Society & culture

An age old problem

It's been said many times that demographics are destiny. So why has it taken us so long to all wake up to the fact that there's a global ageing crisis around the corner? To make matters worse this trend coincides with a dramatic decline in the number of children being born in most countries. The facts are pretty scary. Back in 1950 there were 12 people aged 15-64 worldwide for each person aged 65+. The figure is currently 9 and by 2050 it will be 4 - at which point the old will outnumber the young globally. This demographic shift is good news for companies in areas like pharmaceuticals but few organisations have factored this trend into their strategies or even have strategies for more than 5 years out. However, governments are waking up to the fiscal consequences and are looking at changes to the retirement age at both a company and country level. But back to some figures. One reason why China might end up as a paper dragon is that the country is ageing so fast. 14% of the mainland population is already aged 60+ and 80% of workers don't have a pension (89% in India). By 2024 58% of China's population will be aged 60 + and 75% of households could be childless so productivity could theoretically fall through the floor. Productivity increases (especially those supplied by technology) might bridge the gap but nobody can be sure. In Japan it's much the same story. The number of Japanese aged 65+ is currently 17% and this is predicted to rise to 30% by 2020. Japan is enjoying a mini-boom in women over the age of 30 having babies at the moment but this is unlikely to have any lasting effect. One simple solution to ageing populations is to import young people but countries like Japan have a long held aversion to such ideas. Fortunately, countries like the US that have been built by immigrants (the annual intake is currently 900,000 per year) do not share quite the same problem. The US population is expected to grow from 285 million to 358 million over the next 20 years. Whatever figures you believe one thing is for certain: The ability to find solutions to the 'old geezer glut' will shape both the health of nations and the global economy in the years ahead.

Ref: Newsweek (US) 14 February 2005. 'Global Ageing', The Economist (UK) 26 February 2005, 'China's golden oldies'

Why has the past become the vision for the future?

Back in 1989 Francis Fukuyama made the prediction that we were approaching (or had arrived at) the 'End of History'. The idea was that history was driven by scientific progress, which in turn drove technological innovation. This in turn fuelled the economy, which shaped governments and so on. But there's a problem. Science and technology haven't stopped and show no sign of so doing. Moreover, there are countless examples to show that government is autonomous of science and economics, which is something that Fukuyama himself now admits. What's interesting about the original thesis is that people believed it, which must say something about contemporary society. Perhaps our current obsession with the past is caused by the fact that many people don't think there is a future (the end of history). This could explain our current backward-looking fixation about national identity. In the UK the chancellor, Gordon Brown, has suggested that an institute should be created to teach 'Britishness' (where we've come from historically as opposed to where we're going in the future) while a survey recently found that 25% of school children in the UK were 'downsizing' their nationality and referring to themselves as English rather than British or European.

Ref: Spiked online (UK), 17 February 2005, 'The End of the future', J.Thakkar. , The Sunday Times (UK) 16 January 2005, 'English Youth turns its back on British Identity', G.Hackett.

Generation Yeah, whatever.

Research looking at personality tests carried out on US college students and children between 1960 and 2002 has found that the idea that anyone can succeed has been replaced by the belief that individuals can make little or no difference to their lives. In other words the future of individuals is pre-ordained by society and circumstance. In some cases, where individuals have been exposed to violence, divorce or wars this is possibly understandable. In other cases it is not. The research also shows that individuals have become more impulsive and less prepared too wait for gratification or do difficult things. Putting the blame on forces beyond the individual also increases alienation and self-loathing. This victim culture also means that negative consequences or outcomes can be blamed on someone else (your genes, your parents, your school, the government or society). Hence, the rise in everything from cases of obesity and conditions like ADHD to the lack of manners in modern society. So, despite the rise of technology, the liberalisation of markets and norms and a decline of class structures (all of which theoretically puts individuals in control) we wallow in self-pity. If this trend continues future consequences could include higher levels of crime, depression, shorter relationships, a further breakdown of trust and increased medicalisation. It could also lead to a rise in legal claims against seemingly innocent individuals and organisations (e.g. people in debt suing banks for lending them money).

Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK) 22 January 2005, Welcome to the 'yeah but, no but' generation', D.Derbyshire. See also Personality and Social Psychology Review (US) - study by Dr Jean Twenge, University of San Diego.

