In this scenario, England is a country of division and inequality. It is a world where you have to have resources - money and a stable home environment to do well.

scene from this world.

Extract from The President of the ADCS, inaugural speech, June 2035

The Chairman of the Artificial Intelligence Confederation was quoted last month at the London Stock Exchange. He said

the net effect of AI on the labour market has meant more jobs for the highly skilled for the fifth consecutive year. It is some consolation to live in England in which many people can prosper, not just survive. Our society has probably never been more competitive or territorial, even if this has been achieved at some cost to social cohesion and morale

Colleagues, as I reflected on that statement, I have come to realise that as a society we now seem quite at ease openly expressing the view that prosperity for some is more important than social cohesion. Being “competitive and territorial” is to be celebrated?!

Our society is fractured as consecutive governments have allowed the markets to commodify everything from education, services and even health and social care. We are living through a time when half the country is living with poor health and poor housing with low expectations and half the country is living a life of comfort, high levels of wellbeing and wealth. As a sector, we have realigned children and family services over the last five years, directing the little resources we have to those who cannot afford to pay for it. This week I have written to the Minister for Children and Families restating my belief and fear that serious risk exists to many vulnerable children and young people within our communities. Vulnerable young people who are at risk of manipulative gangs, organised crime and sexual exploitation.

Lack of investment over many years has meant that services are still forced to focus on crisis resolution in these areas rather than tackling root causes. We have squandered chances over many years with successive governments failing to accept that it has a role in managing markets, particularly those ‘markets’ where the state is the only purchaser of provision.

Colleagues, I call on government, as my predecessors before me, to prevent private profiteering off the backs of vulnerable children.

Michael Sloan, President ADCS

Key characteristics of this world

divided, unfair, two tiered society, competitive, selfish, urban / rural poverty split, learned helplessness, self-help, public health, professionals as experts, poor leadership, no social mobility, look after your own

Today in 2035

England is a country with entrenched inequalities. There are ever-widening gaps between rich and poor, North and South, privileged and less-privileged. The level of wealth inequality between the richest and poorest people in England is the highest in the developed world.

Many neglected regions in England, particularly in the North, have experienced half a century of stagnation and decline, while London and the South-East continue to benefit from private-sector growth. Many children and young people live in households in which parents are forced into low-paid and insecure work.

People with protected equalities characteristics - race, ethnicity, ability, gender, sexual orientation, religion - face even greater discrimination today with the gradual dismantling of protections, meaning worse life outcomes than straight, white, able-bodied men (SWAMs).

Decades of welfare cuts have created a significant segment of the population living in absolute poverty, forced to rely on food banks and other forms of charity to get by. These conditions have worsened with the food and medicine shortages, which have pushed prices out of reach for low-income families.

Doctors are seeing higher levels of malnutrition amongst children and young people, due to a lack of fruit and vegetables in their diet (which are too expensive for many to buy). There has also been a return of several ‘Victorian-age’ diseases due to poor nutrition, poverty, and people being forced to live in squalid, cramped conditions - including polio, tuberculosis and rickets.

Children from deprived backgrounds are more likely to enter the prison system than the job market, and are more likely to experience mental health difficulties throughout their lives. They are also more likely to have been excluded from the school system - where privatisation has eroded the quality and existence of state schools - and are therefore more likely to be illiterate, significantly reducing their job prospects.

In contrast, in the affluent areas across England, young people have life experiences that are radically different from those in deprived areas. Living in private housing, with access to expensive high-quality food, private medical and dental care, and private schooling, wealthier young people have been unaffected by the economic recession.

Becoming very popular in the 2020s, affluent, middle-class parents routinely set up extensive off-shore investments, have been buffered from the financial crash. Their children are likely to attend private university-level learning centres and go on to become the ‘elite’ of society - lawyers, politicians, judges and bankers. While a proportion of wealthy children have equalities characteristics - such as being disabled - their families have been able to purchase disability AI products, thereby largely avoiding discrimination. State provided children’s services are practically non-existent for these large swathes of the population.

In educational terms, the differences for rich and poor could not be wider. For children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, school is a penance and access is limited. School hours have been reduced to 9:00-11:30am due to budget cuts and staff shortages, thereby reducing the time to learn.

