Science fiction books and fantasy movies have long tried to predict the future, creating elaborate worlds filled with strange creatures and bizarre technology. But understanding of the future isn't just limited to science fiction. There are entire organizations and institutions filled with futurists and technology experts whose job it is to analyze trends to determine where society is heading next.
With the help of thorough research and analysis, experts can anticipate how America's laws, policies, political philosophies, and social trends can be expected to change. They can predict human shifts like population growth and demographic changes, ecological and environmental shifts like ocean levels and climate change, and health statistics like life expectancy and medical breakthroughs. The list goes on.
With all of that said, what will the United States look like in the future? It's likely the country will see significant changes in all the major categories listed above. To help paint a clearer picture, Stacker has sifted through data and gathered projections from scientists, social anthropologists, economists, demographers, technologists, and others to see what experts are saying about the future. In this gallery, we've put together a list of 50 major changes expected to occur by the year 2050.
Read on to get a sneak peek of the future.
Elon Musk is currently working on a Hyperloop network that would allow people to travel between cities in sealed pods traveling up to 700 miles per hour. In the models, the human propulsion system could transport a commuter from New York City to Washington D.C. in 29 minutes. Other concepts have been floated for plans, including from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and Chicago to Cleveland.
According to a Pew Research Center study, the American population will explode, going from 329 million in 2018 to 438 million by 2050. The increase, which will represent more than a 33% change, will largely result from an influx of people into the country. In fact, it is estimated that 82% of the growth between 2005 and 2050 will be due to immigrants arriving, and their descendants.
A 2017 estimate by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that U.S. debt held by the public will reach a staggering 150% of the gross domestic product (GDP) by 2046. In 2017, the rate was 76.5%, meaning that the figure will increase by 96% over the next 30 years. The budget office forecasts were largely linked to the assumption that the Affordable Care Act will remain in place during those years, noting the rising costs of health care as the population of people over 65 grows.
A Vox analysis of a recent report by the National Climate Assessment (NCA) showed that almost every U.S. city will experience a temperature increase for both summer and winter averages by 2050, noting that in some places it will be so hot it's “dangerous to go outside.” According to Climate Central, future temperatures in some regions can best be compared to the Middle East. Las Vegas, for instance, will have summer highs projected at 111 degrees, comparable to temperatures in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Phoenix will be like Kuwait City at a scorching 114 degrees.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated the life expectancy of the average American in 2016 would be about 78.8, a figure that was more than it had been in previous years. By 2050, people will live even longer. According to the MacArthur Research Network on an Aging Society, women by 2050 will live to be 89 to 94, and men will live to be 83 to 86. The Pew Research Center additionally found that one out of every five people in the United States will be age 65 or older by 2050 while 400,000 people or more will be 100 or older.
Global growth projections for 2050 conducted by auditing giant PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) suggested that emerging markets may grow twice as fast as the world's advanced G7 economies, leading to America lagging behind. The company predicted that China will be in first place by 2050 with India in second and the U.S. coming in third. Some have disputed the estimates, noting how similar projections have failed in the past when the institutions and policies that support the growth rates were not factored in.
A group of NASA scientists recently published a journal outlining how the United States could establish a human colony on the Moon. The idea would be to use the satellite as a base camp for Mars exploration and ultimately colonization of that planet.
“We're not going to have a research base on Mars until we can learn how to do it on the Moon first,” NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay told Popular Science. “The Moon provides a blueprint to Mars.”
Although men outnumbered women in the United States in the mid-1800s, that statistic shifted dramatically during World War II when the draft depleted the American male population. Since then, women have been thriving demographically and continuously outpacing the growth of men. Although the percentage split of 49–51 will remain fairly close in 2050, the number of women in the U.S. will have grown by 7.5 million more than U.S. males.
Joel Kotkin, author of “The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050,” has pointed in the past to a growing phenomenon he calls “luxury cities.” In places like New York, San Francisco, and Boston, groups of young and mostly single, childless residents have pushed out the middle class and driven up the cost of living, creating expensive urban playgrounds with few practical resources and an endless supply of bars, restaurants, nightclubs, cinemas, and other hipster establishments. These cities will grow and proliferate, he estimates, moving toward 2050—a trend he considers concerning from an economics standpoint.
Predictions by the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that by the time 2050 rolls around, 53% of the American population will be defined as multiracial or nonwhite. The white population will drop from 67% to 47%. With fertility being the driving force, the change in the racial demographics is expected to occur regardless of immigration policies.
“If you reduced new immigration to zero, you'd still see growth in immigrant communities, more so than in white, native-born communities,” said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, in an interview with Politico. “Immigrants just have more children and have them younger.”
