Society & culture

The rise of the Neo-Croms

A survey by the Future Foundation says that 80% of UK adults think that alcohol should be banned in all places of work. So bye bye Christmas drinks and hello to a new social category invented by the Future Foundation called Neo Cromwellians (or Neo-Croms for short). Neo Croms are puritans who not only limit their own indulgences but seek to limit the pleasures of others too. In other words, we are moving (so the theory goes) from a period of social consciousness (be aware of the needs of others) to a period of active social criticism (stop people from doing things if this is harmful to the majority). Examples include curtailing consumption of certain types of food and drink or restricting access to everything from cigarettes to tourist attractions on the basis that not doing so would endanger the health or happiness of others. So having banned smoking from offices, bars and outdoor areas the pleasure police are now moving on to stop people from smoking in their own cars or homes on the basis that it's dangerous or has a wider societal impact. The problem is, of course, where do you draw the line? Bottles of wine with warning labels are one thing but restricting consumption altogether is another. Equally, submitting to the will of the majority in the name of the greater good is fine, but increasingly it is a vocal minority that are controlling what the silent majority can do.
Ref: The Scotsman (UK) 2 August 2005, 'Meet The New Puritans',
A. Smyth.

Work-birth balance

An article in the British Medical Journal says that women who 'want it all' are playing Russian roulette with their health - and the health of their unborn children - by leaving motherhood until they are in their late thirties and early forties. Specific age related health problems include infertility, ectopic pregnancies, foetal and chromosomal defects and eclampsia. Women aged 35+ now have the fastest growing birth-rates in the UK. Births to women aged 40+ have almost doubled since the mid-nineties.  Births to women in their thirties also now exceeds that of births to women in their twenties. Part of the reason for this trend is increasing life expectancy and longer periods of education and training, but the main reason is probably the increased number of women in the workforce and the rise of women in senior managerial positions who pursue careers ahead of family. Other explanations include developments in obstetrics and gynaecology, followed by an expanding list of high profile older mothers ranging from Madonna to Cherrie Blair.  The most obvious implication of this trend is employment related, but another issue could be insurance. What are the consequences of insurers refusing to cover women over a certain age and what if companies refuse future cover to children born to older mothers?
Ref: The Times (UK) 16 September 2005, 'Older mothers 'epidemic' a danger to health, doctors warn women', S.Lister. Links:  a Danish entrepreneur is planning to offer couples illegal fertility treatments (eg anonymous sperm donations and gender selection) via hospital ships located off the British coast in international waters - Guardian 19 September 2005.

Ten is the new fifteen

There has been a lot of talk about 'age compression' and children growing up faster and the trend has even got its own moniker - KGOY (Kids Getting Older Younger). However, until recently evidence has been rather anecdotal.
Back in the 1950s Barbie (the doll) was the playmate of choice for 6-19 year-old girls. These days 3-5 year-olds play with Barbie and 6-10 year-olds play with the more streetwise Bratz dolls. Over 10 year-olds tend not to play with dolls at all. Now research by Flinders University (Aus) has put some qualitative evidence forward to support this trend. Apparently, almost 50% of 5-8 year old girls surveyed said they would like to be thinner and an amazing 71% of 7-year-olds thought they were "too fat". Other research (from the Australian Broadcasting Authority) has found that 37% of 11-12 year-olds now own a mobile phone and 50% of 12-13 year-olds access the Internet at least once a day. So what is going to happen to these children? One result, according to experts, is that children aged 10-14 are waging an internal war between the desire to be an adult and the need to remain a child. And why is this trend happening? One commonly quoted explanation is advertising targeted at children. Other reasons include the rapid growth of communications, specifically the Internet, which acts like a giant schoolyard or peer group, and the influence of having two working parents.
Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 23-24 July 2005, 'A game of speed', N.Galvin.

Future shocks

In the commercial world, disruptive innovations and events are expected and even planned for. Recent disruptions include the Internet, China and oil prices. But what about shocks and surprises in the areas of government and public services? Following terrorist risks like 9/11 and natural disasters like New Orleans, medical emergencies are now being taken more seriously by planners, although the just-in time nature of modern societies makes it difficult to build extra capacity and back-ups into the system. For example, outside of preparing for a flu pandemic, no country is really stock piling vaccines, let alone other medicines or hospital beds. Moreover, risks do appear to be increasing due to the confluence of trends like globalisation and connectivity. Add to this global warming, which is almost certainly driving incidents of extreme weather, and the anxiety felt by some people does seem to be justified. So what are the most likely threats? Under terrorist attacks the list includes a nuclear bomb, biological or chemical attack in a major city. Hurricanes and earthquakes are the obvious natural disasters but a firestorm is also a major threat. Finally there's a possibility of epidemics or radiation leaks.
Ref: Business Week (US) 19 September 2005, 'The Next Big One'

