This is the critical issue of life today - how to benefit from the positive developments without being drowned in the complexities that ensue. How, in this world, do we avoid feeling overwhelmed by it all? Is this the reason why self-reported levels of stress and anxiety (albeit a notoriously inaccurate measure of health) are increasing across the western world? These issues and this conundrum are what this book is about.
Life could be easier
Although we hope you lead a fulfilling and, in your own terms, successful existence, does it not sometimes just feel all too busy, too stressful? Does there not seem to be so much to do and so little time to do it?
This is the cliché of modern life. It doesn’t matter whether you are a high flying business person, a concerned media commentator, a dedicated public service worker, a retired executive with a hectic social life or a parent with a full time commitment to your family – your life is likely to feel busy.
Why is this? A number of explanations have been put forward. Some argue that capitalism and its promotion of materialism inevitably leads to a hurly burly jostling for position as people compete to differentiate themselves by buying more and more material goods(1). In this argument, it is, effectively, all the fault of consumer culture – we are encouraged to buy much more than we either really need or want. Others blame technology. The continual rollout of new technologies fuels, and frustrates, materialistic desire but also, literally, quickens the pace of life(2). Rapid innovation creates a sense of a world changing at an ever-faster rate; while some of the technologies themselves enable things just to be done more quickly(3). For example, microwave ovens allow meal preparation time to be reduced to seconds, while mobile phones enable people to be in contact at all times. Other commentators have claimed that globalisation and the increasing power of multinational companies is making work both less secure and more demanding(4). Related to this, some suggest that changing work practices and the increasing involvement of women in the workforce means that work takes an increasing chunk of people’s waking hours, leading to ‘overwork’ and less time for leisure(5).
To these doom-laden prognoses can be added the theories of people like Robert Putman(6) and Richard Sennett(7) who worry about the erosion of the communities and work environments that we used to inhabit. Such writers seem to yearn for some bygone era when everyone knew their place and had a happier and less harassed existence. A related strain consists of those who argue that we lead atomised, impersonal lives, locked away in a couch potato existence as we spend more and more time watching television or on the Internet, consuming ‘virtual’ (and insufficiently ‘real’) experiences(8).
Often, these arguments are used to support the thesis that the world is somehow worse nowadays – and, indeed, that we need to turn back the clock to a time when the world was more relaxed, cohesive and, it is argued, happier. (Although how this might be proved is highly unclear – for what it’s worth, questions asking people how happy they are have shown little change over 50 years(9).)
Aside from the considerable practical difficulties of reversing change in such a way, we suspect that few citizens would welcome the reality of the world as it used to be. People may have rose-tinted memories of the past but actually living there was a somewhat more challenging experience than their romanticised view would suggest.
And the negative take on life today hardly fits the facts. As we show in this book, work time over the course of the average year has not increased significantly (indeed for some it has decreased) and where it has, as for women, it is generally the result of a deliberate choice. Contrary to popular belief, community and social life is amazingly resilient. Sure, it has changed, but humans are social beings who on the whole actively seek, and enjoy, opportunities to meet, mix and converse. That is why some technologies, and particularly communication ones, have been so successful – people just love to talk.
Other technologies are also enriching people’s lives, either by relieving them from the chores of daily living (hand washing clothes or dishes, for example) or by enhancing experiences of learning, entertainment and communication. Of course, many new products are technology-led rather than consumer-led with unwelcome consequences, as we point out in chapter six, but technology per-se is not making the world a worse place(10). And all our research suggests that not only do many people love shopping – particularly that which involves discretionary items – but that competitive differentiation is not the bane of most people’s lives.
So why, then, do things seem so hectic? We have a simple answer: it is because it has become so complicated.
This is the paradox of progress. Today’s generation is richer, healthier, safer and enjoys more freedom than any in the past. Yet, life seems more pressured because it is more complex. The discretion and choice that the modern era offers also requires decisions. And, increasingly these are those most difficult of decisions - those with multiple options.
This is the critical issue of life today – how to benefit from the positive developments without being drowned in the complexities that ensue. How, in this world, do we avoid feeling overwhelmed by it all? Is this the reason why self-reported levels of stress and anxiety (albeit a notoriously inaccurate measure of health) are increasing across the western world? These issues and this conundrum are what this book is about.
There is, however, an important caveat to our thesis – and this is that it does not apply to all members of societies, or not in the way we discuss it in this book. Our focus here is on the affluent majority – perhaps 70% of the population. It is they who are afflicted with the complaint of complexity. For the less fortunate, life is likely to be no less difficult but for different reasons to those outlined in our first chapter. They simply struggle with the terrific ordeals of first making ends meet and then trying to become part of the affluent and complex society that many of them yearn to belong to.
This leads to an interesting and provocative, suggestion: that the two main issues facing society today are deprivation (and, increasingly, polarisation and detachment) and complication. Here, then, we have the real challenge facing not only governments but business too: how to cater for the increasing demands of the affluent majority, while addressing the needs of the deprived minority. For businesses this implies not only understanding the complexity of modern consumer (and employee) life but also their broader roles and relationships with society as a whole(11).
We believe the idea of ‘complicated lives’ is a useful metaphor for assessing what’s right and what’s wrong in the modern world and for identifying the solutions to people’s problems. If we can understand why people have unnecessary and unsubstantiated fears and why - despite more free time and more discretion and longer, healthier lives – they feel more pressured, we can start to develop remedies.
The root cause of the phenomenon we describe is that we want, and expect, more from life. Understanding this simple fact – that people have higher expectations, more varied choices and more complex decisions – is critically important. We believe managing complexity, or helping people to manage it, will be one of the most crucial issues of the 21st century.
