We all fear the future, to a greater or lesser extent. You can be an optimist, like I am. You can embrace change and new experiences. But I’ve learned over the last few years that everyone has a few issues about the future. And some people have ALL of them.
In a radio interview this week, I encountered a wonderful woman caller who managed to embody pretty much every classic fear of the future. So thought I’d list them here. Which ones do you suffer? And which can you recognise in others? What have I missed?
I can’t learn anymore!
“It’s all changing and I don’t understand these gadgets! What about people like me? Old people who just don’t understand it?”
This is not an unfair complaint. Change forces effort on the part of the people it affects, and often those people are out of practice at learning new things. But these are the people for whom change is probably most important, as long as their ambitions stretch beyond managed decline. There is evidence, albeit limited so far, that cognitive engagement later in life can slow age-related cognitive decline. In short, always be learning.
“I’ve spent years learning how to do this and now you want me to learn something else?”
Yes, I’m afraid we do. Or rather the world does. The impact of high frequency change on the employment market, let alone automation, means that people will need to constantly learn new skills and propositions throughout their careers. No-one is spending 40 years down a coal mine anymore, or even 40 years as a solicitor, without learning a lot of new skills.
It used to be better!
“We didn’t used to need all this technology just to talk to someone…”
That’s because you only knew about 100 people who lived in your village, or suburb, or worked at the same place. Personally, I quite like living in a global village.
“Life was much better without all this…”
Without wanting to sound like Steven Pinker, it really wasn’t. If your metrics are anything reasonable – infant mortality, for example, or chances of a violent death – things are much better now (for particular values of ‘now’). History is always viewed through rose-tinted spectacles. That’s not to say some things aren’t worse. Whether it’s increased incidence or reporting (likely both) we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis. And climate change sucks. But in the absence of a time machine, the only option is to look forward.
THEY are taking everything!
Sometimes it’s the government spying on us (note: they are). Sometimes it’s Silicon Valley tech moguls stealing our data and selling it (note: they mostly aren’t – we’re giving it to them). Sometimes, it’s just barely-veiled racism. But lots of people are scared of a future where someone else ‘wins’.
This comes down to a classic factor of human psychology: our success is always relative, not absolute. This is, in part, why more equal societies are happier: the smaller the differential between us and everyone else, the lower our anxieties about our own achievement. Note this goes both ways: as headlines about benefits cheats show, we’re as concerned about people much poorer than us apparently getting something for nothing, as we are about the disparities between us and the super-rich. Perhaps more so.
But there’s also truth in this fear: other people are going to do better out of the future than us, and there are absolutely risks to our own privacy and wellbeing associated with the behaviour of governments and tech moguls. Unfortunately we rarely focus our ire on the right people, or with sufficient impact.
Think of the children!
“They don’t go out and play anymore, they just sit on their screens all day. It’s BAD for them!”
Even the responses to this wail are now cliched. It’s the argument that probably gets me the most heated but I find myself simultaneously getting a bit bored of my response: “No, there’s actually no science behind 99% of those headlines you read. Yes, you should be restricting their screen time. If you’re not, or you don’t feel you can, the screen probably isn’t the underlying issue…”
This argument is almost always a proxy for our own fears and lack of understanding. Focusing on the children adds emotion and makes us feel righteous instead of scared. Instead, we should embrace our fear and either get comfortable with our ignorance or start to learn. I’m not saying that’s easy. For many it might be impossible. But there are many who make their living or just their five minutes of fame from spreading outrage. And they can frankly pipe down.
You can’t trust SCIENCE!
From a very early age we are taught to be equivocal about our belief in science, as a process and as our aggregated understanding of the universe. Alongside physics, chemistry, and biology, we’re taught that a burning bush spoke, a man rose from the grave, and that the world was made by a man with a beard in a few days. If you believe these things, as metaphor or actual reality, you can’t deny that they would all breach the laws of physics. Laws that are constant in every other scenario. Science and religious education may no longer have equal weight in the curriculum, but we still devote time each day to collective worship. Every day, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the school, we teach children that science isn’t always right.
I believe this is part of the reason that we seem to be so confident challenging reality later in our lives. “Vaccines? Don’t believe in them.” “Climate change? All a big conspiracy.” The world is round? NASA made it up.”
Science tells us scary things about the future. Things we need to deal with, not run from.
I don’t wish to be dismissive of people’s fears of the future. As I’ve tried to show above, some fear of the future is justified, and some fears are rooted in our childhood. I share some fears: I often say I’m, a long term optimist but a short term pessimist. I don’t fancy the next 20 years much from an environmental or economic perspective. But we have to tackle our fears with a rational approach. And sometimes we just have to accept that it is us that needs to change.