Niels Bohr once said:  “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”

I say:  Prediction is not about the future, it’s about the present.

Now that I’m fairly old, I can look back on a wide range of visions of the 21st century, many of which now seem obsolete.  Here are just a few examples:

I recall the 1960s as being a period of techno-optimism.  There were visions of a 21st century filled with space travel, supersonic airliners and flying cars.

The mood became more pessimistic during the 1970s.  The famous Club of Rome report warned of overpopulation and resource depletion.

In the early 1990s, there was optimism that “The End of History” would usher in an age of peaceful democratic capitalism.

Late in the 1990s, worry increased that the 21st century would see dramatically rising global temperatures.

In the early 2000s, “The Clash of Civilizations” view became trendy, with a special focus on the clash between the West and the Muslim world.

Around 2010, there was an increasing view that this would be the Chinese Century.

A few years later, there were increasing fears of secular stagnation.

Today, people worry about the rise of nationalism, falling birthrates, and fear of unaligned AI.

What do all of these visions have in common?  The only unifying thread that I can see is that they all reflect what was going on at the moment.  That does not mean that they were all incorrect, rather that they correlate much more closely with conditions at the time then they do with conditions today.

Consider what was occurring when these predictions were made:

The 1960s saw transportation technology advancing dramatically over previous decades.  It was easy (but wrong) to extrapolate those trends into the 21st century.  Technology did continue to advance, but often in unexpected ways (biotech and computer chips.)

In the late 1960s, global population growth reached a peak of slightly over 2%/year, a rate that we may never see again.  And the early 1970s saw disruptions in the supply of food and energy.

The early 1990s saw the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

By the late 1990s, there was increasing evidence of an upward trend in global temperatures.  (Some cold winters in the 1970s had led to fears of a new Ice Age.)

The famous terrorist attacks of 9/11 led to a general view that we would see many more such attacks in the near future.  The public felt quite vulnerable.

Expectations of a Chinese century peaked at the end of a multi-decade period of double-digit Chinese economic growth.

Fears of secular stagnation developed after a sluggish recovery from the Great Recession and a long period of near zero interest rates.  Even I expected interest rates to stay fairly low.

So what’s in the news today?  We see reports of a dramatic fall in fertility.  We see news of a rise in nationalism.  We see warnings that AI poses an existential threat. If there’s a unifying thread in all of these concerns, it might be described as “anxiety over the Great Replacement.”  People worry that sharply declining birthrates in advanced countries will lead to our replacement with cheap labor from poor countries and increasingly sophisticated robots.

But how long before these current anxieties are replaced by an entirely new set of worries?

I won’t try to predict the future course of the 21st century, but I will try to predict the future course of 21st century predictions.  Ten years from now, I expect the consensus forecast for remainder of the century will largely reflect the headline news stories of the 2030s.  I predict that in the 2040s, forecasts for the remainder of the century will largely reflect the headline news stories of that decade.  Ditto for the 2050s.  What will those news stories be?  I have no idea.  But I strongly believe that predictions of the future will continue to reflect current events, and will mostly not reflect the actual future that plays out over time.

In other words, expect the unexpected.  And then expect people to assume that the unexpected will become the new norm, until it is superseded by some other unexpected event.