Society & culture

Why are beards back?

Anyone watching the Academy Awards (US) or the BAFTA awards (UK) recently cannot have failed to notice that the beard is back. But what’s behind this sudden outbreak of facial hair?

One explanation for this new wave of hirsuteness is simply that actors such as Ben Affleck, Hugh Jackman, Bradley Cooper et al are jumping on the hipster trend (cue fashionable knitwear, thick rimmed glasses, rolled-up drainpipe trousers and gearless cycles) but that doesn’t feel quite right.

Virility? What leading man doesn’t want to be associated with a direct signifier of masculinity? But the trend for beards isn't confined to actors and freelance digital designers. Ben Bernake, Chairman of the US Fed has a beard too. This, of course, could be mere coincidence, or pure fashion, but a more likely explanation is a mixture of economics and identity.

First, a beard clearly shows someone is a man and not a woman. In these times of powerful women and weakly defined gender roles, a beard still says quite clearly who is wearing the trousers. (It can also be a useful way to escape the paparazzi if you are well known and still like to do your own grocery shopping.)

Perhaps a better explanation is that a beard, especially a rather rough one, says “I am my own man and can do whatever I want”. The subtext is either “I do not work in an office” (reject the capitalist ideal) or, “I do work in an office, I am a freelance, project and portfolio kind of guy who creates his own destiny” (that is, totally vulnerable and needs to look on top of things).

This last point may be the most serious. Beards tend to make men look older and more learned than they really are, which can add a certain gravitas, especially in uncertain economic times. They also cover the face, which helps younger men who are shy and older men with bad skin or scars. (Or it could be linked to the popularity of Movember, the event for growing beards to raise money for prostate cancer.)

Ref: Wall Street Journal (US), 15 March 2013, ‘The bearded man’ by T. Gaudin. Also see
Sydney Morning Herald (AUS) 13 February 2013, 'Why are beards back? Face fizz makes a big comeback' by N. Tweedie and T. Rowley and the Evening Standard (UK) ‘Bad times will soon be over now the beard is back’ by D. Jones.
Source integrity: Various
Search words: Beards
Trend tags: -

In what do we trust?

Michael Wolf, writing in USA Today, believes trust could be the next big thing. The theory goes that trust used to be what most individuals and institutions were selling. Trust was built up, consistently, over many years and once acquired, you had the ultimate scalable asset on your hands. Brands in particular traded upon this.

Nowadays most major brands have the opposite problem and so do many of our institutions. Nobody trusts them any longer. This is true of the entire financial services industry, all but a handful of politicians, most journalists, the police, the church, a number of scientists and just about any global multinational you care to mention. This lack of trust also applies to the global branding industry, which tries its best to create the illusion of trust for others, but most people don’t trust them either.

In theory, the internet should be able to solve this problem. Millions of online voices rate their satisfaction with just about everything that matters. But recently Amazon ran into trouble because it discovered that lots of user reviews on its site were untrustworthy. They were written anonymously, often by someone related to someone trying to sell something, eg, an author selling a book.

Instagram, bought by Facebook, recently announced that all the photographs that users had entrusted them with now belonged to the company and the company would be selling as many of them as they could for a profit. What about Apple? A bit better, but have you read their terms and conditions of use recently?

So what’s to be done? On one hand it’s a serious crisis of confidence in both capitalism and democracy. On the other hand, perhaps we are missing the power of feedback loops and cycles. If and when something tips too far in one direction, this creates an opportunity for someone, or something, to move off in the other direction.

Perhaps someone will eventually devise a way of getting everyone on the planet to rate everything – a global reputation index if you like. If someone refuses to take part this will indicate they have something serious to hide. But surely this is a new form of sanctimonious conformity? No. What we need here is not more information, but less. Information is the problem, not the solution. There is too much of it to analyse properly and we no longer trust anyone to filter or analyse anything for us.

Perhaps we need a handful of media to become truly independent again and to filter what’s relevant and place it in a proper context too. Ironically, this may well bring us back to trusted brands. But real ones, not created ones.

Ref: USA Today, Money (US), 7 January 2013. ‘Trust used to be worth something’ by M. Wolff.
Source integrity: *** (or perhaps a better idea - author integrity: *****)
Search words: Trust
Trend tags: -

In praise of Slow Education

In the UK, US and Australia, education has increasingly become a highly standardised product that encourages short-term results and very little else. The value of pure thought –thinking for the sake of it – has more or less vanished from the standard curriculum, along with any belief that the true purpose of education is to feed the curiosity of the young or to instil character or values.

Schools are judged almost exclusively on ‘measured outcomes’ that focus on the things that are easiest to measure, usually examination pass rates. Universities are somewhat different, although even here many are turning themselves into book-balancing business schools and vocational training centres where only people with the right marks get in - almost regardless of character, passion or wider talent.