If carbon dioxide concentrations continue increasing at the current rate, the impact of global warming and ocean acidification could combine to slow coral growth by almost 50%, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Scientists say 90% of the world's corals will probably be dead by 2050. In the U.S., the biggest impact will be to Florida's coral reefs system which is the third-largest barrier reef ecosystem in the world that's currently dissolving like a “sugar cube in water,” according to marine biologist Chris Langdon in an interview with the Washington Post.
Although it's unlikely the U.S. will lose its position on top in terms of overall military capabilities, the combination of regional trends and emerging technologies will “challenge U.S. global leadership and its status as the strongest military,” according to Roman Muzalevsky in a report for the U.S. Army War College Press.
Challenges could include the embedding of sensors into human bodies, mind-controlled machinery, cyberwarfare, robotics, and drones, among other things. Though the U.S. will still be the top user of precision strike and autonomous weapons, he said, the growth of these technologies by adversaries will “undermine its position.” It could also could “lose major advantages” if its space capabilities are compromised as more nations launch and exploit space programs.
Marriage rates have been steadily declining since the 1960s and that trend will continue in 2050. In 1970, for example, about 60% of Americans were tying the knot. By 2013 it was down to roughly 50% where it's remained for the better part of the 2010s. According to a report based on United States Census Bureau statistics, marriage will drop to a mere 40% by 2050, marking a 33% decrease since its peak.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the number of downhill skiers is expected to increase by an impressive 93% between 1995 and 2050, nearly doubling participation rates. The bump in the number of days skiers in the U.S. log annually is projected to hit 110%, moving from 126.5 million to over 265 million days by 2050.
Rather than setting the thermostat at one uniform level, or turning on a lamp to light the whole room, American homes of the future will have custom heat and light functioning that's directed right at you. The idea is that the heat and lighting would follow you around the house, keeping you well-lit and at a comfortable temperature wherever you go.
In 2015, the National Academy of Sciences released a report predicting that by 2050, 30% of lower Manhattan will be below sea level. Additionally, the state will experience heavier storms with massive flooding like Hurricane Sandy becoming commonplace. According to Ben Horton of Rutgers University, who spoke about the subject in an interview with VICE, storms of this magnitude (with 2.25-meter floods) occurred just once every 500 years before the 1850s. By 2050, it will be once every five years, making it a common occurrence.
The percentage of Hispanics in America will increase from 18% in 2016 to 29% in 2050, representing an increase of nearly one-third. Although the group represents the second-fastest growing racial minority after Asians, the Hispanic population growth rate is actually slowing due to a combination of weaning immigration from Mexico and declining fertility rates among Hispanic women.
The U.S. Defense Department is developing an Iron Man suit; both Panasonic and Hyundai are creating similar robotic suits for the consumer labor sector. The robotic exoskeletons will help people lift exceptionally heavy objects and propel them up up hills while walking or running, giving everyday people effective superpowers. By 2050, it could be commonplace then, especially for big businesses, to see labor forces made up of suit-wearing human-robot hybrids.
Despite concerns about potential declines in American educational attainment rates, the United States is currently more educated than it has been at any time in its past. In 2012, 88% of adults 25 and older had completed high school and 31% had completed a bachelor's degree. By 2050, the rate of Americans with no education at all is projected to decrease by 80%, going from 0.25% in 2015 to just 0.05%.
In major urban areas, tall buildings and skyscrapers will become virtual mini-cities as vertical building gets higher and higher. According to futurist Ian Pearson, buildings could reach up to 18 miles high, or a staggering 8,000 stories. In these cases, giant drones would transport people from floor to floor since elevators would be impractical at those heights. Although places like China and Dubai currently lead the world in terms of building heights, New York-Newark has the highest number of proposed high-rise projects of buildings taller than roughly 500 feet, indicating that America can anticipate a move toward taller buildings, too.
With the cost of U.S. college textbooks around $1,200 per year, affordability advocates have been pushing for a move toward digital learning. Textbook giant Pearson has already created a handful of digital learning experiences that replace most of the words in textbooks with interactive exercises. To gain access to them, students pay for a semester-long subscription service that works like Netflix. Fellow textbook producers McGraw Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are also working on expanding their virtual content. Give the trend, it is likely that by 2050, traditional textbooks will be nearly obsolete in American schools.
While the rural population in the United States has stayed the same for more than a century, hovering around 50 million people (and hitting 60 million in 2016), the number of city dwellers keeps skyrocketing. The urban population went from around 30 million in 1900—nearly half the amount as country folks—to over 250 million. Meanwhile, although rural areas make up 97% of the country's land mass, they only house 19.3% of the population. By 2050, projections indicate that 5.5 times as many people will live in cities as those living in rural zones.
