What will the future bring?
We are now approaching that annual ritual when many of us reflect upon the year behind us and anticipate the one to come. We scratch out a list of intentions, hoping to will into existence the future we think we want. There are lots of reasons to be anxious about the future. Global warming, drones, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the failure to deal with legacies of racism all weigh heavy on our minds.
In the late 1960s, the future was also the source of tremendous anxiety for even the most comfortable middle-class Americans, as is evident in the popularity of Alvin Toffler’s 1970 bestseller, Future Shock. Toffler argued that fully industrialized nations are entering the era of super-industrialization, a period marked by transience (as a result of more frequent housing, job, and relationship changes), and diversity (of life styles, and of consumer choices geared toward increasingly specialized interests). The pace of change is so rapid, he argued, people are at risk of suffering from “future shock,” a condition akin to culture shock, but much more intense, and ultimately inescapable: whereas travellers to foreign lands could return home to the familiar, rapid change at home left average Americans with no familiar place to which to return. “All the old roots – religion, nation, community, family, or profession – are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust.”
The book was written from a white, middle-class male perspective and tends toward sexism and occasionally misogyny (his wife Heidi is acknowledged as a co-creator on their website, but the book was published under Alvin’s name alone). For example, because men climbing the corporate ladder are constantly being transferred from city to city (an example of transience), he speculated that, rather than uproot his wife and children every time he moved, in the near future a computer would find for him a suitable wife, complete with furnished house, in each of his new locations.
Some predictions were utterly nonsensical. For example, new reproductive technologies would result in couples postponing childrearing until their retirement years. Ha!
He was right about two things, however: divorce and serial marriage would become normalized, and so too would ‘gay marriages.’
Given the rise in cohabitation and divorce in the 1960s, it is interesting that Toffler did not predict that “the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust” would lead to the elimination of marriage altogether. It is not that he saw marriage as sacred. After all, wives, like furniture, can be replaced. Nor did he see marriage as a stabilizer that would guard against future shock. His book reveals a blind assumption that marriage would simply continue to be, although in an adapted form.
One of the things my research on same-sex marriage has me thinking about is what the act of marrying means to people who perform it. For many women and men who came of age after the Second World War, who you would marry, not if you would marry, was the question. That’s what makes same-sex marriages in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s so intriguing to me. Lesbians and gay men who held a marriage ceremony were certainly not blindly following a prescribed path in life. They consciously defied what society – and other lesbians and gays – said they could and could not do. And yet despite all this, they too were likely driven by the same dreams, desires, and prescriptions as were opposite-sex couples: the romanticization of a contractual bond, the spiritual blessing and legitimation, the promise of stability and security.