Education in a post-scarcity society


A future with extreme societal change will would naturally also bring about major transformations to the role, purpose and structure of higher education. This fictional wildcard scenario imagines a post-scarcity society — one where everyone can afford the basic necessities of life — and what education in such a society might look like. The article is based on CIFS' members' report Rethinking Higher Education: Structural Transformation on the Horizon.

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Senior Futurist, Editor

Posted Sep 13, 2019 in Education

With the expectation of massive technological advances in the coming decades, a scenario often crops up that some see as an unlikely wildcard, and others see as an inevitable evolution of current trends: that of a post-scarcity society, in which technology has accorded all people access to the necessary resources and opportunities to live decent and dignified lives. Even though the most likely scenario for society and education 50 years from now may be one that still resembles our current model (though the exact nature of this model may change profoundly), a post-scarcity scenario is realistic enough to be worth discussing. Better access to basic necessities could lead to a fundamental shift in the nature and purpose of education, with education increasingly becoming a quest for meaning and fulfilment  rather than being a prerequisite for labour market participation.


A post-scarcity society is one where every citizen can easily afford all the necessities of life. Massive labour market automation and plenty of cheap energy and raw materials – thanks to technological advances – make products and services basically free. It’s a society of abundance.

Some ‘luxury’ products and services may still be scarce and thus more difficult to obtain, and there may also be strong economic polarisation in a post-scarcity society, but no one lacks anything vital to their well-being, and everyone has access to most opportunities through a universal basic income and/or a universal basic assets system that includes free food, lodging, media, education, public transport, and other fundamental needs. A post-scarcity society is not necessarily a sustainable society. It may be financed by forwarding the bill to future generations, for example by ignoring unsustainable resource and energy use and long-term climate change; but it is equally possible to imagine a sustainable postscarcity economy.

To make a post-scarcity society possible, several advances are required:

  • The manufacture of products and provision of services must be mostly automated and based on raw materials that are plentiful or recyclable
  • Energy must be cheap and preferably sustainable, e.g. based on renewable resources.
  • The alarming threat of climate change and the consequences associated with it need to be managed/mitigated 
  • Artificial intelligence must be advanced enough to handle the basic cognitive tasks necessary to keep an advanced society running, including the administration and operation of infrastructure, healthcare, transport, and education
  • People aren’t required to work to justify their existence. However, post-scarcity does not mean post-work, as the quest for personal fulfilment might still compel many to work
  • The benefits of the above advances are made available to all. While some may have access to far more wealth and opportunities than others, no one lacks anything essential.

While we are nowhere near a post-scarcity society today, none of the advances listed above seem unsurmountable over a timeframe of five decades. Robots and technology such as additive manufacturing (3D-printing) are making their entry into an increasing number of industries, and AI is becoming capable of handling tasks previously requiring highly skilled human labour. The World Economic Forum even forecast that machines will be doing 52 per cent of work tasks by 2025 compared to 29 per cent today – reducing human labour needs by a third in just 7 years. At the same time, the costs of solar power, wind power and lithium-ion battery storage have dropped significantly in recent years, and there is little to suggest that the price of energy will not continue to decline in the future as current energy technologies continue to improve and new solutions emerge.

The greatest barriers to the emergence of a post-scarcity so- ciety may well be political and cultural rather than practical and technological: will we accept a society where most people don’t work, but still reap the fruits of labour? Will we see increasing economic polarisation due to the emergence of a ‘winner-takesall’ economy, despite universal basic income? Will individuals still want to work out of a need for fulfilment, even though their livelihoods won’t depend on it? Questions like these will influence both the nature and purpose of higher education in a postscarcity society.

Post-scarcity education

Needless to say, higher education in a post-scarcity society will look very different from what it is today. Technology will have played a major role in increasing reach, access and quality of education across the globe. The level of automation and digitisation of education in a post-scarcity society means that it costs very little to provide a universal basic education to all. Equally important is the fact that most people pursue a basic level of formalised higher education, which is freely available to all. Formalised basic level higher education is largely a national affair, but besides that, the education market is completely globalised.

Individuals are able to freely join completely individualised online educational experiences powered by AI, which take into account the individuals’ personal interests, aspirations, weaknesses, cultural backgrounds, etc. AI-driven automated translation has removed most language barriers, but cultural ones remain. However, not all aspects of higher education can be completely automated, and traditional face-to-face learning has become a premium luxury only available to a select few. For example, students who have shown exceptional talent and dedication in online courses and virtual labs may be invited to physical elite research institutions for further specialised, supervised education and real experimental science and innovation.

While everyone has access to some level of formalised higher education, informal and self-directed learning has generally come to the forefront. Especially lifelong learning takes place in a flexible and informal setting. With the high level of connectedness in society, virtually simulated learning environments allow interactive and immersive learning experiences in almost all aspects of life, whether it is through virtual experimental labs, true-to-life interactive visits to historic settings or exotic environments, or something else entirely. Neuroscientists have found a way to amplify learning using brain-computer interfaces, and as a potential game changer, they claim they are not far from new major breakthroughs that could make it possible to feed knowledge directly into people’s brains to teach new skills in an instant. We have fully entered a ‘ubiquitous learning’ paradigm – an anytime, anywhere learning environment supported by technology.

The purpose of education in a post-scarcity society

In our post-scarcity scenario, artificial intelligence handles many of the tasks that are integral to fields such as law, economics, medicine, architecture, engineering, education, and design. However, highly skilled professionals are still needed to advance knowledge and science, though even here, AI plays a greater role, for example in running virtual test environments. As artificial intelligence and automation have taken over most traditional jobs, people are generally no longer pursuing education to be able to compete in job markets. With participation in the labour market no longer being the main motivation to pursue higher education, the role of higher education institutions has shifted fundamentally.

Overall, there is less need for formalised university education, and universities have reverted to their previous role as institutions dedicated to advanced research. Citizens of the post-scarcity society choose to pursue higher education in different settings for various reasons, but mainly in an effort to live a meaningful life. After all, even in a society where material needs have been largely eliminated, humans will likely still seek the joy that comes from learning new things or acquiring new skills, and for many people, the quest for personal fulfilment still compels them to carry out work they find meaningful.

Citizens of the post-scarcity society are encouraged to pursue higher education with the aim of learning essential life skills – skills one needs to make the most out of life. Futures literacy has emerged as a central life skill for individuals to better understand the role the future plays in the present, and to nurture the ability to respond and adapt effectively to changing circumstances. Climate literacy skills remain essential in the continuing effort to address the consequences of global climate change.

Interest in past times, when individual ability mattered more, has grown. History, including counterfactual history, has become a popular pastime and field of education. Fields like philosophy and psychology have also seen a renaissance in a world where living is easy but finding the meaning of life is hard.

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