Slow education, like slow food, rejects this. Proponents argue that education, especially in the early years, should be more inquiry-led and reflective. This would encourage calmer, more attentive ways of thinking, especially deep reading and deep listening. It would also emphasise the importance of physical place and reject – or at least attempt to balance – the use of attention-sapping and distracting digital devices.

The internet, in particular, has begun to steal the ability of students to engage in calmer, more contemplative thinking. Clearly open-access courses and distance learning have a huge role in education, but they should be seen as incremental developments, not a substitution for human contact, inspiration and empathetic encouragement.

Crucial to the idea of slow education is time. Students learn at different speeds and should be allowed to take their time, especially if this means becoming more absorbed in a subject or an idea. What counts is interest and understanding, not the number of facts that someone can quickly remember and spit out in an exam. To stretch the slow food analogy further, it matters how lessons are prepared and what ingredients are used and subsequently chewed upon.

We cannot just blame the teachers or a national curriculum for serving up junk lessons. Part of the problem is parents, who get locked into a race to make their children the brightest and the best. Pushy parenting and hyper-parenting is a stressful game of one-upmanship in which the child becomes a project, often compensating for an adult’s own failures or regrets. This can result in negative self-worth for children and a fragile and neurotic mindset. Again, parents should relax and focus more on the overall journey rather than an expected destination. After all, if people are living much longer what's the big rush?

We would link all these thoughts with what might be called ‘slow play.’ This is the idea that kids nowadays spend too long indoors on screens and are over-scheduled and over-restricted when they do venture outside. For example, in the UK, only 25 per cent of kids are allowed to walk to school versus 75 per cent in Germany. In 1971, the figure was 86 per cent in the UK.

Does this matter? Yes, because children benefit hugely from freedom and independent learning. Boredom is a catalyst for introspection and creativity and making mistakes develops character and resilience, which, in a volatile world, are perhaps the most desired ‘outcomes’ of them all.

Ref: Times Education Supplement (UK) 2 November 2012, ‘Find the time for slow education’
See also Sunday Times (UK) 13 January 2013, ‘UK kids stuck in the great indoors’ by J. Leake and C.Turner.
Source integrity: Various
Search words: Schools, education, learning, slow
Trend tags: Digitalisation, Slow
See How children succeed,by Paul Tough.

The end of history illusion

Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard University, is one author of a major study looking at how people tend to perceive themselves across time. The study, in which 19,000 people aged 18-68 took part, looked at personality traits and preferences (eg, favourite foods, favourite vacations, hobbies and so on) and then asked the same people to make predictions about their future traits and preferences. The study found we can accurately see how we have changed looking backwards, but find it difficult to accept that a similar level of change is likely looking forwards.

Why might this be so? Dr Gilbert and collaborators at the University of Virginia suggest it is partly because people of all ages believe that they have reached some kind of peak. In contrast, realisation that our attitudes and tastes are transitory is potentially undermining to people and can generate anxiety.

Researchers also say thinking backwards is relatively easy, but predicting future states of mind requires significant mental effort. Dan. P. MacAdams, another psychologist at North Western University in the US, believes the culprit could be failure of the imagination. In separate research he found that, while people are very able to construct complex stories about their past lives, they consistently fail to create similarly complex stories about the future.

Of course it could also simply be that people dislike and often refuse to accept change. If today you said to a passionate Facebook or Apple user that one day neither company would exist, they would generally refuse to accept it, despite the fact that it’s a possibility. Incidentally, one of our favourite sayings is that life has more imagination than we do.

Ref: New York Times (US) 4 January 2013, ‘You won't stay the same, study finds’ by J. Tierney.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Futures thinking, prediction, forecasts, future
Trend tags: -

The future house

It’s a perennial favourite – what will the home of the future look like? According to Microsoft, which has designed a futuristic home, the answer includes a digital kitchen with interactive walls. Such technical fantasies have been around even longer than The Jetsons, but the rise of intelligent devices could make wired living more likely in the near future.

For example, 821 million smartphones and tablets were sold last year and Gartner predicts that 1.2 billion will be sold in 2013. Any one of these devices could be used as a remote control for your home.

The kitchen is likely to be at the epicentre of any wired living revolution as many of the appliances we use today can easily be wired together and controlled from either fixed or mobile devices. Chips inside appliances, for example, will perhaps be able to store recipes and even help us make a meal using a combination of voice, text and video.

Technology should also increase its presence in the home office. Telepresence technology in particular should soon start to appear here and there is also the possibility of 3D printing, although whether such devices would sit in an office, a workshop, a garage or some other room is unclear.

