The world of yesterday, today and tomorrow

Looking back is a necessary part of looking ahead

Eighty-two years ago this month, The New York Times published an article commenting upon the 20-year “Grand Canyon of History” separating the leaders of 1914 from the then-contemporary leaders of 1934. The general question was how leaders of one era differ from those of another. That interesting exercise gave rise in my mind to a two-part variation: How did the leaders of 20 years ago differ from those of today, and how will the leaders of two decades from now be different from those who lead today?

How different was 1996?

Entering the Wayback Machine (also known as the WABAC Machine. If you’re under 40, you may need a Wayback Machine of your own to understand the reference, from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. A serviceable substitute is YouTube.), we see that in 1996 we are just entering the internet era. The global population is around 5.7 billion people. Only 45 million of them are using the internet, with roughly “30 million of those in North America (United States and Canada), 9 million in Europe, and 6 million in Asia/Pacific (Australia, Japan, etc.). 43.2 million (44%) of US households own a personal computer, and 14 million of them are online.”

It’s very different age technologically. Early in the year, Motorola introduces the Motorola StarTAC Wearable Cellular Telephone, the world's smallest and lightest mobile phone to date. Chess computer Deep Blue defeats world chess champion Garry Kasparov for the first time. Pokémon Red and Blue are released in Japan by Nintendo. At the end of the year, Steve Jobs’ company NeXT is purchased by Apple Computer.

Most people in 1996 don’t realize it, but the trends that will dominate two decades hence (such as mobile, machine learning/A.I., gamification and consumerization) are just kicking off.

In headlining its 1934 article, the Times noted: “Few Wartime Rulers and Statesmen Now Have Prominent Posts: Men Obscure Twenty Years Ago Have Risen to High Places.” That certainly applies as we look back from 2016 at the leaders of 1996. In the political realm, where democracy is more common than it was in 1914, it’s not at all surprising, but it’s also true in the world of business, which has never been democratic. Except for some business leaders who might be likened to entrenched dictators or long-lived monarchs, today’s leaders tend to be men and women who were obscure 20 years ago. What this means is that as a leader, you have something less than two decades to make your mark — so every moment matters.

The future sneaks up on us

Futurists around the world will tell you that trends don’t just happen. They percolate — mostly unnoticed — for 20 or 30 years before becoming unavoidably obvious to all. I recall the lament of an experienced physician friend of mine: “At first nobody can diagnose a serious illness. However, by the time everyone can see it, it’s too late.”

Fellow technology forecaster Paul Saffo (formerly with the Institute for the Future) synthesized a 30-year technology rule. In the first decade of a new technology, as it emerges from the lab, people do not really understand what it is, how it might be used and what impact it might ultimately have. The leaders of the day are mentally unprepared for it. In the second decade, charismatic use cases emerge. There are early successes and failures. In the third decade, people accept it as part of their everyday lives.

But sometimes we learn from our shortcomings, so it’s just possible that the leaders of 2036 will possess a Cubist mentality — they will be able to conceptualize an object from multiple viewpoints. Leaders in 2036 will have to be facile in all forms of communication and be aware of emerging and extant technology use patterns. Additionally, the leaders of 2036 will combine their Cubist mentality with a futurist bent — they will conceptualize objects and ideas as they evolve across a period of time.

The next two decades will see no dearth of change — meaning that in that regard the future will be similar to the past 20 years, with change as the one constant. But the scholars, students and thought leaders at Singularity University envision massive acceleration over the next 20 years. They assert that we will experience 20,000 years of progress packed into the next 100 years. At that rate, as soon as two decades out, workers will be wrestling with their evolving identities. Leaders will rise to prominent posts based at least in part on their ability to assist colleagues in stabilizing their professional identity GPS.

But what will we aspire to? In the machine age, the cultural hero in the U.S. was the engineer – someone who built things. In the post-internet age, the preferred title may be entrepreneur (someone who builds companies), innovator (someone who creates new ideas or devices) or data scientist (someone who answers new questions).

Leaders in 2036 will help us better understand who we were, who we are and who we want to become.

Futurist Thornton A. May is a speaker, educator and adviser and the author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics. Visit his website at, and contact him at

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Thornton May

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