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Will we still need social workers in 2050?

Posted on December 1, 2013

It’s hard to imagine what 2050 is going to look like. When you think about it, film and the science fiction literature have made a fair attempt at predicting our future. In a 1949 comedy, Ma and Pa Kettle won a futuristic house in a competition. The technology created havoc for this family of fifteen children – but in the end the human element beat the technology. In the 1960s, Hanna-Barbera brought us The Jetsons’ futuristic lifestyle. Skipping a few decades, A Hand Maiden’s Tale and Surrogates brought dire messages about human fertility and robot technology. More recently the Swedish production Real Humans (which I loved by the way) brought issues of social justice, discrimination, inclusion and robot rights for us to think about – interesting when you think about the way we treat people today. One social work scholar, Antonio Lopez Palaez, has written about social work, society and how our future lives will be so entwined with those of robots we won’t be able to live without them.

Working with robots

Scientists tell us there will be no accidents with driverless cars, no organ and food shortages because we’ll grow what we need in Petri dishes. Maybe even babies will be made in artificial wombs according to our specifications. Disabling conditions and diseases will be genetically engineered out of existence (more movies come to mind). So there goes a few social work roles but maybe some new ones as well. Chips in the paintwork on our cars and houses will repair themselves. Care of older people will no longer worry governments as robots will do all the physical care as well as be our social companions. We won’t be naked because our computers will be in our clothes and jewellery. Our clothes and accessories will tell us what to eat, when to eat, monitor our health and remind us to take our medication. Of course we will all be on medication because every negative human emotion will be in the DSM psychiatric diagnostic manual and supposedly be treatable (1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley come to mind). ‘Feeling’ our partners from a distance will become a reality because our clothes will have sensors. We’ll probably only need to give the homeless one set of clothes because clothes will be self-cleaning.

That brings us to the disenfranchised of the world. We will still have ‘the poor’ because it is highly unlikely all people will have equal access to technology when they already lag behind. Inequality in the world is increasing (check out Richard Wilkinson on the See & Hear page]. It remains to be seen if only a few people in a few countries will hold all the power or whether pockets of resistance and innovation will do better in a world where monopolies, climate change and weather events are destined to get worse.  I’m betting on resistance and surprises.  Climate will be different and animal species extinct. Some people predict more poverty, more refugees and greater extremes in politics and government. Will we really be free of disease given the rise of anti-vaccination enthusiasts, the return of diseases once eradicated, the evolution of viruses, bacteria and other microscopic things? Perhaps we will also evolve. Our butts will get bigger from sitting on them (mine already has!) and we might look quite different because of our environment and interaction with technology…and of course plastic surgery.

So what about social work? No world is perfect and humans have never been good at learning from past mistakes. People will still suffer, grieve and experience difficulties and more than likely new problems will arise. Structural barriers and inequalities are not showing any signs of going away. In some countries we seem to be returning to the 1800s with charity models and concepts of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ making a come-back in a big way.  Individualism and consumerism seem to determine who is rewarded or punished. In most societies, the treatment of the marginalised and those seeking refuge leave a lot to be desired. As long as there are humans, social work will be needed. We might have to work with robots as well as people but as long as we stay in touch with our values of human rights and social justice and stay innovative, social work will continue to exist. Social workers have a voice and a lot to say and most importantly do great work. We need to adapt and ensure future social workers continue to be educated at a high standard to practice what we do best. Check back with me in 2050 if I’m still here and let me know how we got on.

Also check out Michael Reisch talking about the future of social work


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