By 2050, self-driving cars will no longer be a buzzword, they will be the reality of commuting by automobile in the United States and other developed countries. Numerous car companies are developing self-driving cars or features. General Motors, for example, is working on Super Cruise, a highway function meant for wide open roads. BMW is testing out Traffic Jam Assistant that lets cars move through traffic automatically during slow-speed congestion; Sartre is working on cars that drive each other; and Audi is developing a self-parking feature.
The number of people who define themselves as “unaffiliated” with any specific organized religion will double, according to Pew Research Center projections, moving from 50 million people in 2010 to roughly 100 million by 2050. The self-identification doesn't necessarily connote lack of spirituality or religious faith—it simply refers to people who don't connect their system of beliefs to one religious sect or denomination.
By 2050, natural gas is projected to account for 39% of all U.S. energy production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). As natural gas consumption rises, coal will continue dropping off to roughly 12% to 13% of the market share. With demand growing, liquified natural gas (LNG) exports to regions outside Mexico and Canada are forecast to increase as well.
According to a 2010 study by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the number of Americans considered obese could hit 42% or more by 2050. The figure, which is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, has already tripled since the 1980s. The silver lining, however, is that once the number hits the 42% mark it is anticipated to level out after that.
In 2016, a nonprofit organization in Spain released a study suggesting that Spanish will be the most spoken language in the United States by 2050, surpassing English with an estimated 470 million people. The projections for the U.S., which already has more Spanish speakers than both Spain and Colombia, were based on increasing numbers of Hispanic populations and declining numbers of English speakers. Yet the prediction isn't a sure thing—the Pew Research Center indicates the percentage of Latinos who speak Spanish at home is declining as the younger generation speaks English with increasing frequency. Still, whether or not the language surpasses English, it's clear that the nation's language composition will be very different by 2050.
While New York currently averages two heat waves per summer, by 2050 it will experience an average of six every year, tripling the number of oppressively hot weather snaps. Meanwhile, the number of days over 90 degrees will double.
“In 2006, a brutal summer led to 140 people dying of heat-related causes,” Mike Pearl wrote recently for VICE. “It's safe to say that that sort of death toll will be routine by 2050.”
As bioengineering technology improves, medical experts predict that American patients will grow new organs rather than rely on donors and transplants for things like livers, kidneys, and even hearts. Researchers are currently developing ways to grow them in labs with universal donor cells and other emerging technology. In the next 10 to 30 years, experts have predicted that organ transplants will become a thing of the past.
Median incomes are projected to drop over the next few decades, falling by 0.43 percentage points per year between now and 2020, 0.52 points per year between 2020 and 2030, and 0.2 points per year between 2030 and 2040. Although the figures on their own are not staggering, the percentage drops over time will add up significantly. By 2050, an employee who earned $50,000 in 2013 will only make $44,000. The number is even more noticeable after accounting for inflation.
In 2015, NASA detailed plans to land on the red planet in a publication titled “Journey to Mars” and since then, the space organization has targeted the 2030s as the goal for a Mars landing. Recent funding debates have prompted some people to speculate that the missions may get delayed to the 2050s if preliminary Moon landings detract from the budget. Either way, however, it seems evident that 2050 will see the United States a lot closer to contact with the red planet.
With smartphones, Apple watches, and tablets ubiquitous on American streets, it would seem that everyone in the U.S. was hooked up to the internet. But recent census data found that just 76.5% of Americans had smartphones and 77.4% had a computer or laptop. Furthermore, nearly 20% of households do not have an internet subscription. In 2050, experts predict that nearly 100% of country will be on the internet as technology improves and access gets cheaper.
Unlike traditional American jobs with salaries and benefits, employers in the United States are increasingly moving toward hiring part-time, freelance-based contractors in the emerging "gig economy." In 2050, it will be standard for people to have two or three jobs at any given time and be continually training themselves to stay up-to-date.
“The idea of a ‘job for life' will be well and truly passé,” Charlotte Seager wrote for the Guardian.
3D printing has made enormous technological advances in recent years. But by 2050, the printers are predicted to transform manufacturing in America. From aerospace engineering to fashion merchandise, 3D printing will be a central part of production.
As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated and the presence of drones and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) increases dramatically, submarines may be rendered useless due to their inability to remain stealth, according to Andrew Davies, director of research at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The U.S. Navy, which has one of the largest submarine fleets worldwide, is sure to be impacted if underwater vessels become ineffective.
In 2010, three-quarters of the population in America was Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2050, the number will drop to two-thirds, decreasing by about 11.2%. Meanwhile, the Jewish population will lose its second place spot as the largest non-Christian religion, replaced by Muslims who will become the second most populous religion in the U.S.
