Why are old people often the best futurists?

Hiding behind wall in teflon suit for this one!

Since I started my futurology career 21 years ago, it has always been clear that technology can change very fast but social change is slower, and the forces of human nature that guide and moderate both social change and technology adoption barely change at all (until we can start redesigning human nature later this century anyway). This makes futurology easier and much more reliable – interpret any new force of change through the filter of human nature to see how it might materialise, or not, and how it might play out in the rich diversity of human interaction.

Indeed, maybe gaining experience of human nature is a component of what we mean by wisdom – the wise old man has seen more of life and has learned to interpret new forces by looking at the underlying nature that will moderate them. With my old computer modelling hat on, I’d say that your mental model of the world gets richer, more refined, and generally better as you get older, till your brain starts malfunctioning anyway.

Going further still, and perhaps a little provocative, perhaps that also explains why many of the best futurists tend to be in their 60s or 70s, whereas trend trackers tend to be younger. Experience  makes quality of prediction improve, but has little impact on noticing what’s new. Even a fresh graduate can talk about the latest gadgets and breakthroughs, but it needs experience to interpret their long term effects. So futurists should tend to be older whereas trend trackers can be (but don’t have to be) younger. I’m not saying all old futurists are good, nor that all new futurists are bad, just that there is a tendency for individuals to improve continuously until they get very old. Older and wiser, so better at futurology.

I won’t mention names for fear of offending anyone who doesn’t want to be listed as old yet, but by these metrics, I hope to reach my prime as a futurist in a decade or two. I am 52, too old to be young and too young to be old; still enthusiastic about tracking new developments but still learning how to interpret them. I hope I live long enough to get good at it.

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4 responses to “Why are old people often the best futurists?

  1. I think you need a reasonable amount of past to become a predictor of the future. It just is a lot easier. The biggest challenge for futurists in their 60s is to understand the pace of change. You have to measure the speed at which change occurs by looking at it in the more remote past, the near past and present and then adjust your thinking to recognize the acceleration curve.

  2. “The wise old man,” and “the wise old woman,” Ian.
    Good thoughts in this post. Thank you. Futures may be one area of modern society where experience and years are of most use, as @lenrosen4 says.

    • Yes, it is very fortuitous that this also applies in some other jobs too, so will help provide some of the jobs needed as retirement age increases. Thanks Jennifer, I hope you’re keeping well.

  3. Thanks Ian for another interesting post as ever.

    Here is what I tend to find (I am 41 so perhaps near a middle ground!)…

    My older colleagues have been there, seen that, done that and are still waiting for handheld ray guns and Moon Base Alpha (Space 1999 if you recall the TV show) as promised since well before the 70s. They understand the need for conservativism / caution because they understand the retarding factors limiting technology adoption and growth. Political, economic, sociological, and legal forces must be considered as you too well know and these things have in the past prevented the delivery of the technological promises. However, their view of the technological state-of-the-art is often calibrated to somewhere between 1980 and 1990 and with a very linear shallow gradient view of technological change. The reality of course is that a non-linear, accelerating pace of change is upon us which many of my older colleagues and acquaintences are completely oblivious to.

    Fundamentally, Earth now holds more educated people (population growth & emphasis placed upon education), greater accessibility to information and knowledge (internet, communications systems), greater collaborative efforts (shared desires and goals, globalisation and commercialisation), and the ability to model and test a hypothesis very rapidly (computing – Moore’s Law). This is not an exhaustive list but synergies across them are compelling us towards ever accelerating technological progress just as many point out.

    Now, when we look at many of the likely ‘game changing’ technologies such as Advanced Computing, Nanotech, biotech, A.I. and Robotics we discover that they offer huge economic advantages and thus are attracting considerable funding towards their development whilst pushing aside retarding factors associated with the political, sociological, and legal side of things. Take autonomous or semi-automous cars or aircraft. The markets are big and growing. The US Government can see this and are changing the rules (the laws) to accomodate them. Industry sees this too and are investing.

    In short, we didn’t see a Moon Base Alpha not because the technology wasn’t there, it was because the market wasn’t there. But where the market and the technology is there we can be pretty confident that things will happen fast. So it’s time for our older brethren to recognise that times have changed and the failed promises and indoctrination of the past need to be put to bed once and for all. For we are on the verge of some truly astonishing changes.

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