Society & culture

Psychological neotency

Psycho what? Psychological neotency is a theory developed by Professor Bruce Charlton at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne (UK) that says that the increased level of immaturity among adults is an evolutionary response to increased change and uncertainty. This initially sounds like a ridiculous suggestion, but it does make a certain amount of sense if you stop to consider the argument. Humanity has long held youth in high esteem, originally because it was a sign of fertility and health, which were important prerequisites for hunting and reproduction. In 'fixed' environments, psychological maturity was useful because it indicated experience and wisdom. However, sometime in the latter part of the past century, child-like youthfulness started to have a new function which was to remain adaptive to a changing environment. In other words, if jobs, skills, and technology are all in a state of flux it is important to remain open-minded about learning new skills - and the best way to do this is to retain a child-like state of receptivity and cognitive flexibility. Previously the phenomenon of adults behaving like children has been seen as a negative trend, but it may not be such a bad thing after all. For example, retaining the adolescent attitudes and behaviour of youth (for example, short attention spans or novelty seeking) could be seen as essential prerequisites for innovators. Equally, there is a significant amount of evidence to suggest that the most creative thinkers in modern society are 'immature' compared to historical precedents. Of course this theory also justifies lying around doing nothing, so perhaps more research is required.
The only problem is who should do it - immature professors or immature students?
Ref: Various including Discovery News (US), 23 July 2006, 'Immaturity levels rising', J. Viegas.
Links: Bobos in Paradise: The new upper class and how they got there by David Brooks
Search words: kidults, immaturity, change

Same world, different planet

Back in May 2006 two ordinary people persuaded a small African country to effectively close its borders so they could have some privacy. All foreign journalists and photographers attempting to enter the country would be questioned by the government and restricted to certain areas and a no-fly zone was imposed over part of the nation. Was this part of a futuristic scenario planning exercise on behalf on the CIA? Nope, it was just a couple of rich celebrities. We've seen streets being closed down for politicians for 'safety reasons' and even stores closed to the general public so that celebrities can shop in peace, but closing down an entire nation so that a couple of actors can get some tranquillity is surely a first. Admittedly Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wanted to do this so that their child could be 'born in the cradle of humankind' but since when did Hollywood royalty become an absolute monarchy? The logic was that while 'Brangelina' got some privacy Namibia would get some publicity for its tourism industry. But it looks more like the birth of celebrity colonialism.
Ref: Spiked Online (UK), 10 June 2006, 'Brangelina join the list of moral poseurs in Africa', B. O'Neill

I'm 50+ so get me out of here

Turning 50 has always been pivotal - a time to reflect on things that have past and things that are yet to come. It is when most people think about achievement or regret, about expectation or unease. So it's somewhat surprising that 50% of people aged 50-plus in the UK - about 10 million people - have seriously thought about going abroad. The desire to travel is nothing new (at least for the current crop of 50-something baby-boomers) but there's one important different - most of them don't want to come back. That's right, 50% of baby-boomers in Britain have seriously thought about leaving the country - for good. But why? Health tourism is one reason - finding cheap and high quality healthcare in the UK is becoming increasingly difficult. Warm weather is another reason. So too is seeking a better quality of life - one that's easier and less stressful. But digging a little deeper into this phenomenon another possible explanation emerges. It's perhaps not so much that baby-boomers have fallen in love with the idea of living somewhere else and more the fact that they have fallen out of love with living in Britain. Again the reasons are varied but immigration, crime, overcrowding and the cost of basics such as food, healthcare and transport must surely figure. Is this a problem? Yes because over-50s account for 80% of UK wealth and within ten years almost half of the UK population will be aged 50-plus. Briton's have already invested over GB £23 billion in overseas property and such outflows of capital could seriously damage the economy.
Ref: Weekly Telegraph (UK), Issue 776, 'As they touch 50 the baby-boomers are taking off for a life in the sun', S. Womack. See also Too Young to Retire by Howard and Marika Stone.
Search words: baby boomers, retirement, property, real estate, 50+