According to analysis of a recent NCA report, wildfires in California could increase by almost 50% by 2050, engulfing more than 25,000 acres in flames each year. By the end of the century, the average could rise by a staggering 77%. Another report suggests that by 2050, there will be 645,000 houses in California constructed in “very high” wildfire severity zones.
With the number of non-white people in America growing as its Caucasian population shrinks, voting constituencies are shifting dramatically for both Republicans and Democrats. With white voters no longer making up the majority, the goals of politicians will shift. Although it's hard to predict exactly what their platforms will look like, it's safe to assume that politicians on both sides on the aisle will consider people of color more when establishing their positions on issues.
In the years right before 1800, more than half of all U.S. families were comprised of at least six people, most of them being four children and two parents. By 2010, the number had plummeted by 90% with just 1 in 20 families being made up of six people or more. As we move toward 2050, this decrease is expected to continue as people have fewer kids with the figure getting close to zero by that point in time.
As telemedicine advances in both popularity and efficacy, patients will have fewer reasons to go to hospitals in the first place—and when they do, they will often interact with doctors who are not on site, possibly even in different parts of the country. In an interview with the Guardian, Lorna Ross of the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation said by 2050, American patients will likely limit hospital visits to emergencies and surgical procedures as self-monitoring and virtual care becomes the norm for day-to-day health care. By the same token, many doctors in the hospitals will use virtual reality and perform telesurgeries.
Recent numbers indicate that divorce rates are shrinking among millennials, especially compared to the boomer generation, which saw major increases in marital separations. In fact, the figure dropped an impressive 18% between 2008 and 2016. Still, figures currently suggest that by 2050, close to 1 in 5 Americans will be divorced, a number that represents over 20% of the population.
Due to the aging baby boomer population, medical experts have predicted that the number of people living with Alzheimer's disease will triple between 2013 and 2050. According to a study published in Neurology, the increase will present challenges to the health care system.
“It will place a huge burden on society, disabling more people who develop the disease, challenging their caregivers, and straining medical and social safety nets,” said study co-author Jennifer Weuve.
As autonomous vehicles explode onto the scene over the next decade or two, commercial fleets will be impacted, too. In fact, an energy advocacy group recently estimated that by 2050, self-driving vehicles will add $3 trillion to $6 trillion to the American economy. For the nation's fleet of 253 million commercial trucks and 1.7 million drivers, that may spell devastation. Cabbies, bus drivers, and delivery drivers will be impacted as well. Although it's unlikely truckers will ever disappear completely, the new technology will shrink the population to the point of virtual obsolescence.
According to the CDC, 1 in 3 people in the United States will have Type 2 diabetes by 2050 unless there is a major shift in lifestyle trends. Currently, an estimated 30.3 million Americans have the disease. The figure is about 9.4%, meaning that cases will more than triple in the next 30 years. On top of those present-day figures, another 84.1 million people currently have prediabetes which usually leads to a Type 2 diagnosis within five years if not treated.
Although printed books aren't anticipated to disappear completely for another 50 to 100 years, it's inevitable that by 2050, far fewer will remain. In 2015, half of American adults said they own a tablet or e-reader, and 30% had read an e-book in 2013. While print books are still the most popular reading format, audiobooks and digital readers are increasing in popularity every year.
A combination of more extreme weather mixed with increased power usage will lead to a higher frequency of large-scale, citywide blackouts. In places that are crowded and congested, particularly in the northeast, the blackouts will be even worse. In fact, up to 50% more residents in those regions will find themselves temporarily without power in 2050.
Researchers in London recently released a study suggesting that by 2050, almost no one under the age of 80 will die of cancer. The improvement will be due to a combination of genetic research, better screening and diagnostic tools, new treatment procedures, and decreasing levels of tobacco smoking. Although the study was conducted in England, the authors noted that the results could be “extrapolated to similar countries with equivalent health care services,” which would include the U.S.
Rather than having a dozen teenagers working the drive-thru or manning the cash register, American fast-food restaurants will be almost completely automated by 2050. Places like McDonald's will still offer the same menu items but will have self-serve touch screens in place for placing orders and robotic assembly lines in the kitchen that will make your food. A hamburger restaurant in California is already using an early version of a burger-flipping robot that can grill 150 burgers per hour.
The decade-long Dust Bowl drought that plagued big parts of the country during the Great Depression will pale in comparison to the mega-drought many climatologists are predicting. There's an 80% chance it will occur sometime between 2050 and 2099 if greenhouse emissions continue, they predict. The drought would prompt dust storms and wipe out trees and agriculture from California to Iowa.
“A megadrought is a prolonged drought that lasts two decades or longer,” wrote Dave Mowitz For Successful Farming. “The issue isn't if a megadrought will reappear, but, rather, when it will happen and how severe such an extended dry period could be.”