The Future We’ve Got

When we think about the future, we tend to take current realities and project them forward to develop our vision of what is to come. At the height of the Apollo program in the late ’60s, the Moon base and voyage to Jupiter in 2001 were entirely plausible. When the world was concerned about The Population Bomb and the perils of overpopulation, Soylent Green seemed like a grim, but possible, future. And to an America in the grips of car culture in the early ’60s, of course the future would have those cool flying vehicles in The Jetsons.

But the actual future has a way of turning out differently from the forecasts of even the most dedicated futurists. There aren’t any Moon bases–not yet, at least–and the mass starvation and terrible poverty that were supposed to accompany the exponential growth of humanity didn’t happen; instead, the birth rate reversed itself in many places, and now many countries worry about not having enough people, rather than too many. And regrettably, there are still no cool flying cars that make those soothing, blurbling sounds that George Jetson heard every morning on his way to work at Spacely Sprockets.

Why are our visions of the future so frequently off base? At bottom, it is because modern human society is simply too complicated to try to model and project into the future. There are too many imponderables, from the actions of power-hungry individual leaders to the impact of new unexpected technology to the abrupt social and cultural developments that change the nature of basic human interaction–among hundreds of other variables. And unknowable curve balls, like the COVID-19 pandemic, produce shifts that no one could foresee, which then have ripple effects of their own. I don’t remember anyone forecasting that, seemingly in the blink of an eye, the American workforce would, in many business segments, move from office-based to home-based, with all of its vast implications for social interaction, the commercial real estate market, energy use, and technological dependence, among countless other areas.

It makes you wonder whether it makes any sense to even try to forecast the future. Perhaps the better course is to commit to personal flexibility in outlook, remain willing to learn and adapt, and be amenable to accepting the unexpected changes that inevitably come our way. The future seems more manageable if you take it one change at a time.