Thinking years and decades into the future can feel abstract and detached from our experience. Here’s a simple idea to make it more concrete and relatable
‘The future’ can be a bit of an ill-defined mystery. It can look murky and feel detached from our present experience. This makes it harder for us to think about the possibilities that lie ahead.
In this article, I’ll introduce you to a simple concept that can help your future-thinking be a little less fuzzy and a little more concrete. It’s called a personal time horizon.
I’ll show you how to calculate your own personal time horizon and how to apply it.
For a full explanation of this concept, keep reading. Or, you can jump straight to this quick summary.
Why is a personal time horizon useful?
The future goes dark after 15 to 20 years
On any given day, you and I will think about the future for around one of every seven hours we spend thinking. However, despite thinking a lot about what’s to come, it turns out that we struggle to picture the future more than a few decades ahead.
In his book “The Good Ancestor: How to think long-term in a short-term world”, public philosopher Roman Krznaric quotes survey data to show for most people “the future goes dark after 15 to 20 years.”
In other words, we don’t think about the future beyond a couple of decades. This suggests that a lot of people aren’t thinking at all about great chunks of their lives to come: parent- and grandparenthood, their middle-age or retirement.
Thinking about the future isn’t easy
We should recognise that thinking about the future over any time horizon – long or short – isn’t always easy.
If you’re asked to think about the world in, say, 30 years’ time, it can feel very remote and abstract. It can look like little more than a fuzzy spot on the horizon that feels far removed from your own experience of life today.
The main reason we find future-thinking hard is the seductive draw of the present. We like benefits to appear at least in the near-term, but preferably right now. People favour smaller rewards received right now over larger rewards that are delayed. This phenomenon is known as ‘temporal discounting’.
A further reason could be that the pictures our minds’ conjure of the future just aren’t compelling enough. In 1984, philosopher Derek Parfit wrote that “when we imagine pains in the further future, we imagine them less vividly, or believe confusedly that they will somehow be less real, or less painful”. A growing body of studies have examined the role of vividness and its role in tilting people’s behaviour away from instant gratification and towards longer-term benefits (for example, Hershfield et al’s seminal study).
“Prospection is a constructive process, retrospection is a reconstructive process, and constructing new things is typically more difficult than reconstructing old ones.”Quoidbach, Gilbert and Wilson (2013)
Making the future vivid and relevant
Our starting point is the difficulty of “constructing new things” and then making them vivid and relevant to ourselves in the present.
If we can make the future appear more vivid and relevant – and in doing so, deepen our level of connectedness with it – we will improve the clarity and effectiveness of our future-thinking.
The personal time horizon can help you do just that.
So, if we want to make the future feel a bit more connected to our lives, where should we begin?
Start with something familiar
When you gaze far into the future, you might feel that you lack a sense for how much things can change over the decades. You might feel like the future sits outside your (time) frame of reference.
To shed light on a future that can seem obscure, start with what you already know about time and use it to develop your feel for the level of change that can happen over decades.
What do I mean by this?
One way to get a greater sense of the passage of time is to use your own experience of time – your lifetime – as your guide. If you’re familiar with what has changed over the course of your own lifetime, you’ve got a frame of reference that isn’t just abstract, but grounded in your experience.
You can then apply this guide to how you think about what’s to come.
Your lifetime as a guide
Each of us knows something about time. After all, by the time you’re reading this, you’ll have likely lived for at least one or two decades. This experience of time – our lifetime – becomes our starting point. Our frame of reference or guide.
Let’s consider an imaginary friend, Kate. She’s 30 years old. With 30 years’ experience of living, she’ll have some sense for what that period of time looks and feels like. It’s not perfect, of course, as there’ll be a clutch of early years that she’ll have little or no memory of. She’ll have also likely forgotten some important events, or perhaps never even heard about them – as we all have. But, overall, she’ll have witnessed change in herself and change in the world around her over the course of her lifetime.
Kate’s 30 years of life is her frame of reference – her own fundamental base unit of time based on her experience.
Now, for greater effect, let’s put her 30-year experience to work.
Back to year zero
First, we want to remind Kate of the level of change that she’s experienced over her lifetime. This could be advances in science, the introduction of new technologies, or cultural, political and economic changes.
So, let’s help Kate go back in time. If Kate turns 30 in 2020, she was born in 1990.
What was happening in 1990?
- World affairs were marked by comings together and fallings apart. Germany was reunified; the Baltic States declared independence from the Soviet Union; Yugoslavia’s communist regime collapsed, preparing the ground for its future break-up.
- Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
- British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, resigned after more than a decade in power.
- Top Of The Pops sees performances from The Wedding Present, They Might Be Giants and The KLF.
- Sir Timothy Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989. In 1990, he wrote the first web browser which was released to the general public the following August.
- NASA launches six space shuttle missions.
- Fastest production car is a souped-up Porsche 911, a Ruf CTR, with a top speed of 213 mph.
- Global surface temperature is 0.45 degrees Celsius above the 1951-1980 average.
- 5 million – the number of cell phone subscribers in the U.S. (it rose to over 400 million by 2018).
The aim is to give Kate a clearer a picture of change over her lifetime.
Back, back, further back…
Now, let’s use Kate’s 30 years again. Let’s travel back in time 30 years before she was born, to 1960.
What did the world look like then?
- Kennedy is U.S. President; Khrushchev is leader of the Soviet Union.
- The top selling billboard hit record is “Theme from a summer place” by Percy Faith.
