Social Forecaster John Naisbitt Says He Has Seen the Future—and It Just May Work

updated 11/08/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/08/1982 01:00AM

A dozen years ago Alvin Toffler's Future Shock offered a possible grim prognosis for a generation reeling from the impact of change. Today, John Naisbitt gives a more hopeful, but no less intriguing, view of things to come in his newly published Megatrends (Warner, $15.50). "The most reliable way to anticipate the future is by understanding the present," reckons Naisbitt, 53, a onetime White House staffer for Lyndon Johnson who calls himself a "social forecaster." Every day 200 newspapers from around the U.S. stack up in the suburban Washington, D.C. offices of the Naisbitt Group, where their local stories are painstakingly clipped, categorized, measured and assessed. Naisbitt's newspaper-shredding methodology is patterned after a World War II intelligence-gathering technique formally known as "content analysis," a system still employed by the CIA. Naisbitt and his staff of 24 package their findings in trend reports and in speeches and in seminars for a list of 65 mainly corporate clients, including AT&T, General Motors and IBM. Now, after 12 years of tapping the grass roots, Naisbitt has gleaned a sample of "megatrends," his word for "big trends that reshape or restructure society." Naisbitt was raised in Utah, the son of a bus driver, served in the Marines and studied political science at Harvard, the University of Utah and Cornell. During the 1960s he was an assistant to the U.S. Commissioner of Education, and to the Secretary of HEW. He is the author of two works of nonfiction on the military draft and student protest. In his paper-strewn downtown Washington office, Naisbitt waxed prophetic for John Stickney of PEOPLE.

Where do trends originate?

Most of the social invention in America occurs in just five states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida and Washington. When we trace back new trends or positions on issues eventually adopted by most states, we find again and again they began in one or more of those bellwether states. The state of Washington, for example, started us on the road to ending mandatory retirement in this country. Connecticut and Florida have been leaders in requiring minimum competency standards from high school students.

What makes those five states such pacesetters?

It's difficult to say, other than to observe that all five are characterized by a rich mix of people. And the richness of the mix always results in creativity, experimentation and change. Florida may soon surpass California as the most dynamic bellwether state. It's our face to South America, the great market of the 1980s. Also its ratio of young and old people today resembles the ratio projected for the country at large in 1995. Florida has a lot to teach us about the future.

Are we more obsessed with the future than past generations?

Yes, because of an important shift in our time orientation. As an agricultural society, we were oriented to the past, with traditions of how to plant and harvest. An industrial society is oriented to the present—get it out, get it done, ad hoc, bottom line, short term. Now we're changing from an industrial society to one based on information, and that's a megatrend. An information society is oriented to the future, which is why we're so interested in it. We're drowning in data, yet thirsty for intelligence and knowledge.

With this deluge of data, don't a lot of people feel they may go under?

Of course. People are looking for something to hold onto, and that's why we're having a religious revival. That's also why we have all these waves of nostalgia. We want to cling to the past, which is becoming ever more recent, by the way. The past is the 1950s and 1960s.

How can you get a fix on the future?

A sense of what's happening now would put us way ahead. Practically the whole country continues to act as if we're an industrial society. You shouldn't get depressed about the latest gloomy business statistics, which are often rooted in old indices like the Dow Jones industrial average. Many companies in electronics, biotechnology and other so-called "sunrise sectors" are going strong. They're the ones to invest in now. The economy is much better off than the economists represent to us.

Aren't you disregarding the nation's current double-digit unemployment?

We're in a period of temporary unemployment as the industrial economy slows down. The information economy, as it accelerates, will more than take up the slack. As early as three or four years from now we'll be back to three or four percent unemployment. Employers will be competing to get workers, and it'll be a seller's market.

What about the corporate bankruptcy rate, which is the highest since 1932?

It is alarming, but must be seen in context. We're creating 600,000 new corporations a year, compared with 93,000 in 1950. The last time such entrepreneurship bloomed was more than a century ago, while we were changing economies from agricultural to industrial.

Why are there so many start-ups now?

Because access to the system is so much easier. In the old economy the strategic resource was capital. Now it's what's in your head, it's information, not how much money you've got in your pocket. Think about all those kids starting software companies. One-third of the new businesses today are started by women.

Why did the Equal Rights Amendment fail?

The campaign defied a trend these days against national initiatives and for local ones. I often ask business audiences to name the leader of the nuclear freeze movement, and they're stumped—because there aren't national leaders. The movement against nuclear power is a network of local leadership, and that's the activist model for the future.

Is the current national passion for exercise a trend or a fad?

It's a trend. A fad is a top-down phenomenon that comes and goes. When you have half the population saying they exercise regularly, twice as many as in 1960, that's from the heart, not top-down.

The home of the future may be a so-called "electronic cottage" connected by computer to the outside world and to the workplace. Won't this put a damper on old-fashioned socializing?

On the contrary. The electronic cottage won't go very far because people want to be with people. The more technology you put in society, the more people will seek ways to congregate at movies, restaurants, shopping malls. There will be no end to office meetings. It's a trade-off I call "high tech/ high touch."

Would you explain?

The idea is we put in high technology and then create a compensatory human element, or we reject the technology. For example, simultaneous with the wave of stories about the wide-spread use of computers in schools have been reports about either reviving religion there or teaching courses in values.

Where's the political power going?

It's decentralizing. The percentage of eligible voters casting ballots in presidential and congressional elections continues to decline, but turnouts for local initiatives and referenda are going up—as high as 75 and 80 percent in some areas. State governments in particular are asserting themselves. Nevada, for example, is demanding state control over the four-fifths of its land now under federal jurisdiction. The decentralizing trend is reinforced by states increasingly dealing directly on their own behalf with countries all around the world.

Don't you see any threatening clouds on the horizon?

Of course. What are we going to do about our underclass, our industrial workers who need retraining, and our aging population? I don't have the answers, but I'm convinced changes will come from the local level, with the private sector involved. Just because something must be done doesn't mean the federal government creates a solution and then we all salute it.

Will the threat of nuclear war still be with us?

Indeed, but such a war is not as likely when the various national economies are becoming linked in a global economy. Our interdependence is the great hope for peace. In that regard I'm for more U.S. trade with the Soviet Union. I agree with President Eisenhower, who once said, "We should sell the Russians anything that they can't shoot back."

How can you be so sure?

Because these are times of expanding choice. In lots of ways these are the best of times. During stable periods everything has its name and knows its place and we don't have much influence. During turbulent times we have more leverage personally, professionally and politically. So these are times of fabulous opportunity not experienced by our parents, or their parents, or their parents' parents.

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