Ice Cream and Light Bulbs

Ice Cream and Light Bulbs

May 15, 2020

“There’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of every day
There’s a great, big beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow’s just a dream away”
-- Disney’s Carousel of Progress

We were once told by our parents not to talk to strangers, don’t share personal information on the Internet, and never get into unfamiliar vehicles. Today, we summon strangers to take trips in unfamiliar vehicles by inputting personal information on the Internet. Oh, and they often come bearing food and expecting tips.

Human progress is quickly reshaping how we live. At times, it is disruptive. History and predictive experts tell us most of the jobs we know will be gone in a generation, new careers in new industries sprouting in their place.

At other times, human progress is reassuring. MIT Agelabs is a think tank charged with finding ways to improve quality of life during our newfound longevity (in 1900 most people living in industrialized nations did not make it to 50). In 2018, Agelabs identified three simple questions to ask ourselves to identify how we will fare as we age.

  1. How are you going to change your lightbulbs?
  2. How are you going to get an ice cream cone?
  3. Who are you going to have lunch with?

The answers to these innocuous questions touch upon some of the most meaningful parts of our lives: our independence, our ability to enjoy the simple things, and our relationships with those we care to share our days. Even since 2018, the answers to these questions for many people are changing for the better. Technology is making these actions easier by the year.

In the short run, technology changes the answers to questions in our lives. In the long run, technology changes the very questions we ask.

In our work, we constantly ask “How do you prepare for a future that changes so quickly?” When we sit down with clients and imagine their future, how can we believe in the plan we set, knowing the future is so uncertain?

Our recommendations are rooted in time-tested strategies, current law, and the best predictive research we can find. However, the truth is that much of this is based on faith. As I tell clients, my crystal ball works about 80% of the time—when I inquire about yesterday’s dinner. It doesn’t work as well for the future.

That notwithstanding, we have faith in human progress. Despite the negative headlines we see, tremendous progress has been made. 10% of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty--but in 1990 it was 36%.

Our plans are based on concepts that buy into human progress: the idea that we will continue to become better. We also usually assume we are hitting moving targets. We marvel at the goals and dreams our clients bring to us. How a client moves into their dream home looks crystal clear right now—and two years later it changes when they tell us their dream home is actually in France, not South Carolina. Two years after that it changes again, this time because the income tax code is overhauled, their son returns from France after all, or they realize the wine tastes just as good in the states after a few glasses.

Our financial planning process assumes things will change--it is an ongoing, fluid process. Just as airplanes are constantly off course yet eventually reach their destination, so too do we consistently revisit and adjust to ensure clients are on track. It is the only way to effectively plan for a fluid future--and thank goodness. Life would be boring and far too easy if that wasn’t the case.


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