Why 50% of us might not be employed by 2050 – and that isn’t a problem

Interview with Adrian Hon, author of A History Of The Future In 100 Objects


With talk of ‘green shoots’ and  unemployment figures down by 0.1%, you could be forgiven for thinking that the ‘jobs drought’ brought on by the economic crisis is slowly coming to an end. However, tech writer Adrian Hon thinks differently.

Inspired by the BBC series A History Of The World In 100 Objects, Hon has written a sequel or homage – set in 2082. The set of 100 short stories talks us through innovations from telepathic necklaces, the resurrection of the woolly mammoth, and human-android marriages (pictured), but the one that chimes most with current fears is a future in which 50% of people are unemployed.

Hon thinks this outcome is not only ‘very likely’, but that we’re already moving towards it: ‘we’re seeing a shift away from full-time employment to not just unemployment, but also involuntary part-time employment, contract work, zero hour contracts, and lower paid work in general’.

Hon’s projected future differs from most; he scoffs at flying cars and rejects the  doomy vision of tomorrow that Hollywood sells: ‘I’m less interested in the purely dystopian stuff; you can’t throw a stick without hitting another Hunger Games or Elysium, and in a way that’s understandable, because we’re in a recession. People aren’t optimistic, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there is light at the end of the tunnel. People are going to live longer, there will be higher levels of education, of literacy, of production’.

It’s these higher levels of production that could change the employment pattern so drastically – after all, we’ve already seen the industrial revolution completely shatter and transform economics and manufacturing. Just as eighteenth-century Luddites smashed looms, advances in automation ‘mean that everyone is afraid of being replaced by robots. It’s terrifying because employment is who people think they are. When you’re growing, up, you’re asked ‘what do you want to be?’ When that equation between career and identity goes too far, Hon believes, there’s the risk that ‘if you’re not producing anything, you feel worthless’.

Unlike most people, though, Hon doesn’t see high unemployment as necessarily a negative thing. ‘We can peer into the future right now by looking at the behaviour of retired people on decent pensions; they stay active, they help with charities, they pursue avocations, they paint, they write, and so on. They don’t just sit in front of the TV all day. If we all retired at 50, or at 40, or at 30, I don’t think we’d be too different’.

Hon is at pains to point out that his book isn’t making ‘firm predictions’, and he refuses to call himself a ‘futurologist’ but insists that ‘all the objects in the books ‘are based around technology that is around now. There are some extrapolations, but there is nothing in there that is literally impossible.’ He laughs. ‘In fact, I’d say it’s actually quite conservative!’

Some of his predictions are already coming to pass. Cloned meat, which he scheduled for 2033, made its first appearance this summer: ‘I didn’t expect that someone would actually spend that much money to make it happen that quickly, but someone from Google was involved in the funding, and you can’t put anything past those guys!’

Real life is already catching up with 100 Objects, so whilst, like the cloned burger, the idea that half the population could be out of work in forty years is daunting, it’s not impossible.

A History Of The Future In 100 Objects has just been released in print and is available to buy here and you can follow Adrian on Twitter @adrianhon

2114, a Radio 4 programme based on the book, is planned for summer 2014.

What else can we expect from the future?

Silent Messaging
A necklace that gives wearers the power to communicate silently and invisibly via ‘sub-vocalisation’,  Silent Messaging is Hon’s personal favourite object. ‘I keep coming up with ideas for when I would use it in my daily life. They’re really prosaic; for instance I’m struggling with heavy bags, but can’t get my phone out of my pocket to ask someone to come and help me!’

The Sudan-Shanghai Connection
This entry was inspired by a trip that Hon made to Sudan two years ago. ‘Khartoum’s tallest building was built by the Chinese. The Chinese government is investing a lot in Africa, in return for resources. The Sudan –Shanghai Connection is a logical extension of this. The Chinese are very interested in food security. As the fertility of Chinese farmland deteriorates and the population continues to grow, it makes sense to outsource farmland from the rest of the world. These sorts of transactions are not always fair, and I imagine that in Sudan it would not be as fair as it ought to be. I imagine forced land removals, homeless people becoming radicalised, forming a terror group – and reacting by detonating a bomb in Shanghai. In a superficial way, it would be China’s equivalent of 9/11’.

Thylacinus cynocephalus
A campaign to resurrect species that have become extinct during the last 500 years, including Thylacinus cynocephalus, the Tasmanian wolf. In order to get publicity and funding for their research, the team behind the project also resurrect a woolly mammoth as a publicity stunt, but fear that they won’t be able to find a suitable habitat for it.

Hon wrote the book over two and a half years, so his own predictions were informed and influenced by events in the news – specifically the London 2012 Olympics. Javelin imagines a 2040 Pyongyang Paralympics with a special category for ‘enhanced’ humans who use performance-enhancing technology to smash records. Javelin ‘is absolutely a reference to Oscar Pistorious,’ according to Hon. ‘He’s fascinating because, and I’m not sure if this is the right term, he’s a crossover athlete, because he is able to not only match but exceed the speeds of able-bodied athletes’.

Amanda and Martin
Amanda and Martin are one of the first human-android couples to be married. The pair meet when Martin, working as an emergency response robot, saves Amanda’s life when she is injured whilst walking in the Lake District.  Their wedding ring is on display at as part of the FutureFest exhibition.

The Downvoted
The Downvoted is a nightmarish extension of social networks that allow users to approve or disapprove of other users’ content. Much like an eBay user with a poor reputation score, in this story, people who are unpopular with their peers find themselves unable to access basic services. The Downvoted become outcasts, struggled to get jobs and repelling people with their aura of negative votes.

Euphoric Gastronomy
In 2040s Berlin, the legalisation of drugs and the molecular gastronomy trend have combined to create a culinary revolution. Europe’s best-selling cookbook, Euphoric Gastronomy, uses opiates and hallucinogens as recipe ingredients. What would Heston and Delia think to that? Luckily, Securin, an ‘addiction inhibitor’, is available so that people can enjoy a drug-laced dinner without longterm consequences.

A Cure For Hate
‘Personality editing’ enables scientists at UCL to remove violent offenders’ aggressive tendencies. This means that those convicted of assault can live n the community without posing a threat to others, easing the pressure on the prison system. A number of Hon’s objects look at crime and law enforcement, including new, non-violent forms of torture. Personality editing is also used by an extremist Christian group, who offer a course of eighteen pills designed to chemically alter you into becoming a better and more moral person.

Death Of A Mouse
Copyright law becomes untenable, resulting in this ‘derivative, confusing, and generally mediocre’ play in which Harry Potter meets Mickey Mouse. Freedom fron copyright lawsuits inspires a generation of artists to reimagine and reuse classic characters and stories for a new century.

Prince George
A 2039 interview sees the royal baby having grown up to become a scientist.  After setting up a lab in Buckingham palace aged 8, George went on to complete a phd at MIT and publish scientific research in journals under a pseudonym.  He comes across as polite and self-effacing, and very flattered to be described as ‘Britain’s first modern monarch’.



Zoah Hedges-Stocks is a journalist looking for opportunities in digital journalism in London. She read History at Cambridge University, where she was twice Editor-In-Chief of The Cambridge Student. She is currently writing a dreadful novel, and is keen to take on any freelance writing assignments that you might like to throw her way. Twitter: @zoah_hs

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