Is Being a Futurist a Real Job?

The cards say: Bigger screens and more nanotech are coming.

Photo by VICTOR ROJAS/AFP/Getty Images

In college, I had a friend who majored in meteorology. If jibed about his chosen profession, he would respond, “It’s the only profession where you are actually predicting the future.”

He wasn’t quite right. (Maybe that’s why he ended up becoming a gym teacher instead.) There’s another career path for those who would tell the future without using—or claiming to use—psychic powers. Futurologists or futurists combine instinct with seemingly scientific systems like cross-impact analysis and decision modeling in their craft. Their market is primarily big companies, which will pay handsomely for advanced information about upcoming market conditions. Governments, too, have been known to listen to futurists. But the would-be prophets aren’t keen to make terribly specific predictions.

The BBC’s Iaian Mackenzie writes,

They will never say “in ten years time we will all be wearing silver hover boots or using mobile phones with built-in egg whisks”.

Instead they talk in generalities—“the growth of screens”, “ubiquity of information” and the “nano revolution”.

This is a business of broad trends forecasting. Details will always be left to inventors, politicians or the man on the street to devise.

Companies that contract futurists’ services must be happy with their performance; otherwise, there would be no market. Yet it could be that their forecasts come to fruition not just because they can read the proverbial tea leaves, but because the prediction has been made in the first place. Mackenzie quotes one futurist, the Millennium Project’s Jerome C. Glenn, as saying, “There is a phrase about colonising the future, if you fill up all the mental space of a people that this is the way things are going to go, you create self fulfilling prophesies that people go in that way.” If futurists insist that there will be a trend toward bigger screens, and technological companies bet on it, we will certainly see “the growth of screens” prediction come true at least in part, as the gadgets fill up stores and consumers respond.

Read more from the BBC.