Society might feel like a rather catch-all category, but it’s undeniable that many trends just manifest themselves in our daily lives. They are also important trends to watch: they’re the bellwethers of popular opinion, the benchmarks of consumer taste and the merest smell on the wind of what tomorrow might look like.
You may remember the announcement of the end of X-Factor from Saturday night TV (which says something both about X-Factor and about ‘appointment viewing’. Or