The death of the public intellectual

Foreign Policy magazine (US), together with Prospect magazine (UK), recently put together a list of the world's top 100 public intellectuals. These are individuals with "distinction in their own field...with the ability to communicate ideas and influence debate outside of it". Thus the list is about influence as much as achievement. We've commented on the trend for lists before, which seem to be a reaction to too little time and too much information, but in this case the problem seems not to be who to leave out, but finding anyone to put in. Not surprisingly, the names are largely the usual media darlings and 'celebrities', but there are some interesting patterns within the list too. First, almost half the hundred reside in the US, which clearly puts the US in the ascendancy when it comes to ideas (whatever happened to Paris and Berlin as global centres of thinking?).  Second, although the list is largely Anglo-American, a surprising number of Africans and Arabs are represented which may say something about our preoccupations at the start of the twenty-first century. But, most interestingly of all, is the weakness of the list compared to what might have been generated fifty or one hundred years ago.
Ref: Foreign Policy (US), October 2005, Prospect (UK) October 2005.,
See also - Australias-top-100-public-intellectuals

Me, myself and I

According to UKTV, 48% of the current UK population are single. Meanwhile, the Guardian newspaper quotes a prediction that by the year 2010, 40% of people in Britain will be living in one-person households. There's even National Singles week - invented by a small travel company with a gift for tabloid friendly PR stunts. So what's the story? People have always lived on their own, but what seems to be happening is a broader cultural shift. Historically, people were on their own because they were young, widowed or divorced. It was a temporary state and all manner of venues and events were created to bring people together. Not any more. For many people singledom is now the preferred state. But what does it say about a society when we can't be bothered to engage meaningfully with another person? Is it a sign of narcissism, laziness, perfectionism or simply that people don't have the time to invest in a career and a relationship? On the other hand, perhaps this is all a media invention, after all, Internet dating sites are booming,
Ref: SpikedOnline (UK) 11 August 2005, 'Alone sharks', J. Bristoe.

New definitions of normal

Last year the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons saw operations rise by 50% while BUPA (a private hospital chain) witnessed an increase of 32%. A survey by Grazia magazine found that 40% of teenage girls and 17% of teenage boys have considered surgery and Zoo magazine is even offering breast augmentation as a prize for a reader's girlfriend. So what's happened to turn what was once regarded as a risky, expensive, socially embarrassing and ethically suspect procedure into just another branch of the cosmetics industry? The answer is events. The tipping point was probably a series of celebrities admitting in the media to using botox. This was followed by a series of cosmetic makeover shows on TV (The Swan, I Want a Famous Face, Cosmetic Surgery Live etc). But while the media are undoubtedly pushing cosmetic surgery, cheap credit and advertising have also had an effect, as has the lower cost of operations brought about by economies of scale. However, ultimately it's changes in attitudes that have influenced this behaviour.  There is a feeling that people are judged by appearances these days and you only have a few seconds to make an impression. Moreover, the cult of celebrity has not only normalised cosmetic surgery, it has changed the very definition of what normal is, with the result that ordinary people want cosmetic surgery just to fit in and look 'normal'. More worryingly, moral authority seems to be passing from healthcare professionals to the media and celebrities.
Ref: The Guardian (UK) 14 September 2005 'Most British women now expect to have cosmetic surgery in their lifetime: how did the ultimate feminist taboo become just another lifestyle choice?' D. Aitkenhead.
See also Reshaping the female body by Kathy Davis.

The beginning of the end of oil

The commercialisation of two oil-hungry technologies, the motorcar and aircraft, ushered in huge cultural shifts including the rollout of suburbia and the death of distance. However, we are now consuming two barrels of oil for every barrel that we discover. So could the end of oil do the same and trigger further cultural shifts? Two trends that will be reinforced by higher oil prices include home working and movement towards living in cities (both of which require less travel). Other spin-offs include the search for more fuel efficient vehicles, the rehabilitation of nuclear power and more demand for coal and gas. But, most interestingly, the beginning of the end of oil should be a catalyst for the discovery of something new. This could be a new form of energy or it could be a new way of living. For example, perhaps globalisation will slowly end heralding in a new era of living and consuming locally.
Ref: Various including The New York Times (US) 12 August 2005 ' The breaking point', P. Mass  The Independent (UK) 7 September 2005, 'Could the hurricane's legacy be the beginning of the end of the oil age?' H. McRae.  The Times (UK) 20 September 2005 'The future of oil and gas'.

Wise up

According to the people who know about these things, people in the US are getting smarter. Evidence comes in the form of IQ test results and apparently someone whose IQ was in the top 10% in 1920 would now be in the bottom 30%.  Even more interesting (and controversial) is the claim by Steven Johnson (author of Everything Bad Is Good for You) that what's making people smarter are exactly those things that everyone thinks are making people stupid. This includes playing video games (actually much harder and complex than critics - who have never played one - think) and watching TV (compare the complexity of plot lines from an early episode of Dallas to an episode of CSI or The Sopranos today). Equally controversial is the idea that homework, outside of certain subjects like Maths, is actually bad for kids. But if homework is actually of marginal value then why are parents so fond of it? Perhaps the answer is that we have so little trust in our children or the things that they might otherwise be doing.
Ref: The New Yorker (US) 16 May 2005, 'Brain Candy', M. Gladwell.