On a million-person strong generation ship in space for upward of a century (multiple generations will live and die on the ship), what would the economy look like?


  • The crew running the ship is very removed from the society on the ship. Crew are recruited from the society, but contact is very minimal. The crew can visit their family on the ship, but form relationships with other crew members. It's sort of treated like a decades-long military deployment.

  • The society is descended from a capitalist society, and as such, was set up with a running economy in mind, not a socialist or communalist one. If only to keep the residents occupied .... Maybe an argument can be made that such an economy wouldn't be sustainable; that can be an answer.

  • True AI doesn't exist (so the society thinks...) but advanced robotics can be used to do things like repairs, driving, etc.

  • $\begingroup$ what about life-support systems and propulsion? Who owns them? And is there a way to switch off life-support selectively for different sections of the ship? $\endgroup$
    – Olga
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 2:17
  • $\begingroup$ one more question... what happens to children of crew members? Do they go back to the general population? $\endgroup$
    – Olga
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 2:18
  • $\begingroup$ Well what kind of economy they would have would depend on what kind of goods they could make which would depend on what kind of resources they have. So really it all comes down to what you put on the ship. If you were to have put enough rations for its entire journey on board for instance food would not play into the economy. However if they had to grow food in a hydroponic farm, food could play a major role in their economy. We need more details if you want a reasonable answer. $\endgroup$
    – Braydon
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 2:26
  • $\begingroup$ I thought everyone goes on an all expenses paid vacation, no? $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 5:34
  • $\begingroup$ I was going to answer, but I think all that needs to be said pretty much has been. Capitalism will not work in a society with limited resources and space. It is entirely based on consumption, which is why customers are called consumers and businesses producers. The problem is there are no resources to produce. Also, if you compare individual economic systems to governing systems, true free market capitalism is essential akin to anarchy. Both free market capitalism and anarchy dictate that the rules aren't made by the government, but by individuals who have more influence by currency or force. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 6:33

7 Answers 7


On a million-person strong generation ship in space for upward of a century (multiple generations will live and die on the ship), what would the economy look like?


No other scenario is remotely viable in a closed environment with (at best) a fixed resource base.

People will have to share and like it.

They will have to accept limits on what they can and cannot have.

In a sense they will need to be brainwashed - brought up to believe in the ideal and necessity of sharing and sharing alike.

You will still have choice.

Most likely you would be given a certain number of resource points to dispose of as you wish, the rest is a limited (controlled) selection from some significant resources and possible a limited range of living quarters in different areas that can be swapped between people.

Any form of market place demand-sets-price would destabilize the entire economy.

It must be tightly regulated.

Even the number and sex of children must be monitored and controlled.

Personal wealth would be impossible. It would destabilize everything.

They can do what they like when they leave the ship, but on it - no.


The crew running the ship is very removed from the society on the ship. Crew are recruited from the society, but contact is very minimal. The crew can visit their family on the ship, but form relationships with other crew members. It's sort of treated like a decades-long military deployment.

Congratulation you have almost guaranteed the development of a cabal who see themselves are more important than everyone else.

They have minimal contact, so they will develop a very them-and-us attitude.

This would be a disaster for social stability.

Imagine what the general population are thinking : "the crew get all the good stuff and we get what's left over." Doesn't have to be true either.

And the crew are thinking "we deserve better. Heck, without us those useless idiots would all be dead !". Again, doesn't have to be true.

A revolution or civil war waiting to happen.

The only way to have stability and instill a sense of duty and responsibility in the crew is for them to be chosen by and continually monitored using psychological tools to ensure they all have the right dutiful attitude to their work and service. Automatic retirement if they stop being suited to this task.

And they must mix with the rest of the people normally so that they have a clear sense of social attachment and belonging to them.

Detachment will breed problems. Integration will solve them.

The society is descended from a capitalist society, and as such, was set up with a running economy in mind, not a socialist or communalist one.

That's dogma, not engineering or scientific necessity.

