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Understanding change through phases, eras, timelines

Change doesn’t really happen in phases or eras. But in our understanding of it, it does. In exploring the future, it’s essential to frame or reframe how we think about change over time. That includes explaining the past and the present as part of a continuum leading to the future.

Using a timeline gives people something to test, add their thinking to, and talk about. A named set of phases or eras is a language people can share in exploring change with others.

As we work to understand how the future will emerge, we also often have limited or faulty understanding of the past and the present. A timeline helps us settle our understanding of the past and present to enable clearer thinking about the future.

As a futurist, I sometimes develop a timeline with a set of phases or eras to explain a trajectory of change. I also borrow and adapt those of others. A classic one is the American generations, the Silent Generation, Baby Boom, Baby Bust (or Generation X), and Baby Boom Echo (the millennials). That framing has been powerful and useful to look at values, attitudes, and lifestage experiences. Its power in how it has helped people explore American society is clear. Think of how quickly you can open up a conversation, for example, by saying “the Baby Boomers ….” Others know what you are talking about right away.

Here’s an example of a timeline (not yet with dates assigned) that I’ve been working with:

Media World Timeline

Part of the value in these frameworks is the simple fact of giving names to things. Having the short-hand for the post-World War II generation, the Baby Boomers, lets us learn more about that generation, discuss it, argue about it, and so on. Using the concept of a “post-modern era” or “the Industrial Revolution” lets people play with a provocative idea in the context of past, present, and future social change.

There is also plenty of danger in using schemes like this. They are, of a necessity, simplistic. Some arise to help consultants and other authors sell books or seminars. Some are nonsense. But some are profoundly useful. We have to simplify our view in order to understand it. So long as we know we are simplifying it, and so long as we don’t let the pretty scheme we’ve developed or borrowed become a mental cage, we should get the powerful benefit of these frameworks for thinking about change.

Trying to leave in all the complexity of a changing world makes it really hard for people to understand and think about change. The risks in simplifying and generalizing our views is a problem to be recognized and discussed, but that doesn’t invalidate having those generalized views in the first place. It’s hard to do without them.

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