Not everyone agrees with all this, of course. Some argue that the home, unlike the office, is a place to lay back and relax. Therefore digital refrigerators and interactive medical cabinets are unlikely to make much of an impression in the average home soon. Moreover, until someone solves the problem of the lost remote (come on, just how difficult can this be?) the idea of a fully wired home being operated by a single mobile device is fairly worrying.

It’s one thing to have lost a TV remote and have to operate a TV manually, but it’s something else entirely to have lost the one and only thing that will open the front door and operate any device or appliance found within.

Ref: USA Today (US) 4 January 2012. ‘Home of the future is now’ by J. Swartz.
Source integrity: ***
Search words: Home, houses, wired living
Trend tags: Digitalisation.

Don’t call us and we won't call you

If you thought it was already bad trying to get hold of an actual person to complain about something, things are quite likely to get much worse. Try calling LinkedIn, for instance. There’s a phone number to call, but if you call it you get trapped in what can only be described as a telephonic version of Groundhog Day. The message could not be clearer: Don’t call us. Ever.

Voice communication has long fallen out of fashion with teenagers and twenty somethings. But the desire not to talk to people directly is infecting corporations too, especially those involved with the internet and those keen on boosting short-term profits more than satisfying longer-term customer needs.

Facebook, for instance, only has one employee for every 300,000 users so it has more or less hung up on the idea of talking to customers directly and focuses instead on automated systems which ‘process’ 2 million customer requests per day. That’s fine, of course, if your users are younger and used to such channels of (non) communication, but what if they are older or simply need to speak directly to another human being?

Developments in voice recognition have been a standard fixture of customer service for a while, although it’s popular for companies to do the reverse. Many companies now boast that you can talk to a person rather than a machine and others gloat about call centres being local rather than in some far-flung (foreign) place.

Nevertheless, customer service avatars are coming and so too are more companies where it’s impossible to speak to a human being about something that doesn’t work. While many will see this as a problem, a few far-sighted companies will see such developments as an opportunity to swim against the tide and do the opposite.

Ref: New York Times (US) 6 July 2012, ‘Tech companies leave phone calls behind’, A. O’Leary. See also, International Herald Tribune (US) 31 March-1 April 2012, ‘Someday, a world that hangs on our every word’ by N. Singer.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Customer service, automation, phone calls
Trend tags: Automation

Take a chill pill

According to New York Times, almost one in five teenagers in America and 11 per cent of US school children have received a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The figures show a 41 per cent rise in diagnoses in the past ten years and around 66 per cent of those diagnosed with ADHD are prescribed drugs such as Ritalin.

Children are not the only ones regularly medicated for conditions that may not be conditions at all. If the 1990s was the era of Prozac then the 2010s are the era of drugs such as Xanax, which is used to treat anxiety. Xanax is a benzodiazepine drug, prescriptions for which have risen 17% in the US since 2006 to around 94 million prescriptions per year. Xanax itself is now the eleventh most prescribed drug in the US and can become highly addictive.

Why are we doing it? The answer is that people are stressed out - by work, relationships, and debt. People may now realise that everything and everyone is connected globally, which means the worries and concerns of anyone belong to everyone.

Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh’ last film, had something to say about Big Pharma and the casual medicalisation of our culture, with images of anti-depressants and practically everyone in the film taking one or the other (Xanax was cleverly mentioned). It is hard to say whether this was a critique or an encouragement. That such a film was made at least brings the topic into the open.

As we said in our last issue, use of anti-depressants is at a shockingly high level, especially among women. Yet we seem to have no well-marketed alternatives. How can we wean ourselves off pharmaceutical solutions to life’s problems? One answer is to live more in the present and worry less about futures that have yet to happen. Another is to take the focus off ourselves – the narcissistic culture does us no favours.

Ref: New York Magazine (US) 18 March 2012, ‘Listening to Xanax’ by Lisa Miller.
Source integrity: **
Search words: Xanax, anxiety, ADHD
Trend tags: Anxiety

The (failed) war on drugs

In 1971 President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” Some 42 years later, the war is still raging. The cost of this war is not known, but direct US spending is thought to be around 40 billion US dollars per year. Meanwhile, 50% of inmates in US federal prisons and 20 per cent in state prisons are there for drug-related offences. Overall the US prison population has grown from 333,000 in 1980 to 1.6 million today, much of this rise down to drugs. Clearly something isn’t working.

One of the side effects of being tough on drug-related crime, apart from a rising prison population, is the rising price of drugs. This ironically benefits dealers, especially if they don’t get caught. Bigger profits also means more suppliers and more traffickers, many of whom remain resolutely out of prison.

In theory, economics suggests higher prices should dampen demand among users, but the problem with drugs is their addictive nature and lack of substitutes. Moreover, the illegality of drugs means addicted people often shy away from seeking legal help and profit-seeking companies do not develop legal substitutes or products to break the addiction (eg, patches or gum to treat drug addiction).

