The Rise of Fears

Megatrend Five:
The Rise of Fears

Houston, Texas, 2002

A “For sale” sign hangs on Enron’s famous “tilted E” logo outside one of the company’s Houston offices. Months earlier the energy trading company collapsed, with losses estimated at $74 billion, after accounting fraud was discovered.

If there were a megatrend of megatrends it would be this one. All the other patterns Edelman has traced and identified in the past 20 years run like tributaries into this stream.

It would be easy to argue that human beings have always lived in fear, not least because fear is a survival instinct. Some fears have turned out to be justified and have been experienced in catastrophes and wars; others have not.

Certainly, at the beginning of the period in which Edelman has gathered data for the Trust Barometer there was an example of a shared global fear which amounted to nothing. Who today remembers the Y2K bug? The anxiety was very real that when midnight chimed on December 31, 1999, computer programs the world over would seize, because their six-digit date systems could not handle what seemed to be the return of the year 1900. Predictions included the shutdown of systems controlling our power, water, transport, hospitals. Some even said that nuclear missiles might be launched by default. It was quite literally a millenarian panic. At 00.01.00, nothing bad happened. But in the 20 years since that chime, fears have returned to many parts of the world.

As the Edelman Trust Barometer revealed when summarizing the megatrend in 2017, more than half the people questioned said they believed that “the system” – the networks of social living on which they depended for health, wealth, and happiness – was failing them. Fewer than one in seven thought it was working for them.

The Cycle of Fear and Distrust

Asked to specify their anxieties:

  • People believed that, because of globalization, outsiders – either in the form of other nations or of economic migrants – were able to damage the economies and even the cultures of their own homelands. Consequently, they said the values that had made their own societies special were being eroded and the essence of their society was changing in a way that did not benefit them.
  • They did not trust government to be competent enough to protect them from these transversal forces.
  • People said they feared their jobs were at risk from automation and artificial intelligence and they saw no prospect of outside help that would let them retrain and adapt themselves.
  • They did not trust business to sacrifice profit in order to help them remain relevant and productive in a world of AI.
  • People were disturbed by the pace of change, particularly by the way in which innovative technologies continually altered the patterns of their lives. They were swamped both by contradictory information about change, but also by echo chambers of friends and strangers who shared and amplified their anxieties.
  • They did not trust the media to tell them the truth about the swirl of change around them nor to champion fairness and hold the powerful to account.
  • People described falling levels of optimism. They were not only less likely to believe that they would be better off themselves in five years, but also that their children would not have as good a life as them nor even a liveable planet to occupy.
  • They did not trust supranational bodies such as the U.N. or the NGOs that traditionally tried to look after the interests of humanity to do what they said they would do.

Concerns Have Become Fears

Percent of respondents who are concerned or fearful regarding each issue

  • Fearful
  • Concerned


Widespread corruption

Compromising the safety of our citizens

Makes it difficult to institute the changes necessary to solve our problems



Protect our jobs from foreign competition

Foreign companies/ influence damaging our economy/ national culture

Foreign corporations favor their home country

Most countries cannot be trusted to engage in fair trade practices


Eroding Social Values

Values that made this country great are disappearing

Society changing too quickly and not in ways that benefit people like me



Influx of people from other countries damaging our economy and national culture


Pace of innovation

Technological innovations happening too quickly and leading to changes not good for people like me

All this was not just millenarian panic like the Y2K bug. The fears Edelman uncovered in 2017 were based on real experience. Trust in institutions had been eroded in most democracies by the events that have dominated the 21st century so far.

Some have been peculiar to one country. Take Japan: a country that emerged from the trauma of defeat and nuclear attack in 1945 to become an economic powerhouse, a byword for technology, dynamism, and order. In the early years of the Trust Barometer, Japan’s institutions enjoyed relatively high levels of trust. But all that changed with the Great East Japan earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011. Facing one of its largest-ever environmental and political crises, Japan failed to deliver the leadership and protection its people needed. Dramatic 20-plus-point drops in trust in government and NGOs in 2012 signaled a cross-institutional failure. These institutions have been mired in lower levels of trust ever since. Only business was able to recover quickly, and last year business trust finally passed its 2011 level.

The post-Fukushima trust crash is also borne out by another unprecedented crash in 2012: the complete collapse of the credibility of spokespeople in Japan. There was an astonishing 49-point drop in the credibility of government officials, a 46-point drop for CEOs, and 41-point drop for academics. In the aftermath of the disaster, people lost faith that anyone was telling them the truth about what had really happened.