- A new computer is introduced – the DEC PDP-1 – which is the first to place the user at the heart of its design. It retails at over $120,000. Fifty are sold.
- No crewed missions to space – yet. The Soviet Union’s Korabl-Sputnik 2 returned two dogs safely to earth in August 1960. NASA’s Project Mercury will launch a crewed mission in 1961.
- Fastest production car is an Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato, with a top speed of 153.5 mph.
- Global surface temperature is 0.16 degrees Celsius below the 1951-1980 average.
Kate’s life experience is grounded in the 30 years between the present and 1990. It gives her a flavour for the level of change over a period that she has actually experienced. To go a further 30 years back to 1960, opens up her eyes to the magnitude of change that has happened over a full 60 years.
Ok, you might be saying, that’s the past. But, what relevance does it have to thinking about the future?
Well, in essence, picturing the past in a relatable way helps warm up our imaginations for picturing the future.
Forward to the future…
In our final step, let’s help Kate project forward 30 years hence from 2020. This takes her – and us – to 2050.
Given what our exercise in looking backwards has revealed, what might we expect to see in the future?
Will we see further comings together and fallings part on the world stage? Can we safely assume that production cars will be faster still – if we indeed still drive cars? Will we reach our climate goal of limiting global heating to well below 2 degrees Celsius? What will be our communication device of choice?
It’s not (just) about prediction
It’s important to stress that thinking about the future isn’t just about correctly predicting what will happen. It’s about imagining what could happen and what possibilities might appear from the murkiness.
thinking about the future isn’t only about predicting what will happen, it’s about imagining possibilities that lurk in the murkiness
Change, of course, is not linear. It accelerates in fits and bursts over time. But by looking back using horizons of time that we can relate to by virtue of our age, gives us a more intimate and personal reminder of how much change we and the world around us has undergone.
This exercise also reminds us that the future isn’t necessarily an abstract ‘other’, but a continuation of time present and time past – both of which we have our own experience of.
This said, when thinking about what possibilities lie ahead, we should be wary of assuming the assumptions and trends of the present will simply continue to hold in the future (extended now-sightedness).
Personal time horizon
Taking Kate’s personal experience of time and using it as a fundamental unit to look backwards and forwards gives us a window – in Kate’s case a full 90 years from 1960 to 2050. This isn’t an abstract number: it’s grounded in her own experience of time, her lifetime.
I call this our ‘personal time horizon’.
The concept of time – extending into the future or the past – can feel very ill-defined and undefinable. But, by using our own lifetime as a starting point and using it to build a personal time horizon, we begin to connect the future with our own experience.
Drawing in the deeper past; drawing us deeper into the future
There’s another interesting dimension to this exercise. You might have noticed that your personal time horizon expands each year not by one year, but by three. Over time, as our lifetimes lengthen, our personal time horizons expand outwards. In effect, our growing experience of time draws in closer the events of the past and the future until they are eventually inside our frame of reference (our personal time horizon). We become more intimately connected to those events as our timeframe of reference widens.
For example, the personal time horizon of a ten-year-old is 30 years. But for a 20-year-old, it has already extended out to 60 years; for a 30-year-old it’s 90 years; and for a 40-year-old it’s well over a century, at 120 years.
This means that every person over the age of 28 years has a personal time horizon that is greater than the life expectancy of someone from Japan, which is currently the highest in the world at 85.
Drawing the past closer
With each passing year, our personal time horizon draws us closer to events before we were born.
Think of a major world event that occurred before you were born. For me, the second World War comes to mind. The war began some 40 years before I was born. My grandparents all lived through it. Both of my grandfathers served as army medics.
As a child, there remained plenty of evidence of the war all around me. I grew up in East Anglia, England, which is dotted with wartime airstrips and ground defences (mostly Pillboxes). And my grandparents were still living. Despite this, the events seemed very remote and distant to me.
As I grew older, however, I noticed that events that had once seemed very distant and detached from my life’s experience, started to fall within my own experience of time.
At the age of 40, I found myself marvelling that a jump back in time equivalent to my age before my birth would land me in the days before the outbreak of the second World War. For an event that I had always held in my mind as something remote in the past, it felt bizarrely – almost uncomfortably – close. More importantly, I felt a new sense of direct, personal connectedness to that time, in addition to an historical connectedness gained via relatives of older generations.
Drawing us deeper into the future
At the other end of our time horizon, we are drawn deeper into the future with each passing year.
The future can feel very abstract, murky and detached. This concept, or tool, helps us think more concretely about time by using our own experience of time – our lifetimes – as a starting point.
Your personal time horizon is made up of one component, your age, expanded out across three equal periods of time:
- the period between your birth and the present day (your age);
- the period before your birth equivalent to your age (so if you’re 30 years old in 2020, this period takes you back from your year of birth, 1990, to 1960); and
- the period from the present day into the future equivalent to your age (for a 30-year-old, this takes you to 2050).
So, to calculate your personal time horizon, take your age and multiply it by three. So, if you’re 30 years old in 2020, your personal time horizon is 90 years stretching from 1960 to 2050.
By linking the abstract concept of ‘time’ to your personal experience, this tool may help you to gain a more concrete feel for what change can occur over periods of 30, 40 or 50 plus years.
Try it now
You can calculate your personal time horizon and apply it to how you think about the future, right now.
To continue your journey…
Further articles covering how to more effectively think about and plan your personal and professional future will be appearing in the coming weeks.
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