This ship will need a controlled, centralized economy, highly regulated. There is no room or resources for selfishness or profiteering. I would go as far as to suggest that even slight deviations from the "norm of sharing" would be, by necessity, considered a serious criminal act by necessity.

As the resources available are constant (at best), there is no scope for growing personal wealth.

And greed breeds contempt and hatred.

This form of ship is constantly balanced on the knife edge of stability. It would require great discipline and control to keep it there. And there is no scope for failure here.

If only to keep the residents occupied ....

They will still be occupied. Teaching, learning, health, welfare, policing (you'll still need it) and all those many ordinary things humans do (like bring up kids) that use up so much time. We'll still need musicians, writers, philosophers, comedians and all the rest.

And we might even have some chores for them to do that the machines can't. :-)

Maybe an argument can be made that such an economy wouldn't be sustainable; that can be an answer.

Not remotely stable.

It's absolute control or death in such an environment.

You can make it relatively painless control, with the appearance of some control over your own life. But consider that even in a capitalist system most people (top and bottom) have relatively little control over their lives. You get choices, but they're not always the choices you want, but what you can afford or get legally.

To some extent, in every society, choice is limited.

True AI doesn't exist (so the society thinks...) but advanced robotics can be used to do things like repairs, driving, etc.

Unless people want to. And you may want to get people involved and keep them involved in running things to create and develop a sense of community and oneness. A sense that what they and others do serves everyone, including their families and themselves.

Capitalism is the opposite, BTW. It's every person for themselves. This is a disaster in such a closed resource system.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, you've touched on some of the issues with separating the crew, which wasn't really the point of my question, as that's a separate plot point. That's dogma, not engineering or scientific necessity. I never said they were smart in setting up the ship ... but thanks for your answer $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 23:36

Do what every government on the planet does, use a mixed economy. In this case something close to what you see on a large military base or ship, or even a oil platform and remote. This is how small countries like iceland handle it and they are in the same exact situation.

Basic necessities are supplied equally, and often generously, equipment is provided on reservation and luxuries and entertainment is mostly handled by a more capitalist method. It is essentially communism/socialism for necessities, capitalism for everything else. This is how every country on the planet functions because it is one of the few systems that actually works and easily the most pleasant out of them.

food, water, basic services(health,law,education,ect), living space, would all be provided and rationed, preferably equally, people don't tolerate to much of an imbalance unless they can't see it, and unbalance is unlikely to stay hidden on a ship. Many large recreational devices will need this as well, they will not be building more swimming pools or new gyms so you end up with a rota of usage. people may trade time slots with someone else but there will be a limit of how much time you can reserve to prevent abuse.

Then things like movie rentals (space netflix), games, craft supplies, even some luxury foods get handles by basically normal capitalism, people would get credits for doing things on the ship (or doing things for people who have) that they can spend on luxuries. That way the people who want to play chess can get chess boards and the people who want play guitar can get guitars. Let normal market forces handle allotment of speciality luxury goods. There could even be a basic allowance of credits everybody gets to spend on these things, which could be made from surpluses.

you may want to lay out some basics on your ship, is it cramped or with abundant space, the less room/margin for surplus food and material production there is, the less luxuries will even be possible. Is there room for bob to plant some hops fields and make beer? If you want a million people on the ship without them killing each other you need to provide a very high living standard which means basic needs completely covered, surpluses in material, and lots of entertainment and enrichment available.

PS there is really no reason to separate the crew, we interact with doctors, judges, police and others with greater influence like your crew everyday with no issues. It seems more like a way to manufacture strife than a solution to a problem, especially considering with a million people you will need all these jobs as well, and the crew is going to have to spend a lot of time with the general populace. Basically your crew are going to be fulfilling the same roles as government employees in in a normal city so there is no benefit in isolating them. Trying to isolate them will basically guarantee a societal breakdown and revolt within a few decades, it also makes sure they will suck at their jobs because they will not be picked for skill but for nepotism.


