Has there ever been an easier time to be a futurist? I’m distrustful of the profession at the best of times, since it involves making pronouncements about a time that hasn’t arrived – and not being held to account for your errors when it does arrive, because then it’s no longer the future, and thus no concern of the futurists. But these days, as the world staggers uncertainly out of lockdown, it’s even easier. All you need to say is that in life in general, or in whatever field you’re supposedly expert, everything’s going to change. Education, the economy, travel, work, dating, sport, the advertising industry, the world of aluminium can manufacturing: recent stories have promised massive transformation in them all. Or as a great sage (on the groundbreaking satire The Day Today) put it a quarter of a century ago: “If you’ve got a history book at home, take it out, throw it in the bin – it’s worthless.”
My objection isn’t that any of this is necessarily false. (Although taken literally, it is, because history never unfolds in absolutes: for example, it’s always jarring to be reminded that most people spent the Great Depression in work, not unemployed.) Rather, it’s the implication that life, in years to come, is going to feel very different indeed. And one of the few things we can be pretty sure of is that it won’t. For most of us, most of the time, it’ll feel normal.
Part of the reason is “hedonic adaptation”, our tendency to swiftly adapt emotionally to positive or negative changes in our circumstances, drifting back towards our baseline levels of curmudgeonliness or cheer. Another is the “focusing illusion”, whereby we overestimate the impact that any given change will have on our lives. The cumulative result is that any future change in your situation – like never shaking hands again, wearing a mask in public, or even something huge, like losing your job – is likely to make less of a difference than you think. After the attacks of September 11, we were told the world would never be the same again, and it wasn’t. But for all except those most directly affected – bereaved by war, imprisoned in Guantánamo – it soon felt normal. And so it goes, through history: each time a huge event disrupts a civilisation’s ordinary way of life, the “ordinary way of life” it’s disrupting is what people formerly thought of as the terrible climate ushered in by the last huge event.
None of this means things will be fine. They may well be worse: a world with less human contact, or more joblessness, is surely objectively worse, however normal it feels. But it does mean that if you found life generally meaningful in the post-9/11 world, or the post-financial-crisis world, the chances are you’ll do so in the post-coronavirus world as well.
In any case, as the political scientist Mark Lilla pointed out in a recent essay, even to ask a question such as “How different will the future be?” is to assume an oddly passive stance towards it. The future doesn’t exist – so “we should ask only what we want to happen, and how to make it happen, given the constraints of the moment”. We’re never really waiting to see how the future unfolds. We’re creating it as we go.
Being certain about the future would drain your life of meaning, Susan Jeffers argues in her self-help book Embracing Uncertainty.