The curriculum is basic and harsh, focussed on a rigorous testing regime, with no room for creativity or difference. There is little emphasis on technology, health sciences or innovation, which is necessary for today’s job market. Many state schools have been shut down across the country, due to a lack of funding and investment, leaving many children without access to a formal education, and relying on parents’ limited time and ability to home-school. Pupils attending state schools are expected to maintain a high grade point average (a system adopted from the USA), or otherwise face punishment.

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds often have difficulty dealing with this highly demanding and competitive education system, and more and more children find themselves excluded from the education system entirely. Children with complex needs who are not sufficiently supported by children’s services often take their frustrations out in school, putting further strain on the education system. Lack of coordination between children’s services and schools means there is little in the way of ‘wrap-around’ help for these children.

For children from wealthier backgrounds, the educational options are quite different. Underperforming state schools have mostly closed down in the South of England, as parents invest in private education. At the fee-paying private schools, young people and their parents demand learning and tuition in computer science, software development and financial management. Soft skills are seen as important to the changing job market. Many young people aim to become self employed and provide artisan bespoke services.

The Independent School Association has pointed out a sharp increase in recent years in the number of children and young people presenting with mental ill-health issues. They said in an article last month, “even though there is so much support given to our children, that in itself can feel like quite an artificial environment at times and for some the ‘small things’ can become ‘big things’ in their lives. Unfortunately, self harming and eating disorders have continued to increase in our schools despite our best efforts”.

Affluent young people are well rehearsed in the kinds of jobs which AI will create and which ones it will replace. Today in 2035, they are entering the world of work demanding a new deal from employers. They know that they have skills which are in demand. Many of those young people have not gone to ‘traditional universities’ which have been dramatically devalued in recent years. They instead go, at a high cost, to highly sought after privately-run learning centres which prepare young people with the required, adaptive skills for tomorrow’s labour market. When they enter the high-end of the labour market, young people from more affluent backgrounds have more choice, in terms of sector and region.

With advancements in technology, people are no longer bound to live where they work, and as such, people with good educations and jobs can move to rural areas for a better quality of life for themselves and their families, and to get away from crime-ridden urban areas. Many affluent people live in ‘gated communities’ where they collectively employ private security firms to protect their properties.

Young people from wealthier backgrounds have populated the senior management ranks of UK branches of American multinationals that have monopolised the ‘gig economy’, such as Uber, Google and Amazon. Through successfully lobbying, they have been able to maintain tax breaks and weaken industrial relations, to ensure the stability of the gig economy. This has resulted in lower amounts of money being invested in public services and weaker trade unions.

For young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, social mobility has ground to a halt. They find it challenging to find permanent, well-paid employment; instead, zero-hours contracts in low-paid industries is the norm. Young people from low-income backgrounds, unable to gain an education, are often forced into the black market, working for criminal gangs who sell illegal drugs and counterfeit goods. Poverty and homelessness are at an all-time high for society’s most vulnerable people with protected characteristics.

Despite automation having eliminated many jobs, those who do work still work long hours for relatively little reward, with little time for their families, self-care or maintaining a work-life balance. Young people educated at state schools lack the skills and abilities to succeed in the fast-growing technological and health sciences industries.

Furthermore, as the workplace has become more based around digital and AI technology and the use of various innovative techniques and devices, this often reinforces existing inequalities, with those from poorer backgrounds less likely to have been educated in these technologies, less likely to own ‘smart’ devices, and less likely to grow up learning how to make the most of the opportunities they offer.

Many young people, particularly from refugee, migrant and socially disadvantaged backgrounds, find it very hard to find out what it is necessary for them to do to access employment and further education opportunities.

Children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds do not believe that they will have a better quality of life than their parents, and with the odds stacked against them, many have become fearful of the future, triggering a range of mental health disorders. However, the lack of investment in children’s services and mental health services for young people has created a vicious cycle - issues continue to manifest themselves later in life, putting more pressure on the prison system and other services. A sense of hopelessness pervades those communities which are ‘left behind’ and struggle financially; drug use and alcohol dependence has increased amongst the most vulnerable families in society.

Housing has become precarious for those on low incomes. The old, remaining stock of social housing has been increasingly converted into private homes through a new regulation, thus reducing the number of affordable, low-cost homes left in England. People from disadvantaged backgrounds predominantly live in low-quality, rented, temporary accommodation. People living in extreme poverty live on the streets. Home ownership is a luxury of the rich, with homes now costing an average of 10x people’s annual salaries.

