Why is pessimism about the future all the rage?

Richard Watson, a British “writer, speaker and thinker who helps organisations to think ahead, with a particular focus on strategic foresight” has written an interesting blog post in which he asks “why is pessimism about the future all the rage?”. The post is titled ‘Time to Reclaim the Future‘, similar to Richard Slaughter’s recent think piece titled ‘Recovering the Future‘.

In this post Watson offers a three-part answer:

  1. “First, I think we are anxious because we are exposed to too much information. The Toffler’s were right, they were just 40 years wrong” [i.e. made their claim 40 years too early]
  2. “Second, I think we are anxious and worry about the future when we haven’t got anything more serious to be concerned about. Hence we imagine risks that barely exist or blow the risks that do exist out of all proportion.”
  3. “The [third] reason so many people around the world are anxious is because they can no longer see what lies ahead.”

Watson’s first answer doesn’t surprise me. He often writes about the ‘dark side’ of digital technologies (especially regarding their social implications). His book Future Minds: How the Digital Age is Changing Our Minds, Why this Matters and What We Can Do About It warned about the potential downsides of these technologies. Some critics of this book describe Watson as technophobic, although I think that criticism is a bit unfair. This theme continues analysis in both Future Shock and Future Minds.

In proposing the second-part he is considering the apparent paradox (as expressed by Watson) that “if you look at almost any measure that matters… we have rarely had it as good as we have it today” and, yet, “what we see instead is the idea that progress itself has somehow become impoverished”. This part of his answer I would question, although perhaps Watson believes prominent sustainability issues like climate change risks are being blown “out of all proportion”. (He only touches on these issues).

He vaguely links related dynamics to “our own megalomania, our own sense of importance”, adding “I think it also has something to do with a lack of purpose and narrative”. Perhaps what he is trying to say is the pessimism about the future and taking action to address feared or perceived futures – aka Slaughter’s call to ‘Recover the Future – can give peoples lives more meaning and direction.

The third-part to his answer is probably  the most interesting. He further suggests that “outside of a few pockets of massive wealth and/or techno-optimism, we have somehow fallen victim to the idea that the future is something that just happens to us. Something to which we can only react. Something we can do nothing about.” This is a move away from a diagnosis of poor anticipation (“…no longer see what lies ahead”) to one of perceived powerlessness (“…something that just happens to us”).

Aside from being a rather big generalisation, I’m not sure if psychological research supports this view.  Some recent psychological research indicates that people are likely to exhibit defensive avoidance strategies to ignore problems if they feel unable to address or cope with them, rather than exhibiting greater pessimism and ‘doom and gloom’. Rapidity of change and uncertainty can be disorienting and uncomfortable though. Perhaps this suggestion – greater unknowns and disruptions to formerly predictable worlds provoking fear and pessimism – is a more accurate and thoughtful one.

Similarly, Kees van der Heijden has written that research at the University of Strathclyde shows that “paradigmatic change involves more than just intellectual processes. People resist jumping into the complete unknown, as they feel unable to assess the level of risk involved. This is not considered appropriate management behaviour” (from ‘Can internally generated scenarios accelerate organizational learning?’, Futures 36, 2004, pp.145-159)


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