There in the Crystal Ball, Forecasters Are Thriving

By TRISH HALL Published: April 29, 1992


Excerpt from article below

""With chaos the defining concept of the age, approaches once derided for their nonrational base seem less dubious. "Science is turning out to be as much of a psychic game as anything else," said Nancy Stark, who reads palms at Raoul's Brasserie, a restaurant in SoHo.""


OVERNIGHT, national boundaries have dissolved. Bitter enemies have suddenly become friends, while former compatriots go to war. Once-secure bank jobs disappeared without warning, as did the banks that symbolized all that was solid and dependable. Even the weather isn't what it once was.

When the world seems unpredictable, there is one business that thrives: predicting the future. Whether they stare at palm lines or trend lines, people who believe that they have some ability to forecast events of the next day, the next year or even the next decade are finding a growing demand for their services.

"Shocking things -- good or bad -- scare people," said Arnold Brown, chairman of Weiner, Edrich, Brown Inc., a consulting firm in New York. The restructuring of the economy brings a lot of pain. The end of the Cold War ought to have generated happiness, he said. But because it caught people by surprise, he said, it left them angry. "For powerful people, it strikes at their core to think they don't have control," Mr. Brown sa

A number of consultants who specialize in forecasting the future, and who call themselves futurists, said in interviews that their business has picked up markedly in the last year or so. Chief executives are showing more interest in the future than they did in the 1980's, according to Leaders magazine, a publication for C.E.O.'s. The magazine is responding to their interest by running more future-oriented articles like "The Future's Greatest Inventions" and "Leadership in the 21st Century."

And while sober researchers in think tanks may believe they have nothing in common with psychics and astrologers, those who use intuition to forecast the future are also finding a growing interest in their services.

A proliferation of both computer software for creating charts and "900" numbers for telephone consultations have made astrology more pervasive and more accessible. Even the elite among psychics and astrologers, who charge more than $100 an hour, now offer sessions by telephone and accept credit cards.

"I have people I've never seen," said Joy Herald, a psychic in New Jersey who said her business has gone up since she began the telephone consultations three years ago.

Earlier this month, more than 1,500 astrologers attended the United Astrology Congress in Washington to discuss matters like "No Nonsense Mundane Forecasting." That was a big jump over attendance at the last convention three years ago, which drew about 1,000 people, according to organizers.

"There is a definite revival going on," said Angel Thompson, an astrologer in Venice, Calif., who edits the newsletter for the Association for Astrological Networking, which has 1,000 members worldwide. The interest in astrology shown by Ronald and Nancy Reagan had an effect. "That changed minds," she said.

Ms. Thompson has not seen this much interest in astrology since the early 1970's. "People are desperate," she said. "They see an economy that's a disaster. They see a government that's totally corrupt. They are willing to try anything."

But even the business of forecasting is not without its uncertainty. The economic crunch has hurt some astrologers and psychics because clients must conserve money for here-and-now needs like food and rent.

While many companies may be hiring outsiders to do some consulting, there is no boom in staff jobs for futurists. "I don't see any indication that corporations are hiring staff to do forecasting," said Barbara Samuels, a vice president at Chase Manhattan Bank and president of the Council for International Business Risk Management.

Tom Mandel, a futurist at SRI International, a consulting company in Menlo Park, Calif., said that while his business had picked up, many people may have concluded that analyzing the future is a waste of time.

"There are a lot of ways people are adjusting to turbulence and change," he said. "One way to deal with this is to say, 'Let's just coast the waves.' "

The futurists who find their client list growing say they are in demand because rapid global change and a persistent recession have overturned old expectations. But the approach of the year 2000 may be a factor, too.

"The millennium is functioning as a psychological landmark," said Joseph Coates, president of Coates & Jarratt Inc., a forecasting firm in Washington. "It seems to be acting as an excuse for stock-taking. It's seen as a transition point for the economy and society."

