The Threatening Thirties: Part II

By Jeff De Cagna, AIMP FRSA FASAE • November 14, 2023

AUTHOR’S ATTESTATION: This article was written entirely by Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, a human author, without using generative AI.

In Part I of this series, I identified six “root cause orthodox beliefs” at the core of the association decision-makers’ complacent approach to anticipating and navigating the future that must be defeated if our community is going have an opportunity to thrive going forward. This month’s column will examine the social, technological, economic, environmental, and political (STEEP) factors and forces that are gathering to shape a threatening decade for the association community and beyond.

The Threats Are Already Here

Foresight is an intentional process of learning with the future. Through the work of foresight, we imagine what worlds might plausibly emerge in longer-term time horizons to make it possible to grapple thoughtfully with the dimensions and implications of those futures before they happen. Our community’s boards must choose the duty of foresight to invigorate their ability to navigate the many critical problems they will face in the years and decades ahead.

This series, however, is only partly about the need for association boards to build a consistent practice of foresight. It is also a stern warning to current association decision-makers that serious threats to long-term association thrivability are already here. Looking toward the next decade from my current vantage point, what makes the 2030s so threatening for our community is the collective inability to acknowledge the very obvious dangers we now face and the apparent lack of interest in bold action to at least minimize their detrimental impact.

Examining STEEP Factors and Forces

Let me be clear: what you will read below is bleak by design. Association boards and their staff partners will not hope their way out of these perilous and unforgiving situations. Instead, it is crucial that they are clear-eyed and reflective, while also experiencing at least some feelings of vulnerability. As I did throughout the 2020 lockdown, I want to challenge boards to adopt “the pessimistic mindset” as an orientation toward the vigilant unlearning of orthodox beliefs, disciplined learning with the future, and focused stewardship action. The pessimistic mindset requires the acceptance that conditions will get worse before they get better, and will only improve through the choices that decision-makers in 21st century societal institutions make today to leave the systems for which they are responsible better than how they found them for the long-term benefit of stakeholders and successors.

  • Social deteriorationBurnout and other mental health concerns, declining friendships, endemic “busyness”, and loneliness are just some of the factors weakening our social fabric. Obesity and sleep deprivation undermine our individual and collective well-being, and overall US life expectancy is in decline. The social progress made by Black, Brown, LGBTQ+, and other historically marginalized populations is at renewed risk, while our national discourse has become increasingly fraught and politically polarized. Far from unifying Americans in common cause, the COVID-19 pandemic only deepened geographic, ideological, and other divisions. As we approach the next decade, it may be exceptionally difficult to summon the solidarity of purpose required to prevent the occurrence of emerging worst-case scenarios.
  • Technological surrender—The aggressive and frequently frenetic push by generative AI advocates to accelerate the pace of adoption of their favored technologies is the natural next step in society’s continuing surrender to algorithmic control. Since long before ChatGPT was publicly released nearly one year ago, human beings have been systematically handing over our decision-making capacity to algorithms across a full spectrum of activity, sometimes with dreadful and unconscionable results. The powerful mix of techno-optimistic conditioning and the seductive coolness of machine intelligence’s latest iteration may be so compelling, however, that it overwhelms our ability to address effectively the real-world issues of generative AI-enabled risks and harms in the years ahead.
  • Economic inequality—The COVID-19 pandemic made the inherent structural disparities in the US economy painfully clear, especially between people designated as “essential workers” (and thus required to be physically present to do their jobs) and work-from-home employees. Even as the economy has experienced recovery over the last few years, there has been enduring wealth and income inequality, and the CEO-worker pay gap has been a major driver of increased labor union activity. Looking toward the rest of this decade and beyond, the ongoing development of artificial intelligence technologies may continue to involve the exploitation of human workers, and unregulated AI adoption raises serious questions about inequality in the future of work, including for knowledge workers.
  • Environmental collapse—Human beings are already experiencing the climate emergency’s negative effects in the form of hotter temperatures, extreme weather events, food supply disruption, and water scarcity. The climate emergency is having a detrimental impact on both mental and physical health and producing increased climate migration. More catastrophic climate consequences may be unavoidable in the absence of action by industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent before the beginning of the next decade. With the potential for some ecological tipping points to occur sooner than originally expected, we must recognize and confront the climate emergency as the single greatest existential threat to humanity.
  • Political chaos—Just over three months after the January 6, 2021 deadly insurrection at the United States Capitol, I implored association boards to “…categorically reject the toxic influence of ideological division in every phase of their associations’ activities and especially in their own critical work of stewardship, governing, and foresight.” Nearly three years later, the country continues to suffer from a raw political sectarianism that intensifies social deterioration, exacerbates economic inequality, and makes tackling other serious threats, including technological surrender and environmental collapse, nearly impossible. Unfortunately, with yet another high-stakes presidential election less than a year away, the swift and necessary end to this persistent political chaos is hard to envision.

Next Month

In December, the final part of this series will consider what boards, CEOs, and other decision-makers can do over the next 12 months to begin mitigating the threats facing their associations, stakeholders, and successors in the decade ahead. Until then, my very best wishes to everyone celebrating the US Thanksgiving holiday. Thank you for your support and please stay well.

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia, is an association contrarian, foresight practitioner, governing designer, stakeholder and successor advocate, and stewardship catalyst. In August 2019, Jeff became the 32nd recipient of ASAE’s Academy of Leaders Award, the association’s highest individual honor given to consultants or industry partners in recognition of their support of ASAE and the association community.

Jeff can be reached at [email protected], on LinkedIn at jeffonlinkedin.com, or on Twitter @dutyofforesight.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this column belong solely to the author.