Volume 1, Number 4, Fall, 1983

A Marvelous Future


By John Naisbitt

Warner Books. 1982. $15.50
Reviewed by Joseph P. Martino
July 2020

John Naisbitt is the chairman of the Naisbitt Group, a Washington-based consulting firm, and publisher of the quarterly, Trend Report. He is also the author of a fascinating, though sometimes irritating, book which demolishes a few of the myths of our times.

The core of Naisbitt’s consulting activities is “content analysis.” This is a technique originally developed during World War II, and since then it has been heavily exploited by sociologists and political scientists. The idea is deceptively simple. His organization monitors thousands of local news items annually to discover what is actually happening at the grassroots of America. As he puts it, “Despite the conceits of New York and Washington, almost nothing starts there.” On the contrary, he says, the trends which shape American society begin at the bottom, especially in “bellwether” states: California. Florida, Washington, Colorado, and Connecticut. Since what he calls the “news hole,” the ability of the nation and its news services to focus attention on current events, is fixed in size, only the most important items get in. Therefore the stories he picks up by his monitoring are really important and, as judged by those who have to fill the news, what people are most likely to buy a newspaper for.

The purpose of the book is to present a synthesis and an overview of the trends which he finds emerging from the grassroots, and to describe the environment in which the reader should make the “decisions of life”: what to study, what kind of job to take, and so on. Naisbitt identifies ten “megatrends” which are shaping American society, and he devotes a chapter to each.

First, he presents the idea that the new wealth is know-how, not goods. White-collar workers now outnumber blue collar. Contrary to popular opinion, however, the service sector has remained static as a fraction of the population. The real growth has been in the information sector, which is seeing a shift from authors and editors to readers. The emphasis is shifting from supply of information to selection—making it easier for the reader to find what he wants, instead of having to take what is produced.

Second, Naisbitt asserts that people are demanding “high-touch” as a balance to “high tech.“ (He defines “high-touch” as the need to aggregate, to be near other people.) Thus predictions that most future work will be done on home computer terminals and that movie theaters will vanish because everyone would rather watch cable movies in their homes will not be realized. People want to get out of the house and work with others, and you don’t go to a theater “just to see a movie. You go…to cry or laugh with 200 other people.” A crowded dance floor illuminated by strobe lights is one of his better examples of the high-tech/high-touch balance.

Naisbitt discusses the impact of opening up our economy to the entire world in Chapter 3. He points to a recent benchmark: the non-oil-producing developing countries are now exporting more manufactured goods than raw materials. At the same time, all developed countries are deindustrializing. He predicts more production-sharing, with goods made from parts from all over the world. Here Naisbitt’s notion is reminiscent of Leonard Reed’s essay of a generation ago, “I Pencil,” in which Reed points out that no one person knows how to make a common pencil. A pencil is made from materials gathered throughout the world, and requires hundreds of different individual skills—copper-mining, rubber-tapping, lumberjacking, etc) to produce. Naisbitt believes that a truly global economy is being created right now, an economy that will be our “great hope for peace” because countries that are “interlaced economically” will probably not “bomb each other off the face of the planet.”

Chapter 4 stresses the shift in business thinking from the short term to the long term. This is coming about as the long-term impacts of short-term decisions are catching up with us, and we learn that we can’t get away with short-term thinking any longer. For instance, says Naisbitt, labor unions, the two major political parties, universities, and “nuclear-is-the answer” advocates, will be going the way of the dinosaurs if they do not “reconceptualize their roles in society.”

Decentralization is Naisbitt’ fifth “megatrend.” State and local governments are growing faster than is the federal government, and are more often asserting themselves against the federal bureaucracy. This might not be all peaches and cream. We could move from single national regulations to a multitude of incompatible state and local regulations. But, says Naisbitt, when “… political power is decentralized, you can make a difference locally…Decentralization is the great facilitator of social change.”

Chapter 6 looks at the move to taking care of things personally, instead of asking an institution to do it. We have come full circle since the Depression, says Naisbitt, and we are we are reclaiming our traditional sense of self-reliance. The new medical paradigm is one of promoting health instead of treating sickness. There is much talk of reforming public schools, but an even stronger move to start private ones or to teach children at home. Instead of looking for a job, people are creating their own: 600,000 new businesses are started a year, as opposed to 93,000 a year in 1950. Private crime-fighting patrols and “survivalism” are further examples: since the government can no longer protect people, they have to protect themselves.

The next trend, then, could be anticipated—the change from representative to participatory democracy. Prime examples are the exploding popularity of referenda and initiatives, independent political parties—including CED and the LP, the consumer movement, public participation in corporate decisions via “activist shareholders,” and conversely, corporate participation in the debate on public decisions in national advertising campaigns. Here Naisbitt sees need for concern since the “majority will be voting on the rights of minorities.”

In Chapter 8, he sees networks as replacing hierarchies. The women’s movement, the anti-war movement, and new egalitarian structures within corporations “…offer what bureaucracies can never deliver—the horizontal link.” Naisbitt calls the computer a liberator since it makes networking easier—“The computer will smash the pyramid.”

The shift in population and economic growth from North to South is the subject of Chapter 9. Naisbitt points out that there has been little actual movement of factories except for in the textile industry a few decades ago. Since then, construction of new factories has been concentrated in the south, but factories in the north were closed only when they were no longer economical. Naisbitt lists 10 cities he considers to have “great opportunities” for the future, and where the reader might want to consider moving.

The last chapter describes the shift from an either/or society to a culture with multiple options—like Baskin-Robbins with 31 flavors. There will be fewer gender-bound occupations, a celebration of cultural and ethnic diversity, an explosion of artistic and musical activity, and cable TV will bring us everything from runner’s programs to beehive management.

Overall, then, Naisbitt predicts a marvelous future. His view is captured in the last line of the book: “My God what a fantastic time to be alive!”

Nevertheless, there are some irritating aspects of the book. At one point he asserts that we need to create a knowledge theory of value, to “replace Marx’s obsolete labor theory of value.” And yet at another point he makes the perfectly Adam Smith-like observation that “value is whatever people are willing to pay for.”

He gets trapped in the same inconsistency when he discusses the move to equal pay for work of “comparable value.” He fails to recognize that the value of work is determined in the same way as the value of everything else—it’s what people are willing to pay for, and has nothing to do with how much training you have to hold the job, or how much effort you put forth.

He also makes the mistake, common among futurists, of thinking that the reason for environmental pollution is the short time horizon of the polluters. If they would only take a long term view of the consequences of their actions, so the argument goes, they wouldn’t pollute. This view overlooks the fact that governments have failed to define and enforce property rights in the environment, so pollution victims could sue polluters just as they’d sue any other tresspassers. In the absence of environmental property rights, it is so much cheaper to pollute that most companies will continue to do so until the victims have the means to defend themselves.

There are several such deficiencies in the book, as well as a great deal of repetition, but they don’t overshadow its good features.

Let me finish by quoting a few gems.

“Leadership involves finding a parade and getting in front of it; what is happening in America is that those parades are getting smaller and smaller—and there are many more of them.”

Regarding a recent merger which created the largest labor union in the world: “The sun gets largest just before it goes under.”

“Lawyers are like beavers: they get in the mainstream and dam it up.”

“Folk art is the perfect counterpoint to a computerized society.”

“Teleconferencing is so rational it will never succeed.”

“During the 1970s there were days when I was sure the only people who wanted to get married were priests.”

“In politics, it does not really matter anymore who is president, and Congress has become obsolete.”

Overall, I recommend the book, even though I don’t agree with everything in it. Naisbitt, and the hope he projects, never fail to be stimulating…

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