The future isn’t what it used to be


By Janice Lindsay

Janice Lindsay

During the 1890s, various experts predicted what life would be like by 2000.  Now we’re 20 years into the new century and we’ve had two extra decades to make those things happen. How did they do with their predictions? You be the judge.

One social reformer predicted, “Three hours will constitute a long day’s work…” 

A theologian wrote, “Longevity will be so improved that 150 years will be no unusual age to reach.”

The U.S. Postmaster General said that we would no longer pay two cents to mail a letter; the price would be only one cent.

These experts made their predictions as part of a weekly newspaper series that appeared around the country. David Walter includes excerpts Will Man Fly?, published around the one hundredth anniversary of the predictions.

On the U.S. government: “The government will have grown more simple, as true greatness tends always toward simplicity.” Or, for a contrary opinion, take your pick, “The American government will grow more complex. All development moves away from simplicity toward complexity.”

Transportation: “It will be as common for the citizen to call for his dirigible balloon as it is now for him to call for his buggy or his boots.”  Or “Aerial navigation will… be accomplished not by balloons, but by the aeroplane. That aeroplane will work with stored electrical energy, operating through engines of marvelous power and lightness.”

Social divisiveness: “Man will have learned the lesson of trusting his brother. And the nation…will have destroyed the prejudice of race and the animosities of sect.”

Wealth: “A social revolution is certain to be accomplished within less than 50 years, and that will end the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few.”

Entertainment: “The popular taste in American drama will demand much the same material served to delight our grandparents half a century ago. In other words, Shakespeare will be on top.”

Literature: “There will not be so many books printed, but there will be more said.”

Music: “The United States in the next century will be greatest music-loving and music-producing nation on earth.”

Law: “Law will be simplified and brought within the range of the common people. As a result, the occupation of two-thirds of the lawyers will be destroyed. At present, law is a stupendous swindle.”

Materialism: “In 100 years Americans will have more leisure to think. The present rate of headlong material activity cannot be kept up for another century.”

Public education: “There will be no uneducated persons to act as drags on the car of progress.”

Alcoholism: “Proper cooking and improved physical habits will have neutralized the desire for stimulants.”

Women: “Woman will attain her status of equality before the law.” And, “Near the close of the next century, some rare, noble woman will be elected President of the United States.”

Energy: “Not many years hence, electricity will be found serving the household exactly as gas, steam, and coal now serve it – for cooking, heating, and lighting purposes.”

Insurance: “All the forests in the United States will be gone. Lumber will be so scarce that stone, iron, brick, slag, etc. will be largely used in the construction of houses. As a result, fires will be almost unheard of, and insurance companies will go out of business.”

So, how did they do? In a few cases, their expectations were in the right direction. Mostly, they missed. We guess about the future expecting it to be an extension of the present. Mostly, it isn’t. We get surprises: the Internet, a world war, a pandemic.

I can make one prediction with confidence about the next century: Whatever we think will happen, it probably won’t.