Tom Campbell

The 1920s were known as the “Roaring Twenties,” a decade when electricity, telephones and radios became commonplace in most homes and automobiles were not just for the rich. Aside from the unfortunate (for some) introduction of Prohibition and the disastrous (for most) Great Depression that closed the decade, the 20s were a decade of great innovation, growth and prosperity.

For what will the decade of the 2020s be known in North Carolina? It’s one thing to predict the coming year, but altogether another to make forecasts for a decade. To do so, I consulted with a number of futurists I respect. One, Mike Walden, the N.C. State University economist, said this will be known as a “transformative” decade. Individuals will be empowered through dramatic changes, a prospect both exciting and daunting. While improved technologies will increase information, products and services available, they will come with challenges to our privacy. More information about you, your spending, preferences and location will be known by others.

Walden says our national economy has experienced the longest period of economic expansion in history — 11 years — and foresees steady, but not dramatic growth for the coming decade. He predicts an average 2 percent increase of the gross domestic product. North Carolina suffered more during the recession and was slow rebounding, but has made a steady and strong recovery, notably growth in the number of jobs. Walden doesn’t foresee a recession in our state, adding that there might be growth pauses, but not big downturns.

Urban and suburban areas will continue to attract new people, but innovations, coupled with high costs of housing and office space, will increase the number who telecommute from home, using virtualization to hold meetings, make presentations and conduct business. This should stimulate growth in exurban and some rural areas.

Health care will be a major topic of the 2020s. Families can’t afford the increasing health-care costs; neither can businesses. Increased competition will result from health-care-cost transparency, reformed insurance regulations that eliminate state barriers and redefine insurance groups, increased provider competition resulting from reductions in certificate of need regulations, expanded scope of practice approvals for nurse practitioners and physician assistants, and changes that allow lower prescription prices while not stifling drug development. Telemedicine will become commonplace as providers use online technologies to monitor vital signs and make diagnoses. Patient outcomes and wellness will be major thrusts, as will more emphasis on primary-health-care providers. The current public-private system will remain. “Obamacare” will be restructured and, borrowing from education, patient vouchers may be issued. Hospital consolidations will begin unwinding, as they prove to neither significantly increase operating efficiency nor reduce costs.

Education will be forced to change. School choice has reduced traditional public-school populations and been part of a resegregation of K-12 education. Unsatisfactory student achievement progress will force North Carolina to reform education. Every student will have a tablet, Internet access and instruction from master teachers online. Students will progress at their own pace as classrooms become online laboratories and teachers become mentors, enrichment providers and remediation coaches. Nationally recognized tests measure each student’s progress.

In higher education, declining birthrates and high costs will result in continued declines in college and university enrollments. Our 58 community colleges will emerge in importance as more students stay home and save expenses for their first two years of college and as business demands more vocational-skills training. Increasing layoffs, due to automation and technology, will result in large numbers of working-age people needing retraining. Distance learning will become commonplace.

Next week in this space, we will forecast the coming decade in politics, business, transportation and consumer spending. Buckle up; the Twenties promise to be transformative.

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Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina state treasurer and is creator/host of “N.C. SPIN,” a weekly, statewide television discussion of N.C. issues that airs on UNC-TV main channel Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 12:30 p.m. and UNC North Carolina Channel on Fridays at 10 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.