A prediction for 2020 or even 2030? No. The prediction was made in 1987 about 1990 by Faith Popcorn, a marketing consultant who runs the futurist consultancy BrainReserve. For Popcorn, the trend of “cocooning” — a retreat from public chaos into private security and predictability — defined the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
“We saw it coming while the party that preceded it was still in full swing,” wrote Popcorn in “The Popcorn Report,” her blockbuster 1991 book.
These predictions made Popcorn a household name, and it also helped professional futurism — the study and management of the future — gain the prominence it continues to enjoy.
Futurism is all around us, even if we usually don’t notice it. When it comes to the weather, economic cycles or the next election, forecasting is normal and expected in 2019. We listen to what experts and talking heads have to say about tomorrow because it helps us to make decisions, to feel more in control.
When it comes to cultural or social predictions, though, futurism can feel more fantastical. But such forecasts are serious business. As Popcorn’s efforts have demonstrated, such predictions coin a language for what people experience, ultimately shaping the future and our expectations.
The desire to know the future did not begin with Popcorn in the 1970s, of course. A range of professions — from sociologists to economic forecasters, from pundits to religious leaders — have long devoted time and energy to deciphering where the world might go.
By the middle of the 20th century, the study of the future became more systematic as social scientists developed futurological methods. At the Rand Corp. during the 1960s, strategists such as Herman Kahn and Theodore Gordon established long-range planning techniques for use in the military. Several important initiatives also emerged from the Ford Foundation, with scholars like Daniel Bell and Bertrand de Jouvenel conjecturing about the future of politics and democracy.
Corporations also played a role in futurology’s rise. In 1967, Royal Dutch Shell began to experiment with scenario planning, or the technique of using storytelling to speculate about the future. Called the Year 2000 study, Shell’s earliest scenarios suggested that the company should not assume growth in demand for oil and needed to plan for discontinuity. By the early 1970s, scenario planning became a common tactic at Shell, helping the company to better account for political and social developments that might impact its bottom line, like wars, scarcity and environmentalism.
Popcorn and her peers, however, did something new in the 1970s: They studied consumer culture. Rather than predict elections, commodity prices or sports scores, these futurists studied human behavior and tracked nascent cultural developments to help businesses create goods and services that were on trend. The impetus behind their business was simple. Just as a war in the Middle East might affect oil supply, they reasoned that rapid cultural change could shake up how consumers shopped and what products they wanted.
They were living through times replete with unrest — what Alvin Toffler, in his 1970 bestseller, called “future shock.” Warnings about the environment, unsettling political discord, war and revolutionary social movements — all coming on the heels of a decade that featured assassinations, riots, mass protests and other disruptions — made American society in the ‘70s feel anything but stable. Instead of fearing change or avoiding it, Popcorn and other futurists advised their clients to lean in.
In the process, they helped turn change itself into a product. Their work took different forms, including consultation, brand strategy, speeches, product ideas and commentary. Their objective? To make trends more visible and persuasive. Once packaged as trends, cultural change could be marketed and sold. In the case of cocooning, Schweppes and Kmart positioned themselves as safe and soothing, while Domino’s made moves to dominate pizza delivery to consumers reluctant to leave the house.
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, futurist consulting firms worked with companies of all kinds to identify trends and cope with the speed of change. In 1982, John Naisbitt’s best-selling book “Megatrends” predicted the disappearance of workplace hierarchies, the widespread decentralization of American life and the importance of “high tech/high touch,” or the embedding of humanizing flourishes into new technology. Companies took advantage of these ideas by then making office spaces more open, or offering ATMs that asked “how are you?” as a bank teller might.
Meanwhile, Popcorn’s BrainReserve identified consumer trends toward decadent treats and away from exercise, pointing to evidence like the success of Ben & Jerry’s and Americans’ ever-expanding waistlines. Food companies, riding the wave, pumped out treats like creamy candies and indulgent ice cream bars, while gyms added low-impact exercise equipment like stationary bikes.
Popcorn was a pioneer of an industry of prognosticators, who since the 1970s have made a business out of predicting the future. Their forecasts and scenarios, and trends and predictions, are most visible at critical junctures like the end of the year or the dawn of a new era (think millennials turning 40). But they labor year-round to interpret cultural signals and anticipate — as well as guide — their direction. And while, at moments like now, their forecasts are public-facing, they mostly work behind closed doors, advising companies of all stripes on how to beat the future. They write reports, give presentations, influence ad campaigns, encourage innovation and offer bespoke expertise. They’re not always right about the future, but that’s not the point. Instead, the goal is to give assurance in times of flux and influence how the future is imagined and developed.
Futurists and trend forecasters found a broad audience for their predictions in the 1970s, and still do to this day. If anything, dizzying technological change, and current social and political upheavals, have increased Americans’ appetite for future prediction. And even when they err, forecasters continue to capture attention and market share. Why? To answer that, ask yourself why you are likely to tune in to the forecasts that will bombard us over the next few weeks as 2019 nears its end. If history can tell us anything, it’s that we have an insatiable desire to glimpse what the future might hold. Maybe you’re excited about the human augmentation or stressed about a possible recession, shopping less or streaming more. As you do, you’re living trends — and futurism is shaping your world.