Many fear what the future may hold. Where does this feeling come from and what can we do about it?
Uncertainty as a driving force
Statistics prove that we don’t need to worry: In the 1970s and 1980s, the number of victims of terrorist attacks was significantly higher than it is today. In the Western world we have seen the longest period of peace ever. Many initiatives slowly but steadily mitigate climate change. We have never lived healthier and longer. Medical and healthcare advancements, from glasses to hearing implants and pacemakers, are designed to give us a longer and better life.
Still, this life makes us shudder. We keep physical distance to protect ourselves from unknown viruses, avoid airplanes for fear of terrorist attacks, dread natural disasters, and our existential fears even keep us from stepping off the hamster wheel of life until we end up in burnout.
Our lives have never been better, yet we look towards the future with less optimism. Where does this contradiction stem from? And what can we do about it?
Back to the future: Pros and cons
When Marty McFly travelled “Back to the future” in 1985, it took him to the year 2015: People were moving on airborne hoverboards or in flying cars. Many technologies the film envisioned back then have not materialized. But even many years ago filmmakers had one true vision: Digitalization and the ever-progressing technology would change our lives. The internet has undisputedly brought the biggest change upon all of us. A couple of years ago, Aunt Liz in the USA moved virtually closer and suddenly was only a Skype call away. Today, autonomous vehicles drive around without human involvement. Artificial intelligence is taking over monotonous and dangerous jobs. An interconnected world offers huge improvements in medicine. Electronic data helps physicians to make diagnosis fast and to treat healthcare problems efficiently. Virtual reality goggles help surgeons plan their surgeries exactly and perform them with less risk.
All these changes bear unique opportunities: The world is our oyster. Or so it seems. We don’t need a shop assistant to buy a washing machine. We don’t need to believe everything the mighty and the media tell us – although unintentionally we often do. We enjoy many benefits. Yet it is still difficult to correctly assess dangers and risks.
Overloaded and powerless
Multitasking has become standard: We are bombarded with news and information almost every minute with only slim chances to escape. Social media adds additional pressure. The minute a tragedy or terrorist attack strikes, headlines pop up in our personalized news streams. But that’s not all. Like it or not, a live video of the event and tons of unfiltered opinions follow suite. Events we formerly read about in newspapers a couple of days after they happened are nowadays taking place live in HD in our own pockets. This doesn’t come as a surprise: The continuous and unfiltered stream of news brings shocking events dangerously close, and it is putting us under pressure. We tend to overestimate potential dangers without considering the facts.
We feel increasingly powerless: Individuals seem to have no more controlover what is happening around the world. Global correlations that go beyond our understanding leave a queasy feeling: “There’s nothing I can do about that.”
The world is turning somewhat too fast, we can hardly catch up.
How to find our place in the future
- Stop listening. Fukushima, 9/11, and the current global situation are the exception from the rule: yet being constantly confronted with these images relays a feeling of permanent danger. Remembering the facts helps. It also helps to consciously step back. Switch off, stop consuming news for a couple of days. Instead, start your dayby writing down three things you are grateful for. Then, end your day by writing down three things that went particularly well.
- Listen closer. Politicians often try to use our undefined unease to their benefit. Disadvantaged groups and side issues such as refugees or unknown diseases are being made responsible for our imminent social decline or looming pandemics. It is therefore all the more important to name the origins of our anxieties. Unjustified fears are the biggest when we don’t get in touch with the unknown. Talking and listening to the people concerned, for example, can remedy the situation. Personal encounters and dialogues often make (largely unjustified) fears disappear.
- Listen to yourself. The foundation for future existential fears is often laid as early as in school: We have to be one step ahead of others to find a job granting us economic security. But the working world we were once trained for is going to change dramatically. Digitalization is going to destroy many jobs while at the same time creating new ones. The social contract will come to an end. The job for life is a thing of the past. And we won’t need jobs as we know them to fund our lives – ‘unconditional basic income’ is the buzzword. Finding a purpose in what we do is what we strive for. The crucial question to pose is: how do we want to spend our days if work is supposed to fill our lives with money and purpose?
It’s not about functioning in the work environments of the past. It’s about shaping our own world. To unleash this power we need to listen to ourselves more attentively: Let’s not be dominated solely by external factors and the needs of the economy. Let’s take courage and follow our personal talents and needs. Thus we will find a task we care for. If you do what you love, you have found your place – no matter where it is going to be. No matter what the future may hold.