When you're talking about a ship where the journey lasts for generations, there's some obvious problems with capitalism to address. Frankly, I just don't think capitalism would work.

You could have social structures and a government granting more money/resources to higher ranking people in a controlled economy. But in a truly free market capitalist economy, it seems like a disaster waiting to happen for a number of reasons.

Capitalism often consumes more resources (think for example of having 2 or 3 gas stations at some intersections, this wouldn't happen in a controlled economy).

What's to stop the people from burning through too many resources for the sake of getting wealthy? For example, maybe businesses think having giant flashy billboards to draw in customers is a good way to make more money, even though it drains a lot of power from the ship's batteries.

Also, what's to stop a wealthy person from wasting a bunch of resources simply because they're rich and can afford to buy the resources? For example, maybe the wealthiest person in the ship wants to build a giant Olympic sized swimming pool that will take up half the drinking water supply. Why should he have to cut back on his water usage when he's wealthy enough to afford it, no matter how high he drives up the prices?

Or forget the 1 wealthy person idea. What's to stop the whole populace's greed from wasting the water or power supply simply because they want to use more than was budgeted for them and they can afford it?

Also, what if the population has a lot more children then was predicted, and the excess number of people drains too many resources?

You could argue the government will have limits in place to prevent a lot of that stuff. But as we see on Earth, the wealthy can buy politicians/leaders and get them to change the rules to let the wealthy do what they want. Also, if you have government protections in place against that sort of stuff, it starts to look more and more like a controlled economy or even a form of communism rather than capitalism.

About the only way around this problem I can come up with is if they harvest some asteroids for resources along the way. But even so, asteroids won't contain the materials needed to make every type of resource in the ship (unless they can transmute materials into other elements). And in a capitalist society who owns the mining rights to the asteroids?

  • $\begingroup$ communism presumes post-scarcity, it is most likely not the case... I agree with your idea of a planned economy (makes most sense anyway), but I think there will be a well-developed black market for 'luxury' goods. $\endgroup$
    – Olga
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 4:29

Recycling will not be 100% effective.

Materials will be released from storage to replenish losses, and presumably there is a controlled rate. Some special parts may not be recycled at all, there is a limited number of spares and that is it.

  • One could imagine a society where The Ship auctions these supplies to the highest bidder and allows the general population to trade among themselves.
  • Unwise choices by the general population run through supplies faster, recycle less efficiently, and when it comes to the next auction prices will go up. That encourages more wise choices next time, which saves supplies.
  • Wise choices by the general population conserve supplies, which drives the price at the auction down and allows them to be more wasteful next time.

Consider carbon credit trading. If all harmful choices by the general population have a price, it might be possible to leave the details to the market forces.

More likely there are two economies. One planned economy to run the essential ship functions, including power, air, water, food, housing, education, medical care, and one market economy to run the "luxury" functions, including alcohol and drugs, gambling, vice in general, use of other people's housing allowance, etc.

  • Alice has lots of money. She pays Bob and Charles to move into Charles' cabin, and Dale to install a door between Bob's cabin and hers.
  • Ed has an expensive drug habit. After his day shift, where he gets lots of deprimands for his work performance, he goes into sleazy bars where he gets drugs for sexual services.
  • Frances does not use all of her entertainment vouchers. She gives them to her grandkids, who go to an amusement park with it.

In order to have an economy you will need a currency that everyone considers valuable. In the early days, people traded resources in order to survive or better themselves. In the closed society of a starship, food, water,air, clothing and tools to perform tasks would all have to be supplied by the ship itself and I think its logical to presume everyone would have free access to it those resources in the beginning and I would think expected until the end of the trip. Otherwise there would be major problems early on (food riots and wars to gain control) and having certain jobs or duties pay out in certain kinds of meals or amounts of water seems like it would fail early on as well. As such they would not be much of a drive for the ship's occupants to work for those resources so there would have to be something else they want and some form of currency everyone can provide in the closed economy of this ship. My initial thought for currency would be Time and how you can spend it and at least one resource would be Leisure. Child bearing could be another as it would make sense to have some form control over the population of this ship.

