What will America look like in 2025?
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02/12/09 Seán Kinane
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Erik Peterson from CSIS speaks at UT in front of a slide displaying the upside-down age demography expected in 2050 in the U.S.


photo by Seán Kinane/WMNF

What might the United States and the rest of the world look like in 16 years? Students, professors, and members of the public pondered that question this morning at the University of Tampa.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies CSIS is a Washington think-tank that, according to its website, “conducts research and analysis and develops policy initiatives that look into the future and anticipate change.” The director of the Global Strategy Institute at CSIS, Erik Peterson, says that people graduating from high school in 2025 will realize that decisions made today will still affect them in 16 years.

“Will they ask us why we were able to create circumstances that were beneficial to their future? Will they thank us for this environment of prosperity and sustainability that we together have built for them? Or we need to ask, are they going to look at he other side? Will they ask us, ‘Why couldn’t you have done more? How could you have let this happen going forward?’ I think that these types of questions should haunt us as we think about where this country is and where it’s going in the future.”

Peterson described trends affecting the short-term and long-term future of the United States, which has been considered by some as a “hyperpower” because of the reach of its economy and military. But, he says, the country displays six symptoms that its power is eroding.

“We lead the world in the stock of debt – personal, fiscal, current account ... we are now a debtor country. ... In exports, you would think that this massive economy would be leading, but we’re not only second, we’re third, falling behind Germany and now China. ... Hard to believe but the United States is now a net importer of high technology. The Euro has displaced the [U.S.] dollar as an international currency of choice. We’ve all watched how embattled the health care system has become. Continued lack of energy security.”

The Center for Strategic and International Studies board of trustees includes many former government officials including Henry Kissinger – President Nixon’s Secretary of State, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor.

Erik Peterson says there are six key dimensions that need to be considered in order to speculate about what the Class of 2025 might encounter: demographics, education, economics, environment, leadership, and infrastructure.

“Now, it’s quite amazing, but the American Society of Civil Engineers, in that latest report card that I mentioned, estimates that probably – probably – in the next five years, it will require an investment of $2.2 trillion in order to bring the infrastructure to what it calls a ‘good’ condition.”

Peterson suggests that the country needs to support higher education as well as K-12 education. He points out that 30 years ago the United States was educating 30% of the world’s college students, but that number has fallen to 14% today. One way to make education more interesting for young people, Peterson says, is to catch their attention -- for example by pointing out their share of the national debt.

“We should be trying to find a way to say, look, every one of you younger people in this room – you owe an estimated $144,000. Not to the University of Tampa – maybe you do that, as well, I’m not sure – but to the country. We’ve already spent about $150,000 of your money that you’ll need to pay back at some point.”

Because non-discretionary government spending continues to increase over time, Peterson says that leaders in the future will not have much flexibility for discretionary programs.

“Leadership will be progressively constrained in this future. There will be fewer and fewer prerogatives for leadership, not only in government, but private sector, nongovernmental organizations, even in the academic sphere.”

Peterson says he senses a shift in environmental policy in the administration of President Barack Obama but recognizes that the level of personal consumption that Americans are used to is not sustainable.

According to Peterson, demographic changes will affect the quality of life of Americans in 16 years.

“The authoritative Population Reference Bureau summed it up recently in this way. As we look at America’s demographic future, we need to reach this conclusion: it will become bigger, older, and more diverse.”

Depending on the choices made by people today, Peterson sees three possible scenarios for 2025.

“The first one, unfortunately, is a more-of-the-same proposition. This would be a scenario in which we see continuing economic decline relative to Rest of World, mounting fiscal deficits. My guess is not a soul here would take on that notion. ... Now, a limited triage approach is probably exactly where we’re going. We’ll manage to somehow marshal our forces in key areas, but I think we’ll fall short of a strategic design unless we see the kind of leadership that I’m calling for. ... And then the one that we all can and should aspire to: a long-range trajectory should be a more unified political approach. In my view, this is the pathway through which we can begin to provide the next generation the kind of solid foundation that we ourselves have inherited.”

One young person in the audience asked Peterson how the class of 2025 might feel about America losing its dominance in the world and instead having to share that hegemony with other powerful countries.

“I’m not sure that the class of 2025 will take comfort in being part of a hegemony. I hope we can define our relationship with the rest of the world in a different way in the future.”

Peterson was invited by the University of Tampa’s Office of Graduate Studies and the Pierce Distinguished Practitioner Speaker Series.

CSIS – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Global Strategy Institute at CSIS

Erik Peterson

University of Tampa

CSIS Board of Trustees and Counselors

Population Reference Bureau

PRB: U.S. growing bigger, older, more diverse

University of Tampa’s Office of Graduate Studies

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