The future of children

At the Baby Dior Boutique in London (UK) parents can buy GB £400 summer dresses and £1,950 coats for their children. Why and when, as a culture, did we become so obsessed with our children? The answer is probably the latter part of the 19th and early half of the 20th centuries. It was then that children ceased being an economic asset and became a liability in the sense that child labour was abolished and compulsory education was introduced. Before this time the value of children was largely economic. Afterwards it was emotional and sentimental.Add to this declining birth rates and the non-economic appeal of children increases still further. After all, if fewer people are having children, then offspring become more valuable and therefore more cherished and spoilt. More importantly, children have become an extension of the parents themselves.They are status objects. This is why the clothes they wear, the food they eat and the schools they attend are now all so important. These things are seen as measures of parental intelligence and success and since parents are now having fewer children they want 'higher quality' children. This trend is problematic on a number of levels. First, parents no longer care about children in general, only their children. Second, parental anxiety impacts not only on the parents and their children but also on society. Hence the growth in anxiety about 'stranger danger', concern about educational standards and even school meals. The term 'hyper-parenting' has been coined to describe adults that take a success-driven approach to rearing children but the stereotype barely scrapes the surface. Parents now feel under such pressure to rear 'successful' children and feel so guilty about packing children off to full-time day-care that they attempt to compensate by turning every free minute into structured play or intense 'quality time'. Of course the irony here is that studies have shown conclusively that around 50% of intelligence and character is genetically inherited while the other 50% is a result of external forces such as peer groups or the physical environment, neither of which most parents really control. This is not to say that parenting is unimportant, but simply that the balance is all wrong. In some countries parents are taking out life insurance on their children, not because they fear they'll need the money if they get ill or die but to deal with the expected emotional loss.In other words, it's all about them. Equally parents no longer worry about values, discipline or manners but instead about the health and safety of their 'investment' and whether or not they will be succeed academically. This is ironic too because while parents have become paranoid about things like school discipline, they simultaneously indulge their children with material goods and unprecedented levels of freedom and choice. Indeed, it sometimes feels as though society is being run solely for the benefit of pre-teens and adolescents. Adults are abdicating all responsibility in their households too. Maybe adults should grow up more quickly and kids should be allowed to remain children for a little longer.
Ref: Financial Times (UK), 24-25 June 2006, 'Sweet child of mine', R. Tomkins. See also Spiked Online (UK), 20 July 2006, 'Children: over-surveilled, under-protected', J. Bristow.

Life in the year 2020 (part 1)

What will life be like in the year 2020? It's sounds a long way off but it's not, so it should be fairly easy to make a series of educated guesses. The largest discernable difference will probably be climate. Over the past 100 years atmospheric temperatures have risen by 0.6 degrees centigrade globally. Over the next 14 years they can be expected to rise by the same amount. So by 2020 it will be possible to sail right across the North Pole. Water from melting ice caps will disperse so many of the planet's lowest-lying areas will disappear under water. So if you want to see polar bears - or visit the Great Barrier reef which will be severely damaged by rising sea temperatures - do it sooner rather than later. On the medical front things are looking much healthier. Death rates from common cancers will have fallen, possibly by as much as 25%, and drug combinations and genetically-based treatments will treat specific tumours. Home-based robots will be commonplace although it is doubtful whether they will become 'pets' as some experts are predicting. Moreover, developments in nanotechnology will displace robots in many areas. The idea of having robotic butlers to help clean up the kitchen won't come to fruition because many of the jobs will be done by nanoparticles instead. Surfaces like kitchen bench-tops, for example, will be self-cleaning. We will also see computerised clothing enter mainstream usage with our clothes warning us if there is a biohazard nearby or perhaps telephone the nearest doctor if you fall ill or injure yourself. Then there's energy. It's unlikely that many of us will be driving around in fuel-cell powered cars by 2020 and hydrogen power will still be a way off but it does look pretty certain that we will rely on more diverse sources of power. These will include solar (far more important), wind, water and tidal power generation and we'll also see a major switch to nuclear power (possibly thorium-based power stations using spent nuclear waste). Finally there's more bad news. Historically there have been five mass extinction periods in the earth's history and we are about to enter a sixth. Climate change, together with urbanisation and intensive agriculture will continue to destroy a great number of species. How many? No one is saying exactly but it's likely to at least a thousand times the natural rate.
Ref: Cosmos (Aus), June/July 2006, 'Life in 2020', R. McKie. See also The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery.

Life in the year 2020 (part 2)

In case you missed it, the Economist Intelligence Unit recently published a report of what life might be like 14 years hence. Key takeaways include the fact that there will be more of us around (7.43 billion to be precise) and more of us will be older. This is bad news, apparently, for mortgage brokers and fast food chains and anyone else targeting youth segments of the population. Intelligent machines will be everywhere by 2020, and every company will use them, so to differentiate a service offer you will need to employ real people with the personal (empathetic) touch. Given the number of older people around, healthcare companies should do well although this doesn't necessarily mean that people will be buying into national healthcare providers. Healthcare tourism is expected to boom. Local energy production (also known as 'distributed power') will also be a big trend. Finally, automation and outsourcing will make many jobs vanish, so knowledge production, creativity and innovation will be big businesses.
Ref: The Times (UK), 27 May 2006, 'The next big thing: life in 2020', D. Rowan.
Download the free report at

And finally ... Life in the year 2024

Goodness me there's a lot of this stuff around. Spiked, along with sponsors Orange(a UK telecom company) are in the middle of producing a survey about what life will be like in the year 2024. The online survey, entitled 'Enlightening the Future 2024', taps into the brains of leading academics, writers and artists to highlight some of the key challenges facing the next generation. Key themes unearthed to date include the rise of the mobile society. According to Mike Dolan, executive director of the Mobile Operators Association this means that a key challenge is for us to overcome our anxieties and 'embrace unprecedented innovation ... fearlessly'. Oh sure. Nothing to do with the fact that a mobile telecommunications company is the sponsor of the report or that Mike's members want to sell us things then? Equally, Ingo Potrykus, chairman of the Humanitarian Golden Rice Board and Network, is a major proponent of biotechnologies to help feed the world. Nothing wrong with that but the fact that the biotechnology industry is what's currently feeding his family does rather taint his comments. Despite this, the survey makes good reading.
Ref: Spiked (UK), 11 July 2006, 'What next for humanity?' M. Hume.