Updated: Feb 24, 2020
Looking into the future is hard, especially if it is murky, potentially unpleasant and mostly in the hands of other people. But that is no reason to turn your back on it – time flows in only one direction, and reversing into it is a recipe for disaster.
For example, it seems that for many people in the UK, the first rule of Brexit is: Don’t talk about Brexit. Or even think about it. When asked how the issue might affect them, they just roll their eyes and claim they don’t know. Yet this appears to be an unhealthy response to an issue that will almost certainly affect them, so why the resignation?
It’s complicated. People visualise the future based on their experience of the past. Unfortunately, nothing like Brexit has happened before, and a lot of the current British population wasn’t around when we were last outside the European Union, so understandably it’s difficult imagining what the process and outcome will be like. Moreover, the secondary impacts of a series of relatively drastic and simultaneous changes to the country’s economy, society and politics are difficult to fathom.
It’s uncertain. Human brains like a bit of novelty, but you can have too much of a good thing, and we’re now drowning in a flood of Brexit novelty. Big change can bring on people’s “fight or flight” response, which closes down their ability to take a rational view of all the options open to them.
It’s probably going to hurt before it feels good. People’s ability to remember the past deteriorates with time since the memory was formed, and the same is true for being able to imagine the future. Brexit is only just beginning, and it’s going to be some time before it’s done and dusted, making it hard to see what that endpoint looks like. Moreover, even the most hardcore Brexiteer acknowledges that there is likely to be at least some pain before the gain, creating something of a smokescreen to the future. If you think Brexit is a bad idea, the smoke goes on forever.
It’s out of their hands. In psychology there’s a concept called “agency,” which is the extent to which someone feels in charge of their own destiny. It’s unlikely the general populace will have much of a say as to which way Brexit goes from here (December’s election was the last chance to influence the outcome), so it’s easier to just leave it up to fate to decide what happens to them.
A lot of reasons, therefore, to look away, especially if you think Brexit is a dumb idea. Yet it makes as much sense to close your eyes to Brexit as it does to close your eyes to a traffic jam. Even you don’t like it, you’ve still got to live with it, and there are more and less pleasant ways of doing that.
Brexit’s complexity makes it impossible to predict what will happen, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make some tentative forecasts. After all, the basic range of options for what will happen are pretty limited: leave without a deal, leave with a deal, or things drag on. We also know roughly the likely scope of the changes, our individual employment/business situation and our personal circumstances.
All you need to do to get comfortable with the future of Brexit is to sit down for a little while and consider the interplay of these factors. Over the next 12 months, things will almost certainly happen, because the newly elected British prime minister has promised they will happen, and you know roughly (or can look up on Google) that this will have big impacts on trade, the economy and migration.
Here are some questions to get you started, which could apply to pretty much any situation (not just Brexit):
What might these changes mean for your industry? For you and your family?
What are the biggest risks you need to mitigate?
What are the potential opportunities?
What advice might you give to other people in your situation?
Coming up with answers to these questions, however basic, will take you a long way to embracing the uncertainty, managing the complexity and gaining agency over the future.