Future Shock All Over Again: Buckle Up

This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left/below. © 2017 McKnight-Kaney.

DO YOU REMEMBER A BOOK CALLED FUTURE SHOCK BY ALVIN TOFFLER? It is about how change was “avalanching on our heads,” and that we are “grotesquely unprepared to deal with it.”  He defined future shock as “The dizzying disorientation brought about by the premature arrival of the future.” He said it can kill you.

The book was published in 1970 and the rate of change has only accelerated ever since.

A datum in point is the WSJ article this morning about two new studies, one of which claims, “nearly half of U.S. jobs could be automated by 2033” due to automation. The other provides even less comfort: “A report from Accenture PLC, ‘Harnessing Revolution: Creating the Future Workforce,’ says nearly 17%, or about 26 million U.S. jobs, are ‘potentially at risk as new technologies emerge’ in 2017.”

And here is another, the recently published (January) Stress in America study, which reveals that Americans are more stressed by change today than at any point in the past ten years. 

I don't believe that there is any reason to believe people are much better at coping with change than the average person in 1970. 

To refresh myself about Toffler’s views, I pulled my well-thumbed, now yellowing copy of Future Shock from my bookshelf and reviewed my underlining. I found these quotes:

  • “If the last 50,000 years of man’s existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately sixty-two years each, there have been about 800 such lifetimes. Of these 800, fully 650 were spent in caves.”
  • “If you don‘t develop a strategy of your own, you become a part of someone else‘s strategy.”
  • “Change is the process by which the future invades our lives.”
  • “By changing our relationship to the resources that surround us, by violently expanding the scope of change, and most crucially, by accelerating its pace, we have broken irretrievably from the past.”

All of this is especially relevant due to three events that have occurred in the past six months, one of them taking place today. They are: Brexit, the election of Donald J. Trump for president, and the general election in the Netherlands taking place today in which right-wing populists opposed to change are expected to make a big showing.* Each of these changes and their aftermath are driven by people who abhor change. (As for the Dutch election, this is an event with disrupting consequences no matter the outcome. It is being closely watched all over the world because it pits reactionaries who long for a return to the past against everyone else.)

I'm concerned with the average American worker and the impact that “progress” has on them. It is well known that many Americans are being left behind by globalization and technology, especially the relatively under-educated worker. This is the worker most affected by the event in the WSJ article above and there is every reason to believe that, of all workers, this is the population that is apt to cope least well with change. The desire of this population to return to the days of high paid factory jobs with sumptuous benefits—for life, no less—now seems little more than a pipedream.

But this is not the only population that will be forced to cope with a rapidly changing world. Our kids will, too. According to an article last May in the NYT, the American economy is not producing enough jobs for the students emerging from college every year. As the writers state, “the familiar assumption—graduate from college and prosperity will follow—has been disproved in this century.”

Toffler's advice about how to cope with such a world still seems sound—mostly: “meet invention with invention” (so far, so good) by building “an array of creative strategies for shaping, deflecting, accelerating or decelerating change selectively.” I say yes to activism, but wonder how realistic it is to commit to somehow mastering the forces of change, i.e., to do what Toffler urges, “harness the accelerative thrust, to steer it and pace it.” Good luck with that.

If I had only one piece of advice to give to any American worker today—my offspring, especially—it would be this: avoid future shock by becoming the best learner you can. This not only means keep your skills fresh and marketable, but also learn to cope well with this rapidly changing world. The full prescription, of course, is to be that Navigator I write so much about. And as a reminder, here are the five competencies of that person, the one who copes far better than either the Survivor or the Victim:

  • Become adept at calming yourself so you can keep your wits about you. Toffler called this “creating stability zones” where you can slow or stop the pace of change. Others these days call it mindfulness.
  • Learn to be reflective about which parts of your world sustain you and which disrupt and threaten you. Ask yourself at least once a day, “What is it like to be me?” If you don't like the answer several days in a row, let yourself know this without judgement.
  • Commit to the future you want for yourself. Maybe the pace of change is so great you can only see to next Friday. But still, commit to what you want.
  • Take action in service of your commitments.
  • Learn from your experience.

And here is another suggestion, somewhat self-serving but also coming from a conviction that it is a useful resource. Get a copy of my book Victim, Survivor, or Navigator? Choosing a Response to Workplace Change. You can get the first chapter free here.


* Voter turnout set records. The far right gained seats, but failed to live up to their own projections.