What do you imagine will be the biggest challenges that the world will face in 20 years? Energy or food scarcity? Overpopulation? What about our biggest triumphs? Cures for cancer and extended lifespans? Smarter humans? Well, these would all sound similar to the people of 1980 when they looked 20 years into the future to the year 2000.

Under the headline "Most expect life to be better in year 2000," the June 29, 1980 issue of the Cedar Rapids Gazette in Iowa ran a syndicated column by UPI editor Gay Pauley about the future. And it's quite an artifact.

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Every prediction ultimately says more about the time and people that were making it than it does about the actual future. Which is what makes these American predictions from 1980 so fascinating. They show a mix of tremendous optimism (average lifespans of a 100 by the 21st century) and insecurity about what tomorrow might bring (consuming alternative sources of protein like dog).

The Olds

Achieving universal health care and keeping Social Security alive are two hot button political topics here in the early 21st century. So it shouldn't be surprising to learn that they were major concerns of 1980 as well. In fact, it may be depressing to learn that we've come so far into the future with only baby steps toward solutions for the problems that face both the elderly and any living human with an immune system.

From the June 29, 1980 article:

"We're going to have a helluva lot of old people by the year 2000," said Barry Robinson, communications counsel for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

"It's a rule of thumb that if you make 65 and are in reasonably good health, you will be around for an average of another 15 years — 13 for men, 18 for women," he said.

"By the year 2000, we will have a tight dependency ratio, a point where two people are working for the one person collecting pension-Social Security.

"We'll see the end of retirement as we know it today. We might work only half a year, say. There would be a longer working life, but shorter periods of work, so that instead of taking all our leisure at the end of life, we would spread it out."

AARP's spokesman said there must be some means of guaranteeing medical care for all people, and there is a crying need for more physicians knowledgeable about geriatric diseases.

Domed Cities

There was nothing more futuristic at midcentury than flying cars, jetpacks, and domed cities. The domed city represented the ultimate control of nature (save the actual manipulation of weather) and popped up again and again not only in science fiction, but in serious-minded proposals for the cities of tomorrow.

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But by 1980 the concept of the domed city had become passé. People saw it as tremendously impractical for a number of reasons—not least of which was the tremendous energy costs that it would take to keep a huge domed structure warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

From 1980:

Remember talk of domed cities — the dream of the future?

Architects now say it would be impractical.

"It's a pipe dream," said Michael Graves, architect based in Princeton, N.J. "We couldn't afford it anyway; we couldn't afford the air conditioning, nor do we need it."

Graves also says high-rise office and apartment buildings should be spread out... turned over on their side as it were.

"Doing one high rise is contrast," he said. "Doing them hundreds of times becomes negative. We've gone skyscraper crazy."

Graves mentioned Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston as cities busy building but still with a chance to "spread it out." He believes the corporate building of the future should get by, not with towering structures, but a simple gate "as part of its identity. Keep the streets for the people... for communal activities."

Transportation

Can't wait for your driverless car? Well, neither could the people of 1980. They were concerned about the price of oil (the oil shocks of the 1970s were still a recent memory) and predicted that the electric car would be commonplace by 1995. Automated urban transit? Abundant by 2010.

On every continent governments are cutting back sharply on fuel supplies for cars. Governments are raising gasoline prices to offset the oil price rises and also discourage excessive dependence on the car, [researchers at the Worldwatch Institute with a new book called Running on Empty] said.

A sampling of gas prices around the world reveals prices already in excess of $3 per gallon.

"The day when a tankful of gasoline will cost $50 (in the United States) is not far off," they said.

None of the leading alternatives — alcohol, liquid fuels from coal, and oil from shale and tar sand — will be cheap.

Yet 100,000 new cars roll off assembly lines each workday in the world's leading manufacturing industry.

The authors cite the increasing use of, and need for, widespread development of mass transportation. They don't see the demise of the car but rather "development of vehicles that are more efficient in their use of fuel."

The electric car? It will be in widespread use by 1995, one survey showed. McGraw-Hill Publications, in a poll of some 200 industrial firms and government and private researchers, also predicted widespread use of the supersonic jet transport, multi-unit truck "trains" running on their own traffic lanes by the year 2000 and urban transit automated by 2010.

Eating Dogs

In 1978 Barbara Ford wrote a book titled Future Food, which advocated for the consumption of alternative proteins like insects and algae.