The death of the weekend

In case you haven't noticed (or you've been working) the weekend is being abolished. The most recent piece of evidence is an employers' association in Australia (with the rather emotive name of 'Employers First') which is seeking to change employment law to have Saturdays and Sundays re-classified as 'normal working days.' The logic for this move is fairly clear - the removal of higher wage rates for weekends - and it is also in line with a move towards 24/7 and Sunday trading by retailers. It also makes sense from the point of view of governments and consumers alike who champion the idea of choice. However, the logic is somewhat twisted. For customers to shop anytime they like (weekends for example) some workers have to miss their weekends. This isn't a problem for some people (especially if they're entitled to higher rates of pay at weekends) but it is a problem for others who don't get to see their families at weekends. Add to this the levels of stress and tiredness that are becoming endemic in modern societies and you can start to understand why at least one day of rest (at the same time as everyone else) makes sense. Is this a reversible trend? Possibly, but for not for a while yet. Convenience (“I want whatever I want whenever I want it”) is a modern mantra and the death of the weekend is a natural consequence of rising materialism and consumption. It's also a consequence of the fact that shopping has become a leisure activity and people are increasingly buying their leisure rather than creating it themselves. The result is a stratified society where the moneyed rich get to buy weekends from the poor.

Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (AUS) 23 February 2005. 'Mondayitis cure: drop the weekend', R.Gittins.

Listen up

Is noise is a new frontier for product designers and branding gurus in the future? Perhaps, but not everyone is listening. Research in the US has found that the number of people aged 45-64 with a hearing condition has increased from 2 million to 6 million over the last 10 years. Over in Germany the National Centre for Health Information says that when today's younger generations reach the age of 40 they will have the hearing of a 60-year-old today. These trends are echoed in anecdotal evidence from hearing clinics and hospitals. A few decades ago most patients were aged 50 or above. Now 10-15% of patients are typically aged 40 and below. The reason for this shift is pretty obvious - loud music in everything from clubs to i-Pods- but the solution isn't so clear. Another big problem is that the traditional solution (hearing aids) won't wash with younger generations because they associate such devices with their grandparents. Is there an opportunity in here? Sure. Design a hearing aid that looks like an i-Pod!

Ref: The Straits Times (SING) 23 January 2005. 'Eh you deaf or what?”, S.Ng.

Future disasters

According to the World Disaster Prevention Conference (bet they're a jolly affair!) there is a 70% chance of a 6.9 magnitude earthquake happening in Tokyo before 2034. This would kill around 13,000 people and destroy 800,000 homes. A larger earthquake similar to the 1923 quake would kill 150,000 and flatten 2.6 million buildings. Either of these events could easily create a local financial crisis with global repercussions. No wonder then that a German insurance company recently said that Tokyo is the most dangerous city in the world from a natural disaster standpoint. Other mega-cities where nightmare scenarios involving major earthquakes, floods or tornadoes could take place include Mexico City, Bombay, Sao Paolo and Delhi. Meanwhile a University of California (Los Angeles) report by Professor Jared Diamond says that unless governments address environmental problems there is a chance that the human race may not live to see the end of this century. In his book (How societies choose to fail or survive) he paints a picture of a 'global Somalia' where environmental degradation triggers government and societal collapse on an unprecedented scale.

Ref: The Independent (UK) 21 January 2005. 'Mega-cities facing mega disasters, UN warns, D.McNeil. See also 'Sixty seconds that will change the world' by Peter Hadfield and Collapse: How societies chose to fail or survive' by J.Diamond.

Luxury fever

Take the high cost of housing; add rising incomes, a decline in the cost of some goods and the growth of single person households. Add a pinch of longer work hours and a good dose of stress and anxiety and you have the perfect recipe for a boom in luxury goods. Let us explain. Once upon a time luxury goods were the preserve of very rich individuals with money (and in some cases time) on their hands. However, the expansion of the middle class in countries like the US, Europe, Australia, China, Brazil and India has meant that items that were once considered luxuries are now thought of as everyday necessities. One consequence of this is new purchasing patterns and behaviours. For example, a cup of coffee priced at GB £3.00 is now considered normal while a second home in the sun is nothing that special. Part of this is demographics too. There are a lot of young people around who work but still live at home (due to the high cost of real estate). This translates into high disposable incomes, which fuels the market for everything from i-Pods to automobiles. If you do own your own home you may choose to live alone which again means are you are cash rich and time poor. This creates a market for 'instant rewards' and personalised experiences - everything from champagne to 160cm plasma TVs. And if you're part of a couple that doesn't have children you can make that champagne vintage and you can make that TV an HD-TV. You might even add a couple of part time 'staff' to keep your house and garden in shape. But it's not good news for everyone. If you're really rich you are now faced with the dilemma of how to signal your wealth to such newly arrived pretenders.

Ref: Voyeur magazine (AUS) March 2005. 'Life's Little Luxuries'. C.Sheedy.