Our chapter in the new book After Shock – 50 years after Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock

Published by Patricia Lustig on

The Not-so-shocking Future—Today

Future Shock envisioned a post-industrial society where the pace of change accelerates at such a rate that it feels threatening. Indeed, the term “future shock” describes the shattering stress and disorientation induced in individuals subjected to “too much change in too short a time.” 

The Tofflers’ came to this realization after five years of research, where two major findings emerged. First, future shock was a real sickness from which many already suffered, and second, little was actually known about human adaptivity under such conditions.

Since that time, change has indeed accelerated, with technology having a reach barely imaginable at the time the Tofflers wrote. And it is not unreasonable that existing governing structures would feel threatened: on the whole, the older you happen to be, the more likely it is that you’ll feel threatened by change. We see it all the time in people who did not grow up with technology, and hence, find it hard to adapt. Some corners of society have indeed shown signs of the shattering stress and disorientation of which the Tofflers spoke.

People develop their worldviews through the particular lenses of their generation and experience. The same can certainly be said of the Millennials and Gen Z—those born after 1980—who have grown up not only with technology, but with the idea of continuous change, as well. In contrast to their Boomer (and Gen X) parents, they’re actually quite comfortable with it all, and have, in fact, exhibited remarkable adaptation. They don’t feel threatened at all. Rather, many of them actually feel empowered by it. They effortlessly exploit the myriad technologies at their disposal in countless ways to connect with their worlds, often to the chagrin of their parents and teachers.  

Technology isn’t the only thing that has changed—the economics of the world have advanced, too. In contrast to 50 years ago, far more people today are part of the middle class, and far more under the age of 40 are above the poverty line. The combination of powerful technologies and prosperous economies engenders choice. Thus empowered, the luxury of choice includes the way we build our networks to energize our respective communities in order to get things done. And their reach is global.

Three examples serve to illustrate how these four factors—continual change, improved economic conditions, greater freedom of choice, and global reach—lead to the unprecedented empowerment of many motivated young people who are dedicating themselves to positive, proactive change.

Greta Ernman Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl who has become a role model for worldwide student activism, is an inspiring case in point. Speaking at the UN COP24 climate talks in December, 2018, she said, “I am 15 years old. I am from Sweden. I speak on behalf of Climate Justice Now. Many people say that Sweden is just a small country and it doesn’t matter what we do. But I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference. . . . We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”

Indeed. She has since addressed global business leaders in Davos, capturing a fresh mood for action. When, on March 15, she returned to the cobblestones (as she has done almost every Friday through rain, sun, ice, and snow), it was as a figurehead for a vast and growing movement. The global climate strike in March 2019 was one of the biggest environmental protests the world has ever seen, with more than 71 countries participating across more than 700 locations. Greta observes, “It’s increasing very much now, and that’s very, very fun.”

We see the same kinds of dynamics playing out in Africa and in Asia, where Millennials are increasingly using technology to challenge the status quo.

Since the Arab Spring of 2011, young Africans have been using technology to mobilize around issues affecting them. Images of young Africans assembled in protest, organizing around hashtags, are now common on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Their political activities contributed, for example, to ensuring the integrity of the 2016 election in The Gambia. They began using the hashtag #Gambiahasdecided, when former President Yahya Jammeh refused to vacate his office and hand over power after suffering electoral defeat to Adama Barrow. Moreover, their anti-Jammeh campaign also encouraged citizens to wear T-shirts bearing the slogan, “Social media has forever changed the dynamics of politics in Africa.” Raffie Diab, who organised the T-shirt campaign, posted on his Facebook page, “Gambians have a tendency of creating our own dictators and we are seeing it playing out right now. The law is categoric and clear in regards to the separation of powers between the legislature and the executive and yet you see people whom I thought were educated and knowledgeable coming out here justifying the President’s sacking of Hon Kumba Jaiteh. We have seen over the years how Jammeh used executive powers as an excuse to plunder this country and we all came out and voted him out, hoping to usher in a new Gambia. Sadly, we are seeing it repeating itself. We should not see this as a partisan issue but have to condemn it because it is a wrong move on the part of the president. Let’s not start allowing the President to abuse his powers, as this is how dictatorships are created.”

Jammeh was ultimately forced into exile, and Barrow, upon assuming office, auctioned off Jammeh’s fleet of luxury cars and aircraft to raise money for health and education projects.

Let’s next turn to Nepal where, in the aftermath of the 2015 7.8-magnitude earthquakes, tech-savvy Millennials were solving problems that conventional governments and NGOs were not able to. In the face of slow government response and an international community stymied by bureaucracy and logistical hurdles, groups of young volunteers stepped into action. The Yellow House—a bed and breakfast in Sanepa, Kathmandu—emerged as the hub of “vibrant guerrilla aid.” The Yellow House “team” was run by a handful of young Millennials armed with little more than Facebook, mapping technology, local knowledge, and the will to get things done. They put out a call on Facebook to “see what we can do,” and hundreds answered the call. People in Europe and the USA—volunteer mappers—helped create precise maps of Nepal’s rugged terrain. These were put together to further develop an open source map that had been created online—by a young man with experience in the earthquake in Haiti in 2010—for Kathmandu, using satellite imagery (www.quakemaps.org), to which had been added layers allowing the reporting of both earthquake data and response information in real time. In Belgium and the USA, people raised funds. Finally, local volunteers used the information and donations to deliver aid to some of the quake’s hardest-hit areas. The UN, observing all this ad hoc activity, joined the effort, offering rice, tarpaulins and equipment—but following the lead of these dedicated young people.

In each of these examples, we see young people recognizing and responding to the need for change—exercising their economic- and technology-enabled power of choice to create huge multiplier effects. No, they don’t find change threatening. Nor would they relate to the Tofflers’ “shattering stress and disorientation” wrought by a too-rapid rate of change. They are not victims of change; they are citizens of the world and part of change they want to see.

One swallow does not a summer make, yet we hope these three examples will serve to illustrate the reasons we are more optimistic about the capacity of people to cope with change than the Tofflers were 50 years ago. 

By Patricia Lustig and Gill Ringland. Shared with permission – https://www.amazon.co.uk/After-Shock-Foremost-Futurists-Shock/dp/0999736442/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=aftershock&qid=1581353074&sr=8-9