Backup Life’s Not That Bad

Here’s little reassurance in this age of anxiety. The plethora of stuff that tells us society is in decline is myth. The changes in society and in markets are not as malignant or corrosive as you thought. So, forget the messages of books like Bowling Alone and re-read the market research.
The “myth of decline” is argued in market research paper prepared by the UK-based Future Foundation. The Foundation believes there is ample evidence to show that stronger family connections, better parenting, tighter friendships, continued community involvement and so on are intact – not the other way round.
There is, say the authors, “a constant stream of data that powerfully suggests that millions of us are converting our years of prosperity into something like successful lives”. And studies suggesting we are lonelier, unhappier, disconnected from our families and communities and living in an increasingly toxic world, feed dangerously “doom laden” claims into politics and marketing tactics and influence consumers’ decision making.
We are, however, increasingly anxious – though there is less reason for us to be so than we think. Our economic system has an impressive ability to absorb shocks but the arrival of any “trouble” seems inevitably to “bring forth hyperbole of pessimistic language”. Consumers in the UK, and we could read the same attitudes here, are reluctant to acknowledge the “positive legacy of their recent past”.
We are wealthier, live longer, have eliminated the worst kinds of worker drudgery, spend more time with our kids, live in world of low inflation, and pack our homes with “life-enhancing, energy-saving durables”. “The fact is that this is now period of uniquely attractive economic and social conditions within which the majority of people are unquestionably benefiting,” argue the authors.
The end of the family is not nigh! Myths surrounding the modern family include the decline of family values, the decline of respect, the breakdown of the extended family and the breakdown of the family unit itself. Analysis of time-use studies in Britain shows that today’s parents spend an average 85 minutes day per child concentrating on childcare, far more than the 25 minutes day spent by parents in the mid 1970s. Other studies suggest that far from witnessing decline in family values, there is “pattern of sorts in the way people view their families today and this pattern reveals the potency of the concept of family”.
The family may indeed become more important entity in the next decade. As traditional institutions decline and fragment and individualism increases, the role of family ties “as the lynchpin” of people’s lives will be enhanced. Beyond the phenomenon of divorce, the report argues that “there is no real evidence that family life has become any less close, less cohesive, less loving”.
The Foundation also debunks the myth that society is breaking down and communities are dissolving. “Research does not support the contention that there is an erosion of social capital,” it says. Society and communities still exist, but take form that embraces new individualism. “People still yearn for, need and indeed have some form of community but do not want ones that restrict their individual desires.”
As management guru Peter Drucker once said: “In any community in transition, it is more important whom you know than what you know. That’s the right definition of networking.” In routeless world, the power of your personal connections – your social capital – whether they are family, friends or work contacts – becomes more important.
And, surprise, surprise, Foundation research does not support the contention that the news media has “dumbed down” in recent years. Now remember, this is UK-based research. They conclude instead, that while the volume of “low-brow” news has increased, so too has the volume of high quality news produced in the UK. There is simply more media coverage than ever before and more consumer choice.
But we are an anxious society. Why is it, that despite all the evidence to the contrary, consumers are reluctant to acknowledge the positive elements of our times? Foundation co-founder Michael Wilmott apparently explains it in detail in his book Complicated Lives, published late last year. He says, for instance, that we “no longer accept that things might just happen to us by chance and put up with it as piece of bad luck. We now believe events should be controllable, accidents should not happen. No wonder people agonise about what to eat, the hidden danger of technology and the lifestyle activities they should engage in.”
Part of the problem is also growing lack of trust in companies – not helped by corporate cover-ups and negative scientific and medical evidence ranging from tobacco to asbestos to thalidomide to lead in petrol. To understand people it is valuable to know what society’s defining features are. It is frequently only people’s perceptions that matter – “no matter how dislocated those perceptions can be from the statistical truth”. For more try

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