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The 1980 article even mentioned rodents and dogs as possible sources of food for the future:

We will mine and harvest the sea increasingly. And what today is considered food for livestock will feed humans. Barbara Ford, examining "Future Food, Alternate Protein for the Year 2000" (William Morrow & Co.) predicted the world will dine on high-protein grains, non-dairy cheese and milk, unusual forms of marine life, leafy plants such as alfalfa, one-celled plants such as algae, and an assortment of "weird" proteins that include insects, reptiles, rodents, small game, even dogs.

Cures for Cancer

Life expectancy has indeed risen since 1980, but not quite as optimistically as this article from 1980 would have liked.

In health, experts believe a cure for cancer is technically possible by 1985, that creation of a primitive form of life will exist by 1990, and life expectancy will rise to 100 years by 2005.

The McGraw-Hill survey indicated within the next 20 years medicine will be able readily to spot prebirth defects, use ultrasonics to detect brain tumors, find means of speeding fracture healing, use electronic impulses to control pain, find a practical blood substitute, reverse malignancies with chemotherapy, develop effective weight and appetite control, transplant the nucleus of human cells, change sex of an infant in the womb.

Also: develop electronic prosthesis, use artificial organs extensively, find an effective immunization against radiation, control old age chemically, and find a means even of artificial growth of new limbs.

Smarter Kids

The people of 1980 predicted that children of the future would be more well rounded and start structured schooling as early as 3. Lifelong education was also predicted — a common vision from the 1970s that continued to be popular amongst futurists of the 1980s.

Formal schooling will start earlier, say from age 3, and end earlier, by 15.

Young people will have "charge account power," said Harold G. Shane, former dean of education and currently professor of education at Indiana University, Bloomington. Shane, who writes and lectures internationally, defined the charge account power as giving young people "the option of four to six more years of formal school of their own choosing" to use anytime they wish.

"There will be strong emphasis on lifelong education," he said in an interview. "Society will provide education that permits exit and re-entry into formal studies" as the student, no matter the age, decides what he or she wants to study.

The reward system will change to less emphasis on diplomas, certificates, credentials and the like.

"There will be enormous efforts to create more generalists," he said, "more who are expert in more than one field. Cross careers, as it were. The cross-disciplinary background is very important in attacking and solving some of our social changes in the next 20 years."

Experimental Religions

There was this sense from some that America would continue to remain as religious as ever, but that religion and spirituality would come to manifest themselves in different ways by the year 2000.

"My sense is that by the year 2000, there will be a substantial recognition that we not only are economic and physical creatures, but also spiritual," said Ruben Nelson of Square One Ltd., Ottawa, Canada.

"We may not be aware of it, but we are living through one of the most profound transformations in history — seeking the basic truth, order in society. Our sense of what is true is shifting profoundly, to something that is essentially experimental. That's why dialogue is so important...

"Part of the informality of religion is the experimental. I don't think we will return to the church as in the 1950s when we put up a church and filled the damned thing. Now those who will fill the church will do so because they want to talk with each other. People are on the move, the spirit is on the move. Tents you can have, but not temples."

The Ladyfolk

The year 1980 isn't ancient history, but it wasn't that long ago either. So when my mom tells the story of going to buy a car during that era and the car salesman telling her to come back with her husband's approval, it's a bit shocking—but a reminder that we've actually made some positive changes as a society since 1980.

The role of women in the year 2000 and beyond will be one of the most drastic changes. Most women will be working outside the home; more and more will be participating in public decision-making.

"The shift of women into the labor force has got to bring changes in public policies toward day-care facilities, work scheduling, even in the way we tax ourselves," said Kathleen Newland, a political scientist, economist and senior researcher for Worldwatch Institute.

"The (tax) penalty now is placed on couples in which both partners are the wage earners. By the year 2000 we will see much greater equality in the professions — medicine, law, other occupations where there are specific credentials.

"But it's a long, hard struggle for real equal pay for equal work. Sexual segregation in the labor force is so strongly entrenched. By the year 2000 the term 'male chauvinist' will not be dead . . . the 21st century is only 20 years away. Women are making progress, but it will take more than 20 years."

For those of you who may be wondering what my mom did, she didn't give that dealership her business and just went somewhere else. Nobody tells my mom that she needs her husband's approval for anything.

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Images: From the June 29, 1980 issue of the Cedar Rapids Gazette