Young people growing up in a stable environment with a strong support network of private teachers, doctors and tutors can cope with the world, and often thrive. However, those without this find the transition to adulthood to be very difficult, and often experience stress and anxiety. A large proportion of the child population has a standard of living which cuts them off from many of the opportunities enjoyed by their wealthier peers. Those children and young people facing multiple disadvantages feel fatalistic about their life chances.

How we got here

  • 2019

    General Election.

  • 2020

    Brexit the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

  • 2020

    Financial markets crash, food and medicine chains disrupted, civil disobedience.

  • 2020

    Economic aftershocks of the financial crash, in addition to food shortages and rising prices, plunges millions of working-class and lower middle-class households into poverty.

  • 2021

    Tax breaks introduced for the rich (to cope with the financial fall-out) while taxes are increased for people on lower incomes, plunging more middle-class families into poverty. Public services and social security benefits cut as recession deepens in England.

  • 2023

    Free trade deals with China and India that reduce environmental and social regulatory standards mean ‘dirty’ companies locating in England, pushing Northern England into a low-pay economy.

  • 2023

    The national minimum wage is abolished.

  • 2024

    Revocation of the Equalities Act by the government, leading to a steep increase in discrimination against BAME, migrant, LBGTQIA, disabled people and women.

  • 2024

    The government clamps down on civil unrest, and takes control of media outlets so that it can disseminate its own propaganda. The move is heavily criticised by the EU and UN.

  • 2024

    General election; the incumbent Government wins

  • 2025

    Efforts to negotiate a UK-EU trade agreement fail, as the EU believes the UK does not meet its targets of democratic accountability, free press and high regulatory standards.

  • 2026

    The UK and US negotiate a trade deal, leaving public services open to privatisation and reducing some worker’s rights and protections (including the abolition of the Agency Workers directive).

  • 2027

    The NHS is dismantled, leaving millions of people without a health safety net; private healthcare is expanded in light of the trade deal with the US, which only the rich can afford

  • 2028

    University reforms: owing to cuts in government funding, many pre-1990 universities are forced to close and the widening participation policies of remaining (elite, Russell Group) universities is rolled back; private universities, funded by US multinationals, pop up all over the country; fewer socio-economically disadvantaged young people go to university.

  • 2029

    General election; a new Government is formed.

  • 2029

    State-funded schools are closed across the country, due to chronic under-investment, and are replaced by fee-paying private schools that can only the rich can afford.

  • 2030

    Half of children and young people in England are reported to live in poverty and two-thirds of families reportedly suffer poor physical and mental health, including malnutrition, the return of rickets and polio, and high rates of suicide.

  • 2031

    The EU and UN, following an expert report, criticise England for being a ‘failed country’.

  • 2032

    Backlash by political forces who oppose globalisation, leading to riots on the streets.

  • 2034

    General election, a Government is formed.

Living in this world

“Come on, chuck the ball over, will you?”

I waited for the boy to answer. He stood, statue-like, on the other side of the towering fence. His eyes were wide with alarm. The other children had run back into the ornate school building, leaving him alone on the front lawn. Break-time was over. He had a smear of chocolate on his lip, disrupting his otherwise pristine appearance – silk tie, polished shoes.

“Please, I’m going to get in trouble,” I said, glancing around. One of the grown-ups walking past me turned to stare. I pulled my frayed jacket round my shoulders, shivering in the cold.

The boy finally moved, taking a step away from the half-deflated ball. I cringed. Wrong way.

“You don’t understand… I need it.” I could hear the desperation in my voice and felt instantly ashamed. Stupid, good-for-nothing idiot. I couldn’t do anything right.

Mind you, it wasn’t entirely my fault. I couldn’t believe Joe was kicking it about, not with its precious cargo inside. I’d let him have it when I got back to the camp. Scarpering off like that, the fool.

I put my fingers through the mesh wire of the fence, willing the boy with my eyes.

“Just throw it back,” I whispered.

The boy shook his head, turned, and dashed into the porticoed entrance behind him. I felt a harsh breeze ripple through my core, my zip-less jacket flapping open in surrender.