Although this book is primarily aimed at business readers it should also be of use to public sector managers. But we hope that people also find it interesting and useful from a personal perspective - in helping them understand and respond to the complexity of their own lives. Perhaps by understanding life’s complications, we can all reap the benefits that the affluence, health and freedom of the modern world potentially provide.
(1)For example, Stewart Lansley, After the Gold Rush: The Trouble with Affluence: "Consumer Capitalism" and the Way Forward, Century, 1994. A more recent example is Professor Richard Layard’s 2003 Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures at the London School of Economics on the subject of ‘happiness’, http://cep.lse.ac.uk/events/lectures/
(2)An example of someone who is concerned about the technological determinism that is behind the development of technology just because it is possible without any regard for human need or sensitivity is Langdon Winner, Professor of Political Science in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. As Winner notes: ‘Again and again, we are urged to celebrate the latest so-called 'innovations' regardless of the deranged commitments and disastrous consequences they often involve.’ (Source: http://www.rpi.edu/~winner). His books on this theme include The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, University of Chicago Press, 1988
(3)See, for example, Lee Burns, Busy Bodies: Why Our Time-obsessed Society Keeps Us Running in Place, W.W. Norton and Co., 1993
(4)Or even, the effective demise of work – see Jeremy Rifkin and Robert L Heilbroner, The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labour Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, J. P. Tarcher, 1996
(5)Juliet Schor, The Overworked American, Basic Books, 1991
(6)Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster, 2000
(7)Richard Sennet, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, W. W. Norton, 1998
(8)Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Viking, 1986
(9)Richard Layard, op. cit. See also, the World Database of Happiness at www.eur.nl/fsw/research/happiness/index
(10)We might personally exclude some military technologies from this analysis
(11)In this sense, this book complements one that we have previously produced - Michael Willmott, Citizen Brands, John Wiley & Son, 2001
Life could be easier
1.It’s a complicated life
Why is life becoming more complex?
The manifestation of increasing complexity
Navigating a complex world
2.The New Individualism
The affluent society
A more demanding and marketing literate consumer
Seeking fulfilment and experiences – the lure of cultural capital
Self-expression and ‘inconspicuous’ consumption
Wanting it all
Age and individualism
Managing in a world of individuals
3.The routeless society
The changing influence of institutions
The personalisation of authority (and the re-emergence of community?)
The growing importance of social capital…
Life without a map
4.Human capital and the network society
From one to three
Work and intellectual capital
The three capitals
5.New life courses, new challenges
From simple to complex life paths
From simple to complex (but enduring) families
The vertical family
The time of the their lives
6.Technology and complexity
Love and hate
The pace and breadth of change
Techno-determinism, complication and feature overload
More, and more complex, communications in the network society
The blurring of the boundaries between work, home and play
7.The choice explosion
Drowning in choice?
The choice explosion
How is today’s consumer handling choice?
What companies can do
Educational performance and earnings power
Women on top?
Housework and shopping
Gender and finance
To buy or not to buy
Openness about finances: who controls the truth?
9.The parenting challenge
The negotiated family
10.The anxiety society
Why is this happening?
The value of time
Overworked or not – trends in paid work
Unpaid work – the chores of life
A life of leisure?
Assessing the value of time
In search of happiness
The business opportunities
12.Navigating a complex world
The happiness problem
Product and service offers
1.1 The factors making life more complicated
2.1 No longer happy just to fit in
2.2 Household disposable income growth
2.3 Desperately seeking fulfilment
2.4 What concerns people
3.1 Public Trust in UK Professionals
3.2 Trust in European institutions
3.3 Occupational prestige in the United States
3.4 Information sources used in purchase decisions
3.5 Sources of influence
3.6 Growing emotional closeness within families
4.1 The growing importance of social and cultural capital
4.2 Increasing chances of leaving first jobs
4.3 The fall of manufacturing and related employment
4.4 Spending on recreation and culture
4.5 The ways people look for fulfilment
5.1 Changes to women’s lives
5.2 Household types, 1971-2021
5.3 Closeness of attachment
5.4 From the horizontal to the vertical family
5.5 Grandparents and childcare
5.6 Childcare by grandparents
5.7 Satisfaction with life overall
5.8 Shopping centre spending for different household types
5.9 Sixties generation more open to change
5.10 Cumulative number of ‘life changes’ at each age
6.1 Technology take-up
6.2 Interest in emerging technologies
6.3 Too many features?
6.4 Cheaper robots
6.5 Mobile telephony in Europe
7.1 Preferred range of choice in various markets
7.2 Preferred range of consumer choice in general
8.1 Women’s earnings relative to men’s and level of seniority in the workplace
8.2 Housework forecast, by gender and working status
8.3 Main responsibility for grocery shopping, by gender 1991-2001
8.4 Agreement with the principle of independent spending
8.5 Who makes financial decisions?
8.6 More complicated lives?
9.1 Spending time with children in various activities
9.2 Visits to GPs and outpatient departments
9.3 Independence comes later
9.4 Parent’s interest in owning child surveillance technologies
9.5 The democratic family
9.6 Financial support from parents
9.7 Returning home
9.8 The psychological effect of children leaving home
10.1 Crime – the true story
10.2 Improving health means longer lives
10.3 More doctors, more anxiety?
10.4 Declining faith in science, increasing scepticism?
10.5 Growth in vCJD
11.1 Working time across Europe
11.2 Time spent in paid work
11.3 Household irritations
11.4 Time spent on unpaid work
11.5 Increasing leisure portfolios
11.6 Snacky Families
Table 11.1 – Satisfaction from different activities
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