John Naisbitt, a struggling business consultant and trend watcher who in 1982 hit it big with “Megatrends,” a book that galvanized a country just emerging from a gut-wrenching recession with its prediction of a bountiful high-tech economy right around the corner, died on Thursday at his home in Velden am Wörthersee, Austria. He was 92.
His daughter Claire Schwadron confirmed the death.
Predicting the future was big business back in the 1980s, and bookshelves were crowded with writers claiming to see what was in store for a country still reeling from the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s. Mr. Naisbitt outdid them all: “Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives” sat on the New York Times best-seller list for two years, mostly in the No. 1 spot, selling 14 million copies in 57 countries.
Other writers, like Peter F. Drucker, were more cerebral, or, like Alvin Toffler, more guarded about the future’s promise. Not Mr. Naisbitt. Like Ronald Reagan, who came into office the year before “Megatrends” appeared, he cheerfully claimed to see an edenic postindustrial economy emerging from the ashes of its blue-collar predecessor.
While Mr. Naisbitt was born in 1929, and so preceded the baby boom by nearly a generation, he believed that it was the values of the 1960s counterculture — individualism, spiritualism, feminism — that would drive the country toward this new era of economic and cultural bounty.
His ability to see a link between that counterculture individualism and the deregulatory instincts of Reagan-era Washington made him a favorite bedside read for yuppies everywhere, not to mention a Beltway darling of both neoliberals and free-market conservatives. He was a regular guest at the Reagan White House, a friend of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and a favorite author of Rep. Newt Gingrich.
Those insights made him very rich. His consulting firm, the Naisbitt Group, charged $10,000 (about $25,000 today) for a presentation by one of its staff members; a speech by Mr. Naisbitt himself cost $15,000, and he often gave two a day.
So widespread was his fame that in 1989 a Serbian academic entrepreneur, Mica Jovanovic, named his new business school after Mr. Naisbitt’s book — Megatrend University. Mr. Naisbitt declined to join the faculty, even after Mr. Jovanovic renamed it John Naisbitt University in 2015 (the name reverted in 2017).
Mr. Naisbitt wrote several sequels to “Megatrends” with his second and third wives, among them “Megatrends 2000,” “Megatrends for Women” (1992) and “China’s Megatrends” (2010). Each was written in short, digestible chapters filled with bullet-point lists, and most of them charted on the best seller lists.
Critics did not take kindly to Mr. Naisbitt’s books; they called his methods arbitrary and his analysis superficial, and they lambasted his ever-sunny optimism.
“Only a Dolby sound system at full volume could do justice to the large claims made for book and author on the sizzling jacket,” wrote Karl E. Meyer, a member of the Times editorial board, in a typically scathing review, his in The New York Times Book Review. “Mr. Naisbitt has produced the literary equivalent of a good after-dinner speech.”
None of that stopped people from buying his books, and Mr. Naisbitt lived long enough to see many of his predictions come true. He foresaw the rise of companies like Apple and Nike, both of which emerged from the swirling West Coast counterculture; likewise he foresaw the decline of unions, the rise of China and even the erosion, at least for a time, of government assistance programs.
Mr. Naisbitt bristled at being called a futurist; he insisted that he was merely pointing out what was already happening.
“Trends,” he liked to say, are like horses — “easier to ride in the direction they are already going.”
John Harling Naisbitt was born on Jan. 15, 1929, into a Mormon family in Salt Lake City. His father, Jack Naisbitt, drove a delivery truck, and his mother, Evelyn (Sorensen) Naisbitt, was a seamstress.
After high school he joined the Marines, then went to the University of Utah on the G.I. Bill. He graduated in 1951, the same year he married Noel Senior and just before they moved to Ithaca, N.Y., for graduate school at Cornell.
His marriage to Ms. Senior ended in divorce, as did his second, to Patricia Aburdene. Along with his daughter, he is survived by his third wife, Doris (Dinklage) Naisbitt; his sons James, David and John; another daughter, Nana Naisbitt; a stepdaughter, Nora Rosenblatt; 11 grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.
Mr. Naisbitt ran out of money after only two semesters, and with his first child on the way he dropped out of college to take a job writing speeches for executives at Eastman Kodak, in Rochester, N.Y.
He and his family moved to Chicago in 1957, where he worked in public relations jobs. He worked in Washington between 1963 and 1966, first as an assistant to the director of the National Education Commission, then as an assistant to the secretary of health, education and welfare.
It was during an assignment to assess the impact of various Great Society programs under President Lyndon B. Johnson, he said, that he first developed his method of trend analysis. A fan of American history, he had been reading books about the Civil War by Bruce Catton, who had relied heavily on contemporary newspapers to get a sense of the country’s mood during the war.
“I went out to a newsstand and I bought about 50 out-of-town newspapers,” he told The Christian Science Monitor in 1982. “And I was absolutely stunned what I learned in three hours about what was going on in America.”
He called it “content analysis,” and after he returned to Chicago, he put it into practice with his first firm, the Urban Research Corporation. Long before computers made such work nearly instantaneous, Mr. Naisbitt employed a small army of analysts to read through scores of newspapers a day, clipping stories about urban protests, crime and campus unrest, which he drew on to write reports for nonprofit and corporate clients.
With his first marriage ending and his company losing money, he moved back to Washington in the mid-1970s and opened another, similar firm. It also failed, leading him to file for personal bankruptcy in 1977.
He declared his sizable debts, his clothes, $5 in cash and a tennis racket — but not a small number of art works, which were discovered by the authorities. He pleaded guilty to bankruptcy fraud and was sentenced to 200 hours of community service and three years’ probation.
Divorced, bankrupt and living in a one-bedroom basement apartment, he was, he said later, at the “lowest point” of his life. Things turned around when he got a job with Yankelovich, Skelly & White, a market research firm; around the same time, he met a journalist, Patricia Aburdene, whom he married in 1981.
That same year he opened his third firm, the Naisbitt Group. He also began giving presentations drawn from his years of content analysis, focused on the enormous changes he saw remaking American society.
Ms. Aburdene encouraged him to put his thoughts into a book, which became “Megatrends.” She also got him hooked on the sort of New Age trends he had been observing for so long: They meditated, attended EST meetings and hired a spiritual adviser.
She later co-wrote several sequels with her husband, and traveled alongside him as he hopped from speaking gigs in Europe and Japan to their double-rowhouse in Washington to their vacation home in Telluride, Colo.
They divorced in the late 1990s, and Mr. Naisbitt married Doris Dinklage, his German-language publisher, in 2000. The two settled in Vienna, Austria, with a second home in the lakeside town of Velden am Wörthersee. She was the co-author of the sequel “China’s Megatrends.”
Mr. Naisbitt was especially popular in China, where even in his late 80s he would spend three to six months every year; his last visit was in November 2019.
In China he found a country that, like 1980s America, was eager to imbibe his message of techno-optimism and capitalist bounty.
“In 1820, China probably produced one-third of the global economic output,” he wrote in 2015. “The brief intermezzo in which America overshadowed China is over.”
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