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Marty! We need to go back!

27 July 2015

It’s 30 years since the film ‘Back to the Future’ was released. Did the trilogy’s bold predictions about the future come true?

Thirty years ago, the first film in the Back to the Future trilogy hit the screens. A youthful Michael J Fox played Marty McFly, an American teenager who is transported back to 1955 in a DeLorean DMC-12, which has been converted into a time machine by the eccentric inventor Dr Emmett Brown. McFly bumps into his parents and their high school colleagues – a meeting that will change all their lives. But the issues that preoccupy Marty and his parents in 1985 and 1955 are timeless: love, family, relationships and work.

The year 1955 saw the opening of Disneyland in California, while in the UK The Archers was first aired on radio. In the year that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man – sparking the civil rights movement in America – it would have seemed as inconceivable that Barack Obama would be president of the US in 2015 as it did to the residents of Hill Valley in 1955 that a black man (Goldie Wilson) would be its mayor in 1985. It was also the year in which Steve Jobs was born – at that time there were only 250 computers worldwide.

By 1985 the McFly family has a Mac computer, while Doc Brown has embraced technology with an electric can-opener in his kitchen. But it is in the sequel, Back to the Future Part II, where the technology really takes off. Marty travels to 2015 and the film features flying cars and hoverboards rather than the luxurious driverless cars that Mercedes, Audi and Tesla are currently developing. While technology will clearly reduce the workload for some, these show  how it will create more work in other areas: lawyers in California are currently working on legislation to cover these vehicles – being computer-controlled, it is unlikely that they will be involved in as many accidents as conventional road vehicles.

While critics may enjoy spotting predictions that have failed to materialise or developments notable by their absence, such as the internet, the film-makers weren’t completely wide of the mark. The high-tech specs worn in the film perform many of the functions of Google Glass, while, as in the film, we have fingerprint and facial recognition in the form of biometric identification. Petrol pumps are no longer manned, although they are not yet run by robots; it seems unlikely that petrol retailers would invest in such technology now given that we do the filling up for them.

As technological change takes place at an exponential rate, our ability to predict 30 years into the future must be even shakier now. Our lives, and the way in which we interact with each other, will be transformed.

We may become hypochondriacs, caused by wearing a range of sophisticated devices that could allow us to monitor our health. Devices such as Fitbit are already encouraging us to monitor our activity and calorie intake. Common viruses could be harnessed to help fight diseases like cancer. Most – if not all – surgery could be performed by robots.Our domestic lives could also be made much easier as we use robots to do everything from vacuuming the carpet to answering the door, and our fridges will tell us when they need replenishing. 

Once brain implants have been developed, coupled with advances in genetic engineering, we may be able to cure illnesses like dementia and Parkinson’s, which Michael J Fox was diagnosed with shortly after making the final film in the trilogy.

In 1955 the worldwide average life expectancy was 48; by 2025 it is expected to be 73. In 1955 there were, on average, 12 people aged over 65 for every 1001; by 2025, the World Health Organisation predicts there will be at least 31, with more in developed countries.

Increased longevity raises all kinds of questions. How will we finance our pensions, healthcare and public and private medical insurance schemes? Will there be enough food, water and energy for everyone?

The world will be more complicated, quite possibly divided between an American and a Chinese sphere of influence. The kind of jobs that we do are also likely to be very different from today’s. A survey conducted by Fast Futures, the consultants, found that the best-paid job in the future was expected by worldwide respondents to be ‘nano-medic’ (45%), while in the UK the preferred option was ‘virtual lawyer’ (59%).

Technology will provide its challenges, but it will also provide solutions. But as the Back to the Future films demonstrate, it seems that what will matter most to us will still be how we provide for ourselves and our families.

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