So what’s to be done? One idea that’s been around for a while is to decriminalise drug use while keeping dealing illegal. This is effectively the case with marijuana in around 20 states already. Portugal went even further in 2011 and decriminalised all drugs. The effect of this move was to slightly increase drug use among the young, but imprisonment has gone down and treatment for addiction has gone up.

However, this doesn’t solve the problem of trafficking and gang control. To reduce both of these you need to decriminalise supply as well. In the short term, such a move would almost certainly increase use, but there’s a strong argument to suggest addiction would eventually go down. If drugs were legally sold in the same way as tobacco and alcohol, then taxes could be used to fund treatment and development of smart anti-addiction products, such as patches, pills and gum developed to treat tobacco addiction.

Ref: Wall Street Journal (US) 5-6 January 2013, ‘Have we lost the war on drugs?’ by G. Becker and K. Murphy.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: drugs, war, market solutions
Trend tags: Addictions

A nation divided by belief

The latest national census in the UK is revealing about how the nation is now split on religious and non-religious (or maybe post-religious) lines. Ten years ago 71.7 per cent of those living in the UK described themselves as Christian. Now the figure is 59.3 per cent, showing the Church of England’s weakening grip on the national psyche. Within 6 years this figure could be under 50 per cent.

Other standout figures are that 14.1 million people in the UK (roughly a quarter of the population) now say they have no religion. This compares with 15 per cent in 2001. Those declaring themselves to be Muslim have doubled in the UK in 10 years (Cue xenophobic headlines in rabid tabloid newspapers).

The number of people officially describing themselves as “Jedi” has fallen from 250,000 to 176,000. This isn’t many, but Jedi worshipers still outnumber pagans (56,000), spiritualists (39,000), atheists (30,000 – seems low), scientologists (2,500) and heavy metal worshippers (6,000). Jews outnumber Jedi Knights at 263,000.

Such sceptical secularism is becoming significant across Western Europe, although it should be pointed out that elsewhere – especially emerging markets – faith still matters and matters a lot.

We have two final comments on the data. The first we’ve highlighted before: fundamentalists of any persuasion tend to have more children than liberals (potentially breeding out tolerance of various kinds). Second, there are significant regional differences. In Northern Ireland, for instance, the Protestant ‘majority” now stands at 48 per cent while Catholics represent 54 per cent of the population, which may have some interesting political consequences.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 15-16 December 2012, Comment: ‘Piety gives way to secularism – and heavy metal worship’ by M. Engel. See also ‘The City loosing its religion’ by J.Pickford (same issue date).
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Religion, worship, belief, secularism, church
Trend tags: Religion

More from ONS census data

What else is revealed by the latest batch of UK census data and what, if anything, is relevant to other countries?

First, the survey suggests there are far fewer smokers than a decade ago. Prevalence of smoking fell from 54 per cent of men in 1974 to just 21 per cent now. For women it is 19 per cent now compared to 41 per cent in 1974. This suggests anti-smoking messages are getting through.

It's much the same story with alcohol, which may surprise some. The proportion of people drinking heavily has fallen from 2007 to 2011 and the number of women drinking 5 or days per week has fallen from 13 per cent in 1998 to 9 per cent in 2011. Interestingly, the heaviest drinkers in the UK population are those aged 45 plus, which again may surprise some. Maybe they are just more willing to admit it.

Forty years ago just half of UK households had a phone, whereas 90 per cent now do. Computer access has also risen from 9 per cent in 1984 to 80% today. Another eye-catching statistic is that in 1973 only 2 per cent of adults lived alone, whereas today the number is 10 per cent. There are 11 million single adults in the UK and fewer than 50% of people are married (20.4 million versus 20.6 million in 2001). What does this mean for loneliness?

Meanwhile, the number of people living in rented accommodation has nearly doubled compared to a decade ago and fewer people now have mortgages. In 2002, 69.7 per cent of people owned their own homes compared to 64.7 per cent in 2010. This compared with 53.2 per cent in Germany, 38 per cent in France, 55.7 per cent in Switzerland, 64.6 per cent in the US and 97.5 per cent in Romania, of which only one person in 162 has an outstanding loan.

Between 2001 and 2011 average wages in the UK rose by 29 per cent and house prices rose by 94 per cent on average. Phew! No wonder people are renting.

Ref: The Guardian (UK) 8 March 2013, ‘Number of people admitting to drinking falls by a third’ by J. Meike. Also, The Daily Telegraph (UK) 12 December 2012, ‘Britain has fallen out of love with marriage’ by S. Swinford, J. Kirkup and S. Marsden. and The Observer (UK) 9 December 2012, ‘Generation Rent: why millions are locked out of owning homes’ by L. Rock.
Source integrity: Various
Search words: ONS, statistics, Britain
Trend tags: -