In 1991, the U.S. Government Was Uncannily Accurate About What 2015 Would Look Like

ca. September 1991, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA --- Hillary Rodham Clinton registers surprise upon seeing friends at a party in Little Rock. Her husband, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, is in the background. --- Image by ? Jacques M. Chenet/CORBIS
Hillary Rodham Clinton at a party in Little Rock, Arkansas circa September 1991. Photo: Jacques M. Chenet/Corbis

July 1991 was a long time ago. The Cold War was clearly ending, but the U.S.S.R. hadn't been dissolved yet. Bill Clinton had only just announced his candidacy for the White House. Will Smith had been on TV for less than a year, Pearl Jam was about to release its debut album, and Kayne West was in high school.

That month, a group of federal researchers released a report predicting what would happen to the country in the next 25 years — what 2015 would look like. They did have to make some assumptions ("that no crazed Third World dictator or terrorist group will detonate a nuclear device or unloose germ warfare within the boundaries of the United States," for instance). And if their numbers weren't exactly on point — they underestimated the country's future population by 15 million people or so — some of their predictions were uncannily accurate. Here are a few:

The international elite are thriving

Prediction: "The new society's elite minority ... will have work that is pleasant, stimulating and well paid. They will apply their ideas and talents wherever they bring the most advance; because of telecommunications, international boundaries will not exist for them." (Everyone outside the elite fares less well.)

Reality: 1,500 private jets bring 2,500 world leaders, thinkers, and entrepreneurs to Davos — where they worry about inequality.

More women are in charge

Prediction: "A higher proportion of management is likely to be women ... both because of overall workforce demographics and because of the breakdown of the male-dominated management pyramid."

Reality: Women haven't taken over the business world, but in 1995, only 3-t0-5 percent of top positions at Fortune 500 companies were held by women. Today that number's closer to 15.

Families are weird

Prediction: "Most people who divorce eventually remarry and their new unions will create 'blended families,' the third most common family type."

Reality: One out of six kids live with a stepparent, step-sibling, or half sibling — which makes blended families common enough that they're the subject of a rom-com starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore.

Buildings generate electricity

Prediction: "In a Jules Verne scenario ... American houses, cars and commercial buildings may only remotely resemble the dumb objects of today. Instead, an Edison-in-the-making will find a way to transform them into environmentally benign, thrifty consumers of energy. Some houses and buildings may actually export power to their neighbors."

Reality: Seattle's Bullitt Center generates as much energy as it uses.

There's a vaccine for AIDS

Prediction: "The effects of AIDS will persist through 2015 … While a preventative vaccine is likely to be discovered in the forecast period, a cure for those already stricken is uncertain."

Reality: There's not a working AIDS vaccine yet, but a Pennsylvania-based company just received $16 million to support its experimental AIDS-HIV vaccine and expects to start a Phase I trial this year.

No one sees the future that clearly, though. The research team was off on a few counts: They predicted that people would continue to flee center cities for suburban areas; that though Democrats would lose the South, "it will not be tied completely to the GOP"; and that the U.S. would have to import 70 percent of its petroleum. Those predictions were ... wrong ... wrong ... and very wrong