Mr. Coates said he was selling projects to companies that would not have garnered interest five years ago, like an analysis of technology's impact in the next 35 years.

Maybe because so many past forecasts turned out to be wrong, like ones for fusion energy and the paperless office, clients are more skeptical, he said. "Rather than asking about the future, they want to know, what are the alternative ways the future can evolve," he said.

Long-range studies, though, tend to be the exception, not the rule. Most spinners of tomorrow's tales propel themselves not into the distant future, but into next year and the year after. That's very different from the late 1960's, when practitioners blithely looked ahead 100 years.

"At that time, you could think about the future and it was a pleasant thing to contemplate," said Michael Marien, editor of Future Survey, a monthly abstract of books, articles and reports about the future that is published for 2,400 subscribers by the World Future Society in Bethesda, Md. "I think there's a lot of fear of the future," he said. "You can't talk with too much authority about what's coming."

Futurists scan information from a vast array of sources. They provide reports to clients and hold meetings in which they discuss what the trends might mean for particular businesses. Basically, they are just astute observers who try to put together disparate pieces of a puzzle.

There is a lot of money, consultants say, for practical marketing-oriented advice, but little financing from government and private sources for long-range future fantasies.

Clients want that practical advice. "Hardly anybody is interested in a forecast 10 or 15 years out," said David Snyder, a futures consultant who is a partner in the Snyder Family Enterprise in Bethesda, Md. "They say, tell me what is going on now." His business, he said, was up about 15 percent last year over the year before. A similar burst occurred in the last recession. "As soon as apparent prosperity came back, business dropped off," he said.

Clients want to know what is going on worldwide so that they can decide on tactics and strategy.

"Things are changing so rapidly that to do business as you've always done it -- you're going to die," said Dolores Schatz, director of strategy and planning for Nynex, the telephone company based in White Plains.

Smart businesses, she said, are becoming like good poker players: they pay attention to everything that is happening. "Unless you are doing a really good job of monitoring your operating environment," she said, "things will blindside you."

When life appears clearer, forecasters seem less necessary. "If you can see to the horizon, anticipating the future is no trick," said Joel Arthur Barker, the head of Infinity Limited Inc., a consulting company in St. Paul. "Right now there is a lot of fog out there."

For an individual who cannot call in a futurist, a psychic or astrologer may be a substitute. It is impossible to know how many people visit these specialists, or how they regard the advice they receive. But the practice is becoming so much more mainstream that a number of spas now offer astrological readings and consultations with psychics. A year ago, the Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa in Sonoma, Calif., began offering guests the services of a tarot-card reader. "It still isn't as popular as a facial or a massage, but we get very positive comments from it," said William Blum, a company spokesman.

With chaos the defining concept of the age, approaches once derided for their nonrational base seem less dubious. "Science is turning out to be as much of a psychic game as anything else," said Nancy Stark, who reads palms at Raoul's Brasserie, a restaurant in SoHo.

Jill Goodman, who reads charts and tarot cards, said that for a long time she resisted the idea that she could be aware of events that had not yet happened. But when her forecasts turned out to be accurate, she began to respect cards and charts as legitimate tools.

The customers for psychics include fast-food cashiers and Wall Street traders. Averi Torres, a psychic in Malibu, Calif., who charges $275 an hour for an initial consultation, said most of her clients are entrepreneurs. "People who are educated know they need advice from as many sources as possible," she said.

While some futurists believe that their business is booming because times are bad and people are scared, Marvin Cetron, president of Forecasting International in Arlington, Va., attributes the surge to a growing belief that the recession is ending. His clients are trying to figure out the best places to put money now so they can profit from the coming prosperity.

There is, of course, another explanation offered by astrologers for all this future thinking. They say that the transit of Saturn through the sign of Aquarius, which last happened in 1962, is bringing interest in new and unconventional ways of learning.

But a word of warning: the current Uranus-Neptune conjunction, which comes around only once every 200 years, also promises sudden and unexpected change.