The abandoned ball, my life’s possessions, sat like an ugly toadstool in the garden of Eden. As out of place in its surroundings as I was in mine. The last time I’d gone near a school was three years ago, when I’d been expelled from our local state academy. They’d said it was because I wasn’t meeting the required grade average, but I knew it was really because my guardians didn’t have enough to buy me a school uniform. It didn’t matter anyway – the school closed down a few months later.

But this school was a different kettle of fish. It was one of those posh private schools, with sports grounds and digital classes. And very high fences. But I had to get that ball back.

I put a tentative foot into one of the mesh-wire squares, and lifted myself up onto the fence. I could do this. The electric fence around our tented camp was much higher than this, to stop us getting out. As if they could. I was up and over every night, doing my errands for the gang.

I climbed higher and higher, before my trousers ripped on a jutting piece of wire. Damn, I thought. My guardians were not going to be happy. They couldn’t afford a decent meal for us, let alone new clothes. My back braced involuntarily, in anticipation of the beating I was going to get from my foster-dad. The bruises from my last punishment hadn’t even healed yet.

I was over half-way up when I heard a noise and turned my head. A woman in a black suit was standing beneath me, glaring daggers. She murmured a voice command to her smart-earpiece, “Violation 502. Outsider boy. Buxley Learning Centre.”

I froze.

The woman, ice-blue eyes filled with disgust, raised her arm and pointed. “Get down,” she said. “Go back to your sewer, street-rat.” A male passer-by stopped and stared.

I didn’t have much time to think.

I took one last, longing look at the ball, then jumped. My knees cracked painfully as my feet hit the ground, and I swerved out of reach as the woman went to grab my jacket. I rolled over the paving stones, hopped onto my feet and ran as fast as I could, feeling the ghost of fingertips brush my back. There was a narrow alley about two blocks ahead, which led one of the gateway walls. If I made it, I could jump back over the wall into my neighbourhood.

Behind me, I could hear a commotion, with voices following in pursuit.

“That boy was trying to break into the Learning Centre. Catch him,” shouted the woman behind me. A man’s voice answered her, but I couldn’t make out the words, too focussed on running.

The buildings flashed by me as I sprinted down the street – tall, tetris-like structures with LED sensors and transparent aluminium. I’d heard they were full of robots – working together to keep the buildings safe and eject intruders. You’d never catch me in there.

“Stop him!” screamed a voice in the distance. “He’s a drug mule!”


The grown-ups must have gotten the ball and discovered its precious contents.

The gang were going to kill me.

Literally. The last kid who’d lost his cargo had ‘disappeared’ a few months ago and was never found again. Like so many other kids in my neighbourhood. Nobody gave a damn.

My heart was pounding as I spotted the alleyway up ahead. Got to keep going. But my breath was coming in fits and starts – my bronchitis wasn’t faring very well this winter. Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t had a warm meal in days. But I was almost there.

But just as I turned the corner into an alley, a hand reached out to grab me. I looked up into the cold, brown eyes of a middle-aged man. My gaze took in the badge on his uniform.

He was a police officer.

“No,” I shouted, kicking at him as he grabbed my arm. He grunted in surprise and let go.

I didn’t lose a moment – I leaped over the rubbish-bins and ran towards the brown-brick wall at the bottom of the alley. The gateway. I could just make out the crumbling stone houses of our neighbourhood behind it.

“Help” I cried as I ran, hoping that one of the gang was patrolling the wall. This was one of the main cross-points for smuggling operations.

Two young, tousle-haired heads popped up over the wall. One of them was Joe.

The jerk. He owed me.

The other was a gang-member I knew from sight. But just as I made eye contact with them, they ducked back behind the wall. What on earth are they doing?

Then I knew.

I felt a force hit my back, and I fell to the ground.

My back started spasming, and my muscles seized up. It felt like a flood of electricity was being pumped through my body. Then my body slumped, as if someone had flicked off a switch. Dammit, it must have been a taser – the police’s weapon of choice.

There were footsteps behind me.

“Didn’t think we’d let you get away with this, did you?” said a deep voice. “Spreading those poisonous drugs around our city. You’ve a lot to answer for, boy. The judge will lock you up and throw away the key.” I felt a boot nudging my arm, but I still couldn’t move. “What a waste.”

He was right; I could only agree. I was a waste.

But a sense of lightness spread through my body. I was going to go to prison. Four walls, hot meals, running water.

My limbs sagged in relief.

I was going to escape this hell.