Using a military like deployment makes good sense; if nothing else that type of hierarchy does lend itself to pre planning and seeks harmony withing itself through delegation and submitting to command. However if there is too much of a break between the crew running the ship and the society that lives in it I think there would only naturally start to be resentment and problems would start there. This sort of social issue would eventually effect everyone and then effect the economy and what each person considers to be an important resource. This would then likely lead to some kind of black market, unplanned for by the original command of the ship.


This is a very intriguing question. The devil is in the details. A ship that holds one million people would be humongous. Aircraft carriers of only 10,000 or so soldiers are so huge that some sailors may never see the entire ship. Certainly, each person is extremely unlikely to know even close to half of their fellow sailors. Modern day cruise ships of six thousand or more passengers illustrate just how structured the environment has to be, and residents are only on it for a week or so, not their entire lifetime. With one million, there would certainly be stratification and isolation. An awful lot of strangers.

A generational ship also introduces the question of the purpose of the inhabitants - those who first set off would be unlikely to know anything else but life on the ship. What would they see their purpose as? What concepts of history would they teach their children? Would life on a million-person ship be all that different than life in the core of a million-plus city? They would go about their daily living in much the same way. Same old same old daily routine, with perhaps a vacation thrown in. Live in the same apartment, eat at the same restaurants, see the same people, work in the same job. Watch the same video shows? Would you need to worry about unemployment? Would the company you work for close up shop as people change their likes and dislikes? Would the economy see the rise and fall of small business? People's tastes in food, restaurants, entertainment, reading habits and shows change in a large city, what would be so different about a colony of one million people on a space ship? Seinfeld season after season, for a lifetime? Eating the same food every day for your entire life? Even on a confined spaceship, culture would change and develop.

Baby sitting, fixing a bike, moving, baking a birthday cake, decorating a hall for a wedding reception or graduation party, there would have to be a huge exchange of small labor transactions. Certainly some form of monetary exchange for day-to-day living would be required. People just CAN'T repeat the same routine every day for their entire lives. But what would the monetary exchange be spent on in the future? Saving for a rainy day, when there is never any rain? A retirement party? A vacation? A wedding or such? In a hundred tears, when they arrive at their destination, the economy completely changes. Or would they even want to leave the ship, to colonize? It would be the only life they knew. Residents of our major cities really don't want to leave them - they are home. Would the residents if the ship want to leave, to go to a new planet, and leave the only thing they have ever known?

Capitalism is based on the premise that capital is needed for expansion, and that capital is needed for investment. I really don't think it would be an economy based on capitalism per se, that is the profit motive of investing capital to produce a return. What is there to build on a ship? What new developments would a developer invest in? Build a new subdivision off the port side? Build a new shopping mall in the east quadrant?

But herein is the conundrum - who owns the ship? The crew, or the passengers? Was it built by a developer? Isn't the ship one huge capitalistic investment? And have the inhabitants paid for the journey? How? Obviously, the capital was invested on earth, and I presume it would have stayed there. What would the expected return on capital be?

I can see why you would want the crew to be formed under some sort of military command structure. It would have to be. ISS follows a strict military command structure. Even cruise ships are so structured. But the crew would not live through the entire journey, so crew replacement and retirement would be an issue, as well as the training of new younger crew members. And a big issue - does the 'crew' see themselves as part of the 'ownership' structure, and the others as 'passengers'? With one million people, you would need some form of central government. Is the crew beholden to the central government, or is it separate, beholden to the mission objectives? I just can't see politics as being a vehicle for efficiently deciding how a ship is to be operated. 'Who votes for shutting down the warp drive and using the energy and resources to build a new subdivision off the port side? We may never get there, but we will have better living conditions'.

