What 100 Years of Living Can Teach Us About the Future
Advice from my century
My Dad is 102 years old; my grandson is two. Exactly a hundred years separate my father from his great-grandson.
You would wonder what kind of advice my Dad could give his great-grandson to guide his life. So many events pass through an hourglass that large, that finding a pattern in the grains is like seeing a painting made with sand.
Our parents’ lives have been especially complicated… swept up in a blizzard of change that has been fiercer than any other period in human history. The storm has swept humanity’s old comforts away and upended life everywhere.
My father confesses that he struggles to imagine the coming world that his great-grandson will inhabit. This is not due to failure of imagination — Dad is an imaginative person; he spent his life as an economist analyzing the future, working in different parts of the world, and helping governments prepare their societies for growth and change.
He has come to some conclusions that he would like to pass on, from his hundred-year gap in ages.
Here are the changes Dad has seen:
He was born in 1920 in a small town in the wilds of northern Alberta. He remembers looking up from his bed in the wintertime and seeing the frost form on the roofing nails. They had no heat, running water, or electric power.
In fact, when his family first got electricity, his mother almost had a heart attack when she got up at night, absentmindedly forgetting the new convenience; light suddenly flooded the room when my uncle flipped the ON switch!
Of course, they had no telephone. When they got one, he remembers serious articles in the papers about how this intrusive device would ruin family life. At the time, phone calls were flooding into homes at an average of one-and-a-half calls per week!
Try that today: “Here, sir or madam, is your phone with its weekly call restriction of 1.5 calls. And by the way, this is a party line, so the operator may be listening.”
Dad suffered tragedy when his own father died when he was young, partly of injuries suffered in the Great War. He helped his mother by earning money chopping ice blocks in the river, and delivering groceries. None of the houses were locked, so he would just walk in and leave the food on a customer’s kitchen table. His pay as a store clerk came to $0.09/hour or $30/month. It all went to his mother’s grocery bill.
Dad remembers seeing his first airplane when he was seven or eight. Airplanes had been invented only 17 years before his birth, yet already they were flying in the northern bush of Canada.
After high school, Dad took night courses and became a schoolteacher in the proverbial one-room schoolhouse. He literally lived in a granary.
After moving on to university in Edmonton, he wrote for the school paper. One article attracted the attention of the dean, as Dad was critical of a proposed policy to turn down students of German and Japanese origin. The dean was impressed, and selected Dad to receive a scholarship to study in Cambridge.
All the while, the infrastructure of our world today was arising. It was, for example, about this time that a writer in England was urging the creation of a “World Knowledge Apparatus,” a “sort of mental clearing house for the mind, a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarized, digested, clarified and compared.” It would allow any student, he said, in any part of the world, to be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica. Thus H.G. Wells in 1937, on what would become the internet. It would do more to unify the world than any religion or philosophy.
Then World War II came, and Dad volunteered for the Air Force, but was turned down because of lasting disability from a broken hip. Instead, Dad worked as an engineer on the Alaskan Highway. Though he had won a scholarship, his acceptance plan was squelched because his war work was deemed essential. However, his supervisor wrote to the government asking them to release him: “We’ve practically won the war, now we have to have educated people who can win the peace.”
During the war, momentous infrastructure crept forward: Alan Turing invented the first computer.
So Dad got his degree in economics from Cambridge, and was invited to run an Institute of World Affairs in Connecticut. He worked for a time in the U.S., then returned to Canada, a seasoned planner. His career since was spent in Canada and overseas, working with governments on development plans. It required a keen view of trends and an ability to spot coming surges in innovation. Since World War II, 90% of all development has come about from innovation, which is a networked activity driven by the internet and the computer. The story of development today is the story of the use of these tools to create the next big idea.
Dad lived in a time when atoms were split and bombs were dropped; when vaccines erased our fear of smallpox, measles, polio, and pneumonia; and when inventions poured forth in every field. In my father’s sky at night, the moon was bright and solitary, while today his great-grandchild’s moon has footprints on it… footprints that were made only 60 years after Dad saw his first airplane.
Critically from the viewpoint of someone wanting to pass along a vision of the future to his descendants, most of these changes could not have been foreseen. Although storytellers, for example, had indeed foreseen a moon landing, no one had foreseen a future where — when those first footsteps across the moon were taken — the entire planet could watch it happening live. No one had foreseen television.
And this brings us to the lesson that my father passes on to his great-grandson, through 100 years of the techno-blizzard.
Trends and inventions cannot be anticipated; growth is not linear. Do not focus on managing the future.
The things that happen to you are inadvertent:
Dad moved from Peace River because his father died; if he had lived, my Dad would never have left that small town.
He broke a hip and was spared almost certain death as a fighter pilot in World War II.
He wrote a column in the college paper urging tolerance, and ended up in Cambridge University.
His war-time boss wrote to the government asking that he be excused so he could carry on with studies.
Casual connections led him to win four scholarships to study in three countries.
He studied economics and travelled the world helping people develop.
Life is driven by accidents, by inadvertence.
And this is the lesson, great-grandson: You can no more ride foreseeable ‘trends’ than you can foretell the path of a tumbleweed.
Your world is an inadvertence machine — a big rolling barrel of odd numbers, happenstance, and incomplete solutions.
Prepare yourself instead for a life where you are able to inject happiness into the way you approach every changing situation. As important as the ‘trends’ in progress, are the attitudes with which we receive them. Science revolutions are still going to have impact, but so also will be social revolutions. We have an economy where the richest two people own as much wealth as the bottom 40%. Your concern should be with the well-being of people everywhere, using whatever technology and social innovations spring up.
And sometimes that which holds you back, is the force that helps you grow stronger.
One of my father’s sources of solace has been his lakeside cottage in rural Quebec, which he has been enjoying for 60 years. There, he would sit by the shimmering water watching the glorious leaves brighten the landscape, and listen to the calls of the loons and geese. He reflected on the permanent but ever-changing passing of nature, wondering at how many more autumns he could spend in his old chair. He noted:
“My own change through my brief years in the vast panorama of nature is apparent. My generation was passing, imperceptibly but certainly — leaves falling one by one. Not much more for me to do but join the autumn season as a participant, holding on to the beauties and harmonies of that season as long as they would last. Let my autumn be the start of many springs and autumns for our children and their children. One generation, its joys and labours, are only a start. For them, we can add only our appreciation, our thanks, and our love.”
He would advise his great-grandson to find his own zone of solace, and in it, be happy with the change that he can embrace. Move on from the change that holds you back, and remember the primary role of people:
That they should be the masters of inadvertence, stepping away from the seeming causes of it, because that kind of control is not possible. Deal instead with inadvertence by re-shaping its results, through a lens of calm confidence. It’s all about attitude, mindset, and then action.
And so, over to you, great-grandson, and tell us in 2122 what you have found, and who you have become….