Society & culture

The need to be touched

One of the latest fads in New York is the 'Cuddle Party'. This is where a group of strangers hug each other and then fall on the floor in what's known as a 'puppy pile'. Individuals are then encouraged to touch and talk to each other. A three-hour session costs US $30 or US $40 for a couple. Rules include the fact that clothes must stay on and that communication and touching are not allowed to become sexualised. These parties are clearly a fad but they're also a physical manifestation of the fact that an increasing number of people who work long hours and live alone crave the sensation of being held and cared for. Like many fringe trends it may also represent an unmet need - in this case a remedy for sadness and a cure for loneliness. These cuddle parties represent a safe form of intimacy on demand, which also appeals to married couples and asexuals. Meanwhile, and with a sublime touch of irony, research by Manchester Metropolitan University (UK) says that there is growing anxiety in childcare circles about touching children. Recent 'panics' include a male teacher who instructed a small child to apply a plaster himself because the teacher was afraid to touch the child, a parent who objected to a female kindergarten teacher wiping the bottom of her three-year old and a Father Christmas who was banned from having children sit on his knee.

Ref: The Grope Dynamic, T. Souter, The Times (UK) 16 October 2004 Links: Re-virginisation story, Metro Naps. See also A Gloom of One's Own by Sandra Tsing Loh (Atlantic Monthly October 2004) and Hands-off Care for Kids, J. Appleton Spiked Online (UK) 1 September 2004.

China syndrome

China is the world's biggest user of steel and cement and the largest market for mobile phones. It is also predicted that Chinese bank assets will exceed those of the US by the year 2034 (Source: HSBC). As a result, nearly every major company in the world wants to have a slice of China and many conveniently forget that the country is still a totalitarian state with the world's largest rich-poor divide. So what if there was no longer a bull market in the China shop? What would happen to the rest of the world if Chinese growth stopped? It has been pointed out that much of Chinese economic growth is dependant on construction spending which is highly speculative. A Chinese downturn could be a catalyst for civil unrest and emigration on a scale that's hard to comprehend. If Chinese demand for commodities all but dried up it could also unload recession onto the rest of the world. Countries and regions have failed before (e.g. Russia and Japan) but the sheer size of China could make financial assistance all but impossible. We're not necessarily suggesting that this will happen but perhaps it would be prudent to have a plan in case it does.

Ref: The Two Faces of China, K Bradshaw, The New York Times (US) 6 December 2004.

Top trends

What will be the hot trends of 2005? According to Entrepreneur magazine (US) they include: Authenticity, multi-tasking & memory loss, obesity, third places, snobization, age 35 marketing, life caching and uniqueness. Authenticity is a trend blend created by mixing localisation (local ingredients, materials, workforce etc) with traditional (artisan) production techniques, community involvement and environmental practices. Of course you can fake authenticity by using real customers in ads or creating heritage looking packaging but eventually you'll get found out. Multi-tasking & memory loss is a by-product of speeding-up and convergence and explains how an 11 year-old can do homework, watch TV, answer emails and be on the phone all at once. Unfortunately it also means that attention spans can almost be measured in nano-seconds. It may also give rise to memory loss in older age (cue various technical and pharmaceutical solutions). Obesity is a big problem that's spawned a huge market for diet products, gym membership (up 8.5% in the US in 2003) and + sized clothing. Third places are places between work and home where singles and kids that still live with their parents hang out. Snobization is the creation of accessible luxury products and experiences. Age 35 marketing refers to the fact that everyone these days aspires to be 35 while Life caching is the desire to hold onto (and make copies of) whole life experiences (think scrap books with 200 gigabytes of memory). Finally, the desire for Uniqueness (products, experiences, personalities) is nothing new and is increasingly hard to find. Hence the appearance of products that look like a one-off but aren't (see 'authenticity').

Ref: Hot Trends for 2005, Entrepreneur magazine (US) November 2004.

A short history of the future

Back in 1997 the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington DC) wrote a report called Global Trends 2005: The Challenge of a New Millennium. The aim of the report was to understand “the forces transforming the world on the cusp of a new millennium, and thereby to offer a deeper appreciation for the social, political, and economic events and technical developments of our time”. Eight years on most of the predictions are remarkably solid. They include the critical importance of demographic change (Japan's looming old-age crisis), worsening income distribution, the rapid rise of genetic testing, increased anxiety and alienation, global tribes (a world that becomes more localised due to globalisation), hyper-competition and the death of distance. The report also accurately predicts a period of accelerated change and social transformation, which leads to the creation of new values, institutions and authorities. As you'd expect, there are also a few predictions that haven't come true too. Democracy in China still seems a long way off and a world in which “war is less likely” looks like a bad call with the benefit of hindsight. However, the most interesting thing about the report is the fact that all the trends are logical extrapolations of pre-existing conditions. This is very useful up to a point but is it the combination of and the interplay between trends, which, one could argue, create the largest waves of change. Moreover, it is often single improbable events like 9/11 that create the largest transformations and these are virtually impossible to predict.

Ref: http//:, http://www.csis.

The future of the family

Who We Are Now by Sam Roberts is a sequel to Who We Are which was published a decade ago. Both books are essentially thoughtful commentaries on US Government census data from 2000 and 1990 respectively and highlight some interesting demographic and sociological trends. For instance, in the US households with married couples and children represent a mere 23.5% of the population. Single person households make up 26% of all households and just 7% of households contain a working father and non-working mother. Over in the UK the Office for National Statistics produces a report called Social Trends, the latest issue of which highlights some similarly surprising figures. For example, in 2002 41% of children were born to unmarried parents while in 2003 married couples with children represented just over 20% of all UK households. Another statistic which almost everyone is aware of but everyone forgets is that almost a quarter of all women born in the UK will never have children. Does any of this matter? Yes and no. The increase in single parent households means that male role models are few and far between and this may have significant social impacts. Equally, the rise in the number of women working may affect the number of children being born and impact on the availability of female role models. However, whilst the number of children born out of wedlock is increasing in the UK, in 2002 64% of all births were registered by both parents using a single address. This implies that perhaps the family is not quite as dead as some critics argue and that while the traditional nuclear family is on the wane, new families are being created in different shapes, sizes and locations.

Ref: Hasta la vista to the old-style US - The Australian 30-31 October 2004. What future for the family, J. Bristow Spiked Online (UK) 17 November 2004, Who Are We Now by Sam Roberts

It's different for boys

According to Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University (UK), “some adults have become scared of having children”. One suspects that some are also terrified by the prospect of having boys. The problem is that much of life (and early education in particular) has become risk-averse and timetabled to produce an end product that is acceptable to society and malleable for business. If you stray from the track it's increasingly difficult to get back onboard and the range of skills which society considers acceptable is shrinking fast. Girls seem to cope with this quite well due to their ability to sit down and listen. Young boys on the other hand like to run around which has led some American schools to prosecute parents who refuse to put their sons on drugs like Ritalin. Add to this the fact that some men spend less than eight minutes a day with their sons and you can see why it's different (and in some cases harder) for boys. One interesting solution to this problem is the idea of sending boys to mixed schools one year later than girls and then having them go through school with girls that are one year younger than they are (hence at similar developmental levels).

Ref: Hooray for boys , R. Crampton, The Times (UK) 19 June 2004.