rise because the elderly won’t be dying off.

But, though there will be more people, they are also likely to be more isolated. In his book Future Files, Richard Watson writes that two major trends in the 21st century will be urbanisation and people living alone. It will be much easier to isolate oneself as well. For example, in recent years the iconic rural English pub has been threatened with extinction. Many of these, some dating back hundreds of years, have gone out of business. Various reasons have been put forward, including modern technology. For generations, the pub was the warm, glowing center of village life. People went there for comfort and entertainment. Now, they have Youtube, Facebook, DVD box-sets, and video games.

The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield writes of a coming generation “mentally adrift” and unable to distinguish the virtual from the real. People need company. They need intimacy and love. Teaching your child to value these things will be important because the temptation to live a virtual life will be immense, especially as Virtual Reality enters the mainstream and grows more sophisticated.

At present, Virtual Reality is fairly crude and primitive. But consider the first TV sets, which were small and clumsy and capable of no more than a hazy black and white picture. Today we have flat screen TVs with color images in high definition. The same progress will be made with VR. Some even predict a kind of mass exodus into these virtual worlds, which will seem so much more exciting and fulfilling than mundane reality.

It is vital to keep your children grounded and in touch with the natural world. Take them hiking, fishing, swimming in the sea, anything that brings their senses into contact with nature. Even going into the woods and building a fire can be thrilling to a child. Many parents now restrict “screen time,” and rightly so.

Above all, your child will need to be adaptable. Not only are they certain to live a great deal longer than you, their world is sure to be filled with change. In his novel Coming Up for Air, Orwell recalls life in an early 20th century English village. Life was hard, of course, and often involved a great deal of poverty and tragedy. But people felt safe and comfortable because the pace of change was slow. Your children will have to adapt to more technological and social change than their ancestors could even have imagined.

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