Imagining Changes over a Very Long Time for Associations

Asked to forecast 50 years into the future, CAEs (certified association executives) anticipate by 2020 more changes in ways we can already see today, but by 2040 and 2060, their image of what associations will become blurs into the uncertainty of significant societal changes.

I facilitated this CAE exploration of the next 50 years for associations during a June 22 CAE celebration with more than 130 association executives in Alexandria, VA. For more insights from this experience, also read Forecasting 50 Years Ahead for Associations and CAE Leaders. Now that I’m back from a great summer vacation, I’ve analyzed what these CAE teams reported out for 2020, 2040 and 2060. Several teams said CAEs need to monitor trends and issues and understand how their associations will rise and fall with significant changes in the environment.

The 2020 teams saw the current trajectories of change continuing to play out for associations, such as:

  • A steady embrace of multimedia technologies.
  • More virtual working environments and meetings.
  • Globalization drawing associations into global operations.
  • Diversity requiring leaders to be more culturally savvy and sensitive.
  • Greater encouragement or pressure to act responsibly for the environment.

These CAEs validated the need for continuous learning and strong leadership in every future window of time we explored.  They also recognized the need to be proficient with new technologies and practices.

Several 2020 teams felt the future calls into question the decision to be nonprofit or for profit.  One 2040 team asked a far more important and generative question for CAEs to consider: will we have vastly different ways of affiliating?

The 2040 teams anticipate bigger changes like a wealth transfer to poorer countries, a retirement age that will be 10 to 20 years older, and work environments that have shifted away from traditional office space. They forecast that international cultures will become more mainstream and global standards will prevail. More work will be delegated to robotics while people will make life-work balance supreme. Human inter-connectiveness will be valued more than information transfer, and privacy will not exist. Education will be less structured and more focused on direct application, perhaps with CAEs even collaborating to get degrees.

The 2060 teams anticipated the greatest changes in our world. China will be the world’s largest economy, India will be an intellectual world power, and the European Union will elect a central government.  Yet neighborhoods with small-scale enterprises and commerce may become more essential to the economy than governments. We can look forward to collaboration without barriers, including language, because we have a universal language and virtual emotional intelligence.  CAEs will use judgment to use the instant knowledge so readily available. Associations will become a blend of virtual and real worlds. And what will be the 2020 membership challenge: how will we retain the 120 year old?

It is difficult to imagine how different our world can become.  When we engage in forecasting exercises like this one, we will get some things right, wait forever for some changes, and be taken unaware and unprepared by something really important.  We just have to accept this with humility and jump into this uncertainty if we want to call ourselves leaders willing to challenge our organizations to matter to the future.