Americans versus the future

IFTF logoFor a country that prides itself on invention and innovation, Americans actually don’t think very much about the future.  That’s the conclusion of a new survey (pdf) by the Institute for the Future (IFTF).

Let me pull out some key findings.

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First, our future horizon tends to max out at a five year horizon.  One year or less is a more common framing:

53% of Americans say they rarely or never think about something that might happen, or something they personally might do, at least 30 years from the present. Only 10% think about the far future every day (5%) or several times a week (5%).

Looking 10 years ahead is somewhat less rare—36% rarely or never think about something that might happen at least 10 years in the future, while 17% say they think that far out every day (7%) or several times a week (10%).

Three years is a stretch, but done often enough:

IFTF study_3 years out

Which makes a lot of sense, for the general population, when we think about the variety of strong social and cultural time frames we work within: quarterly economic reports, a three- or four-year (putative) graduation plan.  We can also think of those whose conditions foreclose futures thinking: prisoners, or people in war, or the severely depressed.

Second, age makes a big difference, as younger people are more likely to consider the future than their elders:

In fact, the older people get, the less they think about the future—75% of seniors rarely or never think 30 years out, while 51% rarely or never think 10 years out.

One counterintuitive finding about that demographic: “Having children or grandchildren did not significantly increase future thinking”.

This observation about age and forward thinking is especially meaningful for organizations and fields often led by seniors, like academia.

Third, there seems to be a subset of Americans who actually like to consider things to come:

A minority of Americans are highly future-minded: 17% say they think about the world 30 years out at least once a week; 29% think about the 10-year future at least once a week, and 35% think about the 5-year future at least once a week.

I would love to see IFTF identify the contours and traits of this population.  How many are science fiction readers?

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 What are breakdowns by gender, race, education, religion?

Fourth, fear is a good motivator for stirring up futures thinking.  Specifically, fear of death:

Among those who reported a brush with mortality, there was a 21% increase in thinking about the 30-year future often, a 25% increase in thinking about the 10-year future often, and a 31% increase in thinking about the 5-year future often…

Analogically, I’ve seen this in my own work.  Generally speaking people who are spooked about their institution’s or organization’s fate tend to be more receptive to forecasting and scenarios.

Let me step back from the study results themselves.  The method suggests the findings are too optimistic (if you value futures thinking), as the survey as done online, and also explicitly identified itself as being about the future.  It’s possible that a broader survey would find Americans thinking even less frequently, and in shorter horizons, about what’s to come.

In isolation, the study evokes comparative questions.

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 Are Americans less future-oriented than they were before the Trump presidency, or in comparison with, say, the late 20th century?  How would other countries fare when subjected to the same test?

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 Given the age factor, I’d be curious to compare older and younger populations (say, Japan’s and Kenya’s).

Those are cultural questions.  As Jane McGonigal, one of the study’s leads, observes, there are also some fascinating biological aspects to the ways humans (not just Americans) look ahead.  We tend to think of the future as essentially separated from our present self.  McGonigal points to a study showing that, under fMRI scrutiny, “your brain acts as if your future self is someone you don’t know very well and, frankly, someone you don’t care about.”

She goes on to argue, and cite other researchers making the same point, that the disconnect drives our present day actions in ways that aren’t necessarily forward-looking.  “Why would you save money for your future self when, to your brain, it feels like you’re just handing away your money to a complete stranger?”  Hence our general unwillingness to engage with a century-long problem like climate change.

Hence future studies and forecasting methods.  We need heuristics and mental structures to prod us out of the present and short-term.

Do you see evidence of this kind of present-ism around you in your work or community?

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One Response to Americans versus the future

  1. I would very much like to see a definitive timeline of the arrival of black swans in the future, 5, 10 and 30 years out — oh, and a day out during the Trump presidency.

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