Beijing, China, 2017

China’s President Xi Jinping gives Donald Trump a ceremonial welcome during the U.S. president’s state visit. Trade between the two countries and the threat posed by North Korea were on the talks agenda.

Globally, a number of events have replicated the Fukushima effect on trust, faith and fears. They have done so more gradually, but no less deeply.

  • The Iraq War - which had its own cause in the 9/11 attacks that shocked the U.S. (and the rest of the world) into realizing that Americans were not immune behind their borders to terrorist attack – had a debilitating effect on trust in Western governments that we can still feel today. It is not just a failure of competence by government that the region around Iraq, Syria and Iran remains a violent powder keg, but a failure of honesty in the first place: it is hard to find people in any country who believe that war was started by people acting in good faith. Trust in government has not recovered.
  • The Great Recession – the origins of which go back beyond the financial crisis of 2008 to the tech bubble at the dawn of the millennium and beyond to the deregulation of financial markets during the euphoria that followed the end of the Cold War – shook faith in fairness. The austerity that followed gigantic bail-outs of some of the greatest brands in finance is still with us today, but an equally profound effect was the idea that those who caused the damage did not pay for it. Trust in business has not recovered.
  • The Rise of Digital Platforms – which mirrors in many ways the growth of huge corporations at the turn of the 20th century as new technologies made the few equipped to master them wealthy and powerful enough to challenge governments – first swamped and then damaged our capacity to trust information and to believe in our own privacy. The subsequent assault on truth has empowered demagogues to portray the media as part of a deceptive elite and given conspiracy theories the same currency as established facts. Trust in the media has not recovered.
  • The Spread of Globalization and Automation – which are symbolic of inequality and the worldwide attack on the dignity of labor – made people question their identity and sense of belonging to a meaningful wider group. A growing sense that supranational bodies and peaceful protest have not done enough to champion the interests of mass populations against elites has nurtured nationalism in many countries. Trust in NGOs has not recovered.

Fears Further Erode Belief in the System

General population, 28-market average 2017

If people say they have these particular fears, this is the percentage who also believe the system is not working for them

  • Eroding Social Values
  • Globalization
  • Corruption
  • Immigration
  • Pace of Innovation

While some elements of the rise of fears have been transversal, cutting across boundaries of age, sex, background and prosperity, they were not geographically universal. Not all nationalities felt the system was failing them, particularly not in Asia. In countries where technology, open markets, movement of people, rapid change in all its forms offer not threats but opportunities, trust is growing. In China, India, Indonesia, Singapore and U.A.E., satisfaction with the system was reported to be healthy in 2017 and only in the last two has there been any significant downturn in trust since. Those societies may have flaws from a Western perspective, but to their citizens, this is not an age of fear as much as excitement.

So, if one segment of the world is feeling that way, how can we characterize the way the rest of the world is feeling now? The picture in those distrusting countries outside Asia is remarkably uniform. The dominant political forces have taken one of two forms: authoritarian regimes led by leaders often described as “strongmen,” as in Turkey, Russia, Hungary or Brazil; populist movements such as Brexit in the U.K., the Gilets Jaunes in France or the bubbling-under nationalists of Germany, Spain, and Italy. The U.S. is unique, as so often, in having a political system that has forged an alloy of these two forces.

What can be said of all of them, based on the findings of the Trust Barometer, is that these leaders and movements have fed on the fears of their populations and stoked them with similar diets of nationalism. It is no surprise that when Edelman asked people for solutions to their perceived problems, they answered in ways that expressed an inward-looking mentality. Nearly half of those questioned believed “free trade” worked against their country’s interests; seven in 10 said their own national economy should be protected from the effects of dealing with the outside world; and almost three-quarters were ready to sacrifice economic growth in pursuit of protectionism.

After 70 years of dominance and self-confidence by the West, the overwhelming emotion now is one of doubt. Doubt is kryptonite to trust. Today, people doubt their lives and even the air they breathe are being protected by government. Doubt business will offer them and their children jobs and fair reward. Doubt the information they receive is free of bias and agenda. Doubt there is any non-governmental body that can step into a void of leadership. Doubt they will be better off in five years. Doubt they can keep up with the pace of change.

An increasing proportion of people doubt that they can trust anybody else. And because we are human, because we seek strength and security from our association with and belief in others, that is truly something to be afraid of

Systemic Distrust and Fear Trigger Action

General population, 28-market average 2017

  • Above average level of fear
  • Above average belief the system is failing
  • Countries with Multiple Fears and Failing System