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Did megatrends ?pan out?; A look back at societal predictions, 30 years later

As we move from an industrial to an information society, we will use our brainpower to create instead of our physical power … it is a great and yeasty time, filled with opportunity … My God, what a fantastic time to be alive!"

– John Naisbitt, in his conclusion of "Megatrends."

During the fall of 1982, when the nation was mired deep in another recession that saw unemployment hit a postwar record of more than 10 percent, futurist John Naisbitt published "MegaTrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives." The book, which predicted a quick- coming recovery and much ?better days ahead, was a welcome tonic and became an instant hit, selling more than 9 million copies worldwide. The Washington Post called the book "a field guide to the future." Alvin Toffler, author of "Future Shock," wrote that Naisbitt was "one of the shrewdest observers of the changes sweeping America today."

To find out what currents were moving early '80s American society, Naisbitt used the research technique "content analysis," employed by the American intelligence services to monitor Germany and Japan during World War II. Naisbitt and his staff combed through literally thousands of local newspaper articles in the late 1970s and early 1980s to see what ideas and issues were bubbling up. By 1982, he had boiled it all down to 10 massively influential ideas that he dubbed "megatrends." As we shall see, Naisbitt got a lot more right than wrong.

So here are the 10 megatrends with an analysis of how they panned out.

1. We have shifted from an industrial society to one based on the creation and distribution of information. This was Naisbitt's biggest, most important and most accurate prediction. In the 1950s, manufacturing goods accounted for more than half of American jobs; today, that figure ?is roughly 12 percent. The "information industry" had about one-sixth of the American GNP in 1960; today it is almost half. In 1980, when he began writing "Megatrends," less than 10 percent of Americans had home computers, compared with more than 80 percent in 2012. The fact that Apple is worth more than Ford, US Steel and General Electric combined pretty much tells the story of high tech's triumph.

2. We are moving in the dual directions of high-tech/high-touch, matching each new technology with a compensatory human response. Say what? This one is only half true today. The high-tech part is obviously right, but anyone who has had to go through a dozen or more computer-generated phone messages in order to speak to just one live human knows the second part hasn't exactly happened.

3. We are moving from being a self-sufficient national economy to being part of a global economy. This is Naisbitt's second big score. We now buy American-designed cars with electronics from Asia and steel and plastic parts made in Latin America, with the final assembly plants in Canada. Banks in East Asia and the Middle East finance our massive deficits. Money and jobs flow freely across national borders. Globalization is almost certainly the key economic fact of the 21st century, and Naisbitt also correctly predicted the economic rise of the Far East.

4. We are moving from short-term considerations in favor of dealing with things in much longer time frames. This was his biggest error. One of the most disappointing aspects of American society and politics over the last generation has been the "give it to me now" mood (in both major parties). The result has been a national debt that's soared from less than $1 trillion in 1980 to more than $13 trillion, a lack of investment resulting in fewer opportunities for young people and no easy way to get out of the mess we're in. Nor is this problem limited to politics. The focus of business, particularly banks, on short-term profits (the next quarter or the next year instead of the next decade or quarter-century) has severely worsened this recession and left us with a huge hole to dig out of.

5. At the local level, governments have rediscovered the ability to act innovatively and to achieve results – from the bottom up. Much of this happened in the 1990s, with mayors and governors of both parties working to solve problems like crime and failing schools, but less so in the first decade of the 21st century.

6. We are shifting from institutional help to more self-reliance. With the massive wave of baby boomers (70 million strong) now beginning to retire and using Social Security and Medicare at record rates, the jury is still out on this one.

7. The new information technology will revitalize participatory democracy. This is almost certainly true because the last three national elections have seen record amounts of votes cast. The Internet has greatly enhanced democracy. Now anyone with access to a computer can explore even a local candidate's speeches, ideas and position papers. There are now literally millions of personal web logs (or blogs) on every subject ranging from national politics to gardening to sports to analyzing the ancient Greeks. True democracy, as in the expression of highly diverse opinions (or a "multiplicity of factions," to borrow from founding father James Madison) has arrived.

8. Society will shift from hierarchical structures to informal networks. This is another 10-strike for Naisbitt. The decline of the old mass-production industries like auto and steel, followed by the rise of small high-tech companies (Microsoft, Dell and others too numerous to mention) that mushroomed into nimble, highly adaptable enterprises, prove the truth of this idea. In fact, a film about the Internet ("The Social Network") won the Academy Award for best screenplay in 2012. The "want ads" sections of major newspapers have been decimated by free websites like Craigslist.

9.A majority of the population is moving from Frost Belt to Sun Belt. This is another absolutely correct trend. The Southwestern states of California, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico had less population than New York and Connecticut in 1930; now those same states have more electoral votes than the entire Northeast. In 1945, when World War II ended, New York had 47 electoral votes and Pennsylvania 35, while Texas had 23 and Florida a mere 8. In 2012, New York and Florida will both have 29, while Texas has soared to 38 and Pennsylvania dropped to 20. In effect, the electoral clout of New York and Pennsylvania has been redistributed to Texas and Florida.

Naisbitt predicted that the move to the Sun Belt would "not be reversed in our lifetime," and that prediction has certainly been borne out: Massachusetts had 2.5 million people at the turn of the 20th century, compared with just 123,000 in Arizona. By the end of 2012, Arizona – at roughly 6.6 million – will likely pass Massachusetts in population. Barring the end of air conditioning, the dominance of the Sun Belt is here to stay.

10.Society is changing from a narrow "either/or" perspective with a limited range of personal choices to one of "free-wheeling" multiple options. He certainly hit the nail on the head here. See the shift from three television networks in the 1970s to 500-plus channels today on a typical cable package. The explosion of specialty foods and restaurants, cars, clothes, new arts, magazines, clubs, websites, music, hobbies, religions and family structures all illustrate this phenomenon.

So, while Naisbitt was wrong about Americans thinking more for the long term and putting a more "human touch" on high technology, he was dead right on the growth of high-tech industries, globalization, government innovation at the local level, the information explosion enhancing democracy, the boom in social networking, the population movement to the Sun Belt and the massive increases in consumer choices. His assertion on the return of self-reliance may or may not yet come true. At a minimum, he was right on seven of his 10 megatrends. A stock picker or bettor on sporting events in Las Vegas who compiled a similar record would be doing quite well, indeed.

"Megatrends" did not predict the fall of the old Soviet Union, and the word "terrorism" didn't appear in its index. He also forecast that local governments would solve the energy problem; somehow governors and mayors haven't prevented gas from approaching the $5 per gallon level.

Naisbitt also didn't understand how painful the decline of traditional industry would be in cities such as Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. But no one is perfect. By and large, "Megatrends has stood the test of time."

Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant and the co-author of "California After Arnold." He is now working on a book on 21st century American politics.