Jeff Jarvis is blogging from the Davos world leaders conference, finding (amongst other things) that 53% of Western Europeans think that the next generation will be less prosperous than this one. That's compared to 37% in the US, and just 14% in China. "The Chinese know that tomorrow belongs to them", says Jeff. No surprises there - China had the largest economy for eighteen of the last twenty centuries and it was the C19th, led by the British Empire, and the C20th, overtaken by the American, that were anomalous.
But back to the 53% of Western Europeans who think that the world will be less prosperous in the next generation. What is is that inclines us to so fear the future? I've mentioned before Michael Chabon's article The Omega Glory, in which his notes that,
"If you ask my eight-year-old about the Future, he pretty much thinks
the world is going to end, and that’s it. Most likely global warming,
he says—floods, storms, desertification—but the possibility of viral
pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind of nuclear exchange is not alien
to his view of the days to come. Maybe not tomorrow, or a year from now."
There's nothing new in a pessimistic view of the future. Christianity is at heart an apocalypse cult and much of the fundamentalist revival in the US focuses on an allegedly imminent rapture. The late C20th lived in the shadow of the bomb. Different armaggedons seemingly haunt every generation. Only last week conversation with friends over dinner turned to survivalism and contingency plans for the collapse of civilisation (remote, fortified Greek islands featured prominently).
I've posited before that our culture's future-pessimism might explain the decline of the newspaper industry. An interest in current affairs is indissolubly bound up with the connection the reader feels with an imagined future to which those affairs might relate, and newsprint is suffering particularly from the evaporation of that connection. Chris Charron recently asked the LinkedIn community about the future for newspapers:
"When does the circulation drop below a point where the editorial, classifieds, and advertising models collapse and our vehicle news needs radical innovation?"
Vidar Hokstad gave, for my money, the most interesting answer - that newspapers face "not just a technological challenge, but a cultural challenge". Indeed. The cultural challenge for newspapers is to
present a vision of the present, and therefore a vision of the future, that resonates with their readers and inspires them to engage with the news every day. Western media owners have the hardest job in the world - 53% of their audience think that the future will be poorer than the present. Chinese media owners have the easiest - a massive 86% are optimistic about their future prosperity. Getting people who think that every day is a little bit better than yesterday to enthuse about the news that is taking them there should be shooting fish in a barrel.