But with a million people, I can see the entertainment industry - film, theater, video game, sports (with a million people, there WILL be organized sports competitions), writing, betting (poker will never go away), amusement rides and fairs, all requiring constant development and creativity. Creating a new movie, for instance, would require a budget, some form of allocation of resources (allocation of capital), and consideration for determining the best return for the buck (whatever the buck is). How does one decide to make this movie or that one, when the outcome has absolutely no influence on the overall objective of the ship? Would 'fame' or 'happiness' points (as in the game of Life) be a substitute for wealth acquisition in evaluating such options? In our society, such decisions are made on the basis of monetary exchange.


I agree with the majority that planned economy (with black market :)) and some form of an authoritarian government seem to be the most sensible option, especially if you plan to finish your journey. Still, I will try to play the devil's advocate and come up with a plan for establishing a capitalist society.

For my ideas to work the following conditions should be met:

  • the ship must be huge and provide more than basic accommodations (bunk-beds and small compartments will not do);
  • the ship must have an established and well-functioning eco-system (only small adjustments and very rarely should be needed);
  • the crew should be small compared to the general population, yet, it should be able to maintain the ship operational;
  • the crew and passengers are completely separated economically (so crew members cannot exploit their position and gain economic power);
  • the crew has means to put a stop to any mutiny that can jeopardise the safety of the ship, its crew, or passengers;
  • colonists are not bound by contract with some space colonisation company and are free to engage in economic activity.

You can have a working market economy and private property (excluding ship, propulsion system, resources needed for the crew, and, probably, no land ownership). However, you cannot afford fully free markets and consumerism ideology.

First of all, you should make sure that your crew cannot affect the economy. But at the same time, you cannot make them an isolated group (the consequences of crew isolation were explained in StephenG's answer). The crew members should be something like high ranking government employees who have to disclose private information, tax returns, business contacts, etc. They should be hired on a long-term basis and provided government pensions upon retirement. The members of their families should not be allowed to participate in certain economic activities. Crew members and members of their families must maintain transparency for a specified time after retirement (check rules for people with the security clearance in modern societies). It is also important to draw recruits for the crew from all parts of society. You do not want a crew cast to form on your ship. It is way too dangerous.

Your government should be protecting the environment and have strict zoning codes (your ecosystem is essentially your life support, cannot screw it).

Your society should also have universal access to the healthcare and education. This will take care of diseases (one of the possible reasons for a failure of a generation ship). And also it will prevent overpopulation. High levels of education, availability of birth control and medical services are the best predictors of low birth rates. The population replacement level in developed countries is about 2.1: each woman should have 2.1 children on average. Many developed nations are below the replacement level, so you will need to do some social engineering to promote 2 children families.

You will also want to stimulate entertainment industry to keep people happy and prevent overthinking things. Tax breaks can be an effective tool.

Obviously, most of your economy will be service-based. But it is not very different from modern developed countries. I think what will be widely different is the absence of multinational corporations and heavy industry. You can choose to go either with monopolies or small businesses.

Monopolies are dangerous in a long run since they tend to accumulate not just financial power, but also political power. So eventually they will be able to change the law and remove restrictions on overexploiting resources. Monopolies also may lead to the high income inequality which destabilises both the society and the economy.

Small businesses seem like a much better idea. They create a vast middle class and distribute financial and political power among a greater number of people. It will be easier to keep the system stable for a longer time.

I think you can have a capitalistic representative social democracy on your ship. The political system should be designed with a lot of checks and balances. It also has to be made intentionally slow and rather inefficient to prevent sudden drastic changes. You will also need a strong ideology and a well-functioning propaganda machine (the entertainment industry works just fine for this, compare with the modern USA).

You might also need something like Civil Defence training for all people and laws for mass mobilisation in case of emergency.

It is important to remember that societies change. There is no such thing as stasis even on a generation ship. There will be new discoveries, social tension, changes in culture and customs. Your perfectly designed system might mutate into something completely different.

I can also see a lot of difficulties associated with landing. Your colonists will have to take on massive infrastructure and industry building projects. Who will pay for them? Who will own the infrastructure?


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .