People Fear the Future Because No One is Convincing Them Otherwise

Insights, IP |

Being left behind is a primal fear – the stuff of anxiety dreams. Currently, too many people are looking ahead and seeing a future in which who they are, what they have to offer, and what they have accomplished is no longer valued.

The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer has found that 57% of respondents are worried about people like them losing the respect and dignity they once enjoyed in their country. Contrary to what you might expect, this concern is not associated with a particular demographic as people across generations, levels of education, and income groups have all manifested this anxiety to essentially the same degree.

Fear of Being Left Behind

Ceasing to matter is not something people take in stride. It makes them rail against change, fear modernity, reject globalization, and scapegoat immigrants and minorities. The fear of status loss and diminished importance also feeds perceptions that the system is unfair, that our institutions lack ethics, and that: “I need to take all I can get now,” without concern for future generations.

Certainly, part of this fear is driven by job insecurity and worries about skill obsolescence. But dignity and respect do not stem from financial vitality alone. The fear also comes from not seeing your tastes, values, and beliefs reflected in society or in the media. It comes from feeling increasingly less comfortable and competent with the tools of everyday life. And, it comes from feeling disregarded by the people with influence over what the future will look like.

This fear of status loss is ultimately a result of societal institutions failing miserably at basic change management. Within businesses, the long-term costs of poor change management are lowered morale, decreased confidence in leadership, and resistance to change. All things we see echoed in the trust data.

  • Capitalism as it exists today does more harm than good: 56% agree
  • I do not have confidence in our current leaders to successfully address our country’s challenges: 66% agree
  • Democracy is losing its effectiveness as a form of government: 58% agree
  • The pace of change in technology is too fast: 61% agree

In order to gain trust, increase their efficacy, and foster a spirit of cooperation versus intransigence within society, our social institutions need to make change seem less threatening and more inclusive. At the same time, they need to make the people who will inevitably be disrupted by change feel as protected and respected as possible.

Change management is not a new concept. As a business process, it has been around since the 80’s. The basics steps are:

  1. Clearly define the change and align it to what is important to people
  2. Determine impacts and those most likely to be affected
  3. Develop a communication strategy
  4. Implement a support structure
  5. Measure the change process

The fact that none of the social institutions we monitor -- government, business, media and NGO’s – are seen by a majority of people as having a vision for the future that they believed in, indicates that these institutions have failed to successfully accomplish even step one.  

Change management performed at a societal versus an organizational level does mean the affected audience will be much larger and the change more complex and multifaceted, but the purpose is the same – to get people who fear being left behind to see opportunities for themselves within a future they currently regard with unease and suspicion.

David M. Bersoff, Ph.D. is the SVP, Head of Global Thought Leadership Research, based in our New York office.

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