How to Survive Global Change
December 14, 2017
Bad news: You’ve been diagnosed with a terrible disease. It’s called future shock.
“We are closer to Alvin Toffler’s concept of future shock than any traditional pattern we have commonly understood and accepted,” Newt Gingrich wrote this week.
It’s a sweeping idea that’s making a bipartisan comeback. “When there is a change in the pace of change in so many realms at once,” the columnist Thomas Friedman writes in his recent best seller, Thank You for Being Late, “it is easy to get overwhelmed by it all.”
Toffler, a writer, warned in his 1970 blockbuster book, Future Shock, that the pace of change had exceeded society’s ability to adapt. “It is the disease of change,” he declared.
The symptoms are everywhere. Our phones have become mini-Richter scales, registering change with every e-mail, tweet, and push notification. Emerging technologies, from bitcoin to artificial intelligence, threaten to upend the marketplace and the workplace. The world’s temperature climbs.
Feeling feverish? According to Toffler, future shock is a “real sickness.” If that’s true, millions could be suffering. Roughly seven in ten Americans believe the world is changing too fast, according to an Ipsos poll .
But before you seek help, here’s a second opinion. The world is changing, of course. Life is change. But in many respects—economically, technologically, and politically—our age is not exactly rocketing along. Change is generally exaggerated, often by people selling stuff.
In fact, many of America’s greatest ailments stem from a lack of change. Americans are moving homes at the lowest rate since World War II. Since the early 1970s, the average worker’s wages have barely risen . Productivity has barely budged over the past decade, as the economist Robert Gordon has shown.
That’s because technological change has become more incremental. Toffler was writing at the end of what Gordon calls America’s “special century” of growth, which spanned 1870–1970. But since 1970, progress has been markedly slower and more narrowly confined to entertainment, communication, and information technology.
Consider cars. They are safer, faster, and more comfortable than half a century ago. But compare early automobiles to their predecessor, the horse, and recent progress is less impressive. The difference between your car and your grandfather’s car is evolutionary. The difference between the horse and early autos is revolutionary.
Stagnation is painfully evident in other ways. Basic infrastructure is aging and, with the exception of the telecom sector, essentially unchanged from 50 years ago. Some U.S. train routes are even slower today than they were in 1942. The United States is technically capable of improving its infrastructure, but political paralysis stands in the way.
Future shock is a seductive idea, but misleading at best and even dangerous. It is seductive because implying that this moment in history is special, confirms that you are special. It is misleading because it warps our worldviews, overstating the speed and scale of change. And it is dangerous because it opens the door for manipulation and misguided advice.
The first step toward a cure is recognizing there are powerful incentives for exaggerating change.
Behind many change sirens is a sales pitch. “Stay up to date in unpredictable times,” the New York Times urges, “Subscribe today.” Financial services providers warn, “In these changing times, financial predictability for your retirement has never been so important.” A leading law firm promises to help “clients navigate a constantly changing and challenging market.” Change is invoked to create anxiety, and a product is offered to solve it.
Savvy politicians market themselves as change candidates. In 1992, George H.W. Bush’s call for continuity, “Don’t Change the Team in the Middle of the Stream,” fell flat. Bill Clinton rode “It’s Time to Change America” to victory. Barack Obama put forward “Change We Can Believe In,” “Change We Need,” and ultimately, “Change.”
Donald Trump’s presidency shows how change is easy to sell and hard to deliver. Candidate Trump promised big changes for immigration, health care, trade, infrastructure, and so much else. It worked. “Can bring change” was the most important quality in the 2016 presidential candidates, according to exit polls. Of voters prioritizing that quality, 82 percent picked Trump.
But as Trump is learning, it’s easier to disrupt than construct. The tax bill making its way through Congress could be Trump’s first major legislative victory. With the 2018 midterms approaching, it only gets harder from here.
Continuity is often underappreciated. Constraining all presidents is something broader and deeper than the “deep state.” The same businesses, labor groups, and other major interests are lobbying a Congress in which 95 percent of incumbents were reelected. Civil servants also outlast presidents, who have eight years in office at most and can always leave sooner.
Ultimately, we need better frameworks for thinking about changes, especially their significance and speed. Not all changes are important. Not all important changes are fast. Avoiding vague statements about rapid global change in favor of greater specificity would help. So would acknowledging the difficulty of constructive change, whether that’s reforming the tax code or ourselves as we make (and remake) New Year’s resolutions in the weeks ahead.
Jonathan Hillman is a fellow with the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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