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Even Futurism Isn't What It Used to Be

October 07, 1987|CONNIE ZWEIG

The field of futurism, which appeared to have a bright future 10 years ago, now seems to have lost its luster. Because of several social and economic trends, futurism as an independent discipline is losing ground. However, professionals report, a future-oriented outlook has by now taken hold among a wide range of creative thinkers in business and education.

Futurists study the sustainability of societies and the effect of technologies. They apply a global perspective to problem-solving.

Their field, which had its birth in the late 1960s, seems to have peaked in the late 1970s. The World Future Society in Bethesda, Md., which boasted 50,000 members in 1980, now claims about 26,000, with 30 to 50 local chapters nationwide, including Los Angeles.

The field has grown less dramatically than expected. Professionals estimate there are fewer than 500 academically certified futurists in the United States and about 100 college courses throughout the country. They blame the slow growth on an identity crisis: Futurists have not clarified the boundaries of their field.

Los Angeles educator and futurist Bernard Kirsch pointed out that the term futures never caught on. "When people would ask me what I did, I would say, 'Futures,' and they would ask, 'Hog bellies or corn?' "

Ed Cornish, director of the World Future Society, which publishes the Futurist magazine, described the slow growth this way: "In the 1960s we saw a burst of interest in the future due to general affluence and expansion of the space program." Before that, he said, futurism was considered to be of interest to people on the fringe, or to science-fiction buffs.

"With the 1970s, the mood changed due to the energy crisis and the recession," Cornish said. "The result was a return to more short-term thinking. In the 1980s, this short-term orientation continues, with people focusing on how to get through the decade."

A series of trends added to the problems of futurism, Cornish said. "The decimation of middle management and staff cutbacks hit long-range planning. Less money is available to be experimental, so there's less freedom."

Burt Nanus, director of USC's Center for Futures Research, which closed its doors in June after 16 years of operation, has come to the same conclusion.

"We lost our constituency during the last three to five years, given the cutbacks of strategic planners," he said. "It's increasingly difficult to get the support of business. We seem to be going through a time when corporations are not farsighted, but are looking over their shoulders at corporate raiders and wondering what to do to get a quick fix on the bottom line."

Educators find themselves in a similar fix. At Cal State Dominguez Hills, Linda Grof, who teaches political science and futurism, reported that students are now taking extended majors, such as finance and business, which no longer require minors such as futurism.

"We're losing (the interest of) our student populations, yet future study is as relevant as ever," Grof said.

Future-minded educators continue to debate whether futurism is a discipline in its own right or merely an adjunct to other fields, Grof said. Like psychology earlier in this century, futurism attracts specialists from different disciplines--some eager to define it as a social science, others seeking to give it more rigor.

Those who dispute the value of specialization believe the field should offer a future orientation to existing fields, such as economics and education. Those who advocate specialization would like it to become another professional turf, so that public policies could not be formulated without input from credentialed futurists.

"Part of the problem is that it is a strange hybrid," Grof said. "The U.S. tends to follow fads. When several best-selling books inspired the public about trends, future-oriented thinking became integrated into many areas. But I believe there's still a need for futurists to remain independent, because we must have people with an overview, people who look beyond symptoms with a broader approach."

Grof likened current popular thinking to Newtonian physics, which breaks the world into small parts. "Unfortunately, our universities are set up in much the same way. But at another level these separate departments are contrived. The best material falls into the cracks. Like futurism, it's cross-disciplinary, sharing patterns in common with many fields."

Acceptance by Society

In many schools, a futures perspective has been incorporated into social studies, economics, education, the arts and the sciences. "This is how futurism should be used," said Bernard Kirsch, the former educator and administrator for the Culver City school district, who is also former head of the World Future Society's Los Angeles chapter.

"We should be talking about going forward to the basics, not back to basics. Our youngsters need to know what the world might be like in the year 2000, when they will live their lives. We need to futurize the curriculum."

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