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The Wooden Nickel:  Back To The Future

The Wooden Nickel: Back To The Future

October 02, 2021

In 1982, John Naisbitt published a book called Megatrends: Ten New Directions for Transforming Our Lives. A self-described futurist, Naisbitt took a stab at trying to predict 10 trends that would change our society over the decades to come. I read the paperback version sometime around 1986. It might have been an odd thing for a 20-year-old to read, but I was weird and curious.

Think about when that book was written. In 1982 we were coming off of two terrible recessions. “Internet” wasn’t a word anybody had ever heard; the Cold War was raging and Max Headroom was a thing. Heck, our phones were connected to the wall of the kitchen. It seemed the world could very well end in a nuclear exchange, that we’d soon be looking $10/gallon gas, and that half the world couldn’t feed itself.

Yet he saw a future of possible progress. Here were his 10 trends. Did they come true?  How did that work out for us?

  1. The US will move from an Industrial Economy to an Information Economy. [True]  Our GDP derived from Industry is dwarfed by that from Information, and becomes more so every day. Very few Americans dream their kids will someday work in a factory, but many dream they will get high-tech, information-based jobs.
  2. Move to a High Tech/High Touch society: [Half True] The high-tech part is definitely correct, but Naisbitt’s prediction was that this change would enable people to connect more deeply and genuinely. We seem, as a society, more isolated from each other rather than closer, and ironically technology is one of the main reasons for this.
  3. National economy moves to Global economy [True]: We are very much locked in a global supply chain. This is good in that products are cheaper, but we realized during the pandemic that this can also be our Achilles heel.
  4. Short term thinking would be replaced with long-term thinking: [Not True] He was mainly talking about corporate behavior, and I’d argue this was completely wrong. Corporations and institutions are still locked in short-term thinking. Our attention spans have - often because of technology - gotten shorter. We are not good long-term planners, and we’ve suffered as a result.
  5. Local government replaces a lot of Federal government control [Mostly True]: While our Federal expenditures for things like social security and Medicare have ballooned, Federal government has in large part ceded control of much of our lives and been replaced with State and Local programs. This is why people who live in different states have very different experiences with government services.  Some are well-run, and some are not.  Some provide rich services, and some don’t. I’d argue that individual states are more different from each other than at any time since the Civil War.
  6. “Institutional” replaced by “self-reliance” [True]: Just look at the recent pandemic-related programs that too many ignore, because wiping out the vaccine is dependent upon our trust in institutions like government leaders, health care systems, and scientific researchers. Trust in our institutions (government, corporations, religion, etc.) is lower than ever. Companies don’t provide pensions; they fund 401k plans you must manage on your own. Nobody has much faith in government. Even the miracle of a vaccine is met with massive mistrust. The forces that Naisbitt saw when he made this prediction may have been more positive, but he nailed this trend.
  7. Democracy becomes more participatory [True]: We just had a record-setting election for votes, money, and rancor. Everybody with a phone thinks their opinion needs to be shared with millions. People are engaged in healthy and unhealthy debates. We have many participants. Are we better off? Yes and no.
  8. Move from Hierarchical to Informal networks [True]: Publishing, Facebook groups, gig workplaces, cryptocurrency, etc. All of these and many others represent breaks from tradition, hierarchy, and institutional control. People demand - and get - more choice, join and quit groups more frequently, change voting patterns back and forth, and are just less tied to anything. We have more engagement with the world, but less allegiance to the hierarchies of prior generations. 
  9. People and power move from the Frost Belt to the Sun Belt [True]: The most obvious ‘yes’ of the group. Virtually all the population growth in the country has been in warmer places, and this has represented a shift in power in the country, too. Since 2000 the Frost/Rust belt states have lost 13 seats in Congress, and Sun Belt states have gained 12 seats. Going forward it might change because of climate change or work-from-anywhere shifts, but it certainly has been true that the fastest growing communities in the country are very much in the warmer spots.
  10. Our choices will go from “either/or” to “freewheeling” [True]: Just look at your TV, which isn’t really a TV anymore; it’s a computer that gives you the choice of watching anything ever produced whenever you want. Anything. Choices in the 80’s were to watch a few TV channels or go to the movies. Same with car company models, airline flights, and your phone company (there was only one phone provider in 1982! He wrote this book before the breakup of AT&T). What about shopping? You were limited to stores in your area or catalog shopping. Now you can shop anywhere, from anywhere and at any time. Naisbitt got this more right than he knew.


So there you have it. One futurist predicted 10 Megatrends; he nailed 8, gets half credit on 2, and missed 1. I know all the Millennials and Gen Y’ers out there are saying “duh, ok Boomer, these are so obvious,” but these were not obvious trends back then. I had a choice of two radio stations! (If these trends were obvious, maybe I’d have bought a lot of Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google stock and I’d be typing this on my 200-foot yacht with unlimited TV choices).

Tell me this, you youngsters: what are the “obvious” trends for the next 30 years? 

The world is complicated, but also wonderful. It’s full of possibilities, but also possible terrors; Naisbitt missed Climate Change, Terrorism, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Kardashians. It’s probably tougher to predict the bad trends than the good since it requires prediction of failure. Maybe that’s why we keep making so many mistakes in foreign policy.

It’s too bad Mr. Naisbitt passed away this year at the age of 92. I’d really like to know what he thinks will come next.