Special Report

The Biggest Challenges Americans Will Face in the Next Decade

Thomas C. Frohlich, Hristina Byrnes

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16. Student debt crisis

Americans, in particular young Americans, will soon face the question of whether the nation’s growing student debt balance is sustainable.

The total student loan balance by Americans stands at $1.56 trillion, the highest ever recorded. The student loan balance was less than $600 billion just a decade ago. As of the end of 2017, Americans between 30 and 39 years were the most college-debt burdened age group with a balance of $461.0 billion, followed by the under 30 group, which owes $383.8 billion. Going forward, those burdened by student debt may postpone home buying and change consumption behavior to address their debt

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17. The War on Drugs

The War on Drugs has largely failed. There were 70,237 drug overdose deaths in the United States last year, following a trend of significant annual increase. New ways to prevent drug use will have to be tried. The zero tolerance policy against drug users that President Ronald Reagan’s administration started resulted in the mass incarceration of people for nonviolent crimes — from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. Funding was taken from programs for education, prevention, and rehab and transferred to programs aimed at intercepting and ceasing drugs. There is some interest in decriminalization of drugs because then they can be regulated.

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18. Military conflicts

One of the most dangerous situations for the U.S. economy is the possibility of military conflicts between the United States and China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran.

China continues its efforts to take disputed areas of the South China Sea. North Korea has nuclear weapon technology and long-range missiles, and according to recent information its programs are still active. It would only take one major incident to start a military conflict that could knock down consumer confidence and undermine companies’ ability to do business in the regions where there are military clashes.

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19. Aging nuclear power plants

The United States has a total of 60 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 98 nuclear reactors. As these plants age, the chances of malfunctions and potentially lethal accidents increase. According to a report by Stanford University, due to the limited lifespan of nuclear reactors — because of decades of working under high pressure, temperature, and radiation — a period of nuclear insecurity may be around the corner. Replacing old nuclear reactors will cost billions of dollars, which probably means alternative sources of energy will have to be further explored.

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20. Climate disasters

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October 2018 report documented the high stakes of keeping global warming below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Average ocean surface temperatures currently stand at about 1.0°C higher. Without a coordinated global effort by governments and private institutions, many of the worst-case scenarios will likely come to pass in the near future.

As residents of one of the world’s largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, Americans will face head on the seemingly inevitable problems that climate change will cause. The effects of climate change will include more frequent heat waves, flooding from sea level rise, drought in some regions, larger and more extreme storms, and other weather events. These developments, in turn, are expected to result in species extinction, spikes in vector-borne diseases, political instability, large-scale displacement of populations, and other serious challenges.