Virginia-based author and consultant Joel Garreau has a knack for not predicting the future. Rather, he focuses on sketching out plausible scenarios of what could happen, and undercutting excessive confidence that any one outcome is in the cards.
This tack was evident in his 2005 book “Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human,” which outlined a variety of possible futures stemming from advanced technologies and cultural choices. I reviewed the book positively for Scientific American Mind.
Last year, in an article at the online magazine Slate and a related Washington, D.C., conference of Future Tense (a collaboration of Slate, the New America Foundation and Arizona State University), Garreau delved into the future of longevity. Focusing on the year 2030, he offered four scenarios:
Small Change. In this scenario, technological advances have only modestly altered current trends in lifespans and health outcomes. Leading-edge baby boomers alive in 2030 are octogenarians and often infirm. Their kids who are in their 40s can expect to live into their 80s but face a familiar decades-long decline in health. Medical costs continue to skyrocket. According to Garreau, this is “the official Washington future regarding aging—the one many policymakers expect.”
Drooling on Their Shoes. In 2030, under this scenario, technological advances have increased lifespans while doing far less to improve health in later life. Octogenarian boomers face decades of frailty and dementia; suicide rates among the aged have jumped. Health care costs are even more burdensome than in Small Change, increasing budget turmoil and intergenerational tension.
Live Long and Prosper. Information technology has revolutionized health care while reducing its costs, in this 2030 scenario. Octogenarians remain active, thanks partly to what Garreau calls “Google Medicine,” a toaster-sized home appliance that analyzes spit samples to detect health changes. The first person who will live robustly to 150 is entering adulthood. Hospitals have become primarily for the less affluent, and tech-driven obsolescence threatens many health care institutions.
Immortality. In his last scenario, Garreau raised the possibility of lifespans of indefinite duration. “Immortality is not as crazy as it sounds,” he wrote. Sufficient tech advances could boost life expectancy by one year each year, and “you have something that looks like immortality for some people.” Boomer octogenarians in 2030 have “too many hard miles on their chassis” to fully benefit, but younger people may have trouble imagining the onetime prevalence of sickness and death.
Seeking to understand what these scenarios implied for financial advice, I contacted Garreau for a phone interview. I found he had strong opinions about how the financial advice industry prepares for the future.
How Likely? Don’t Ask
I asked Garreau: Which of these scenarios are more likely than others? Is there any way to make an educated guess?
“That, if I can say, is the sort of dumb question that gives financial planners a bad name,” he replied. “If you accept the notion that all four of these scenarios are credible, then the first law of scenario planning is never try to guess which one is going to happen.” Predictions don’t work, he asserted, citing a litany of failed ones including IBM’s severe underestimation of the personal computer market in the 1980s.
“By and large, I find that financial planners—my experience with them anyway—drive into the future through their rearview mirrors,” he said, adding that he’s personally gotten poor advice. “They look backwards to what financial history has been and then they predict it forward in a straight line. And that is the one thing that you can reliably say about the future—that it’s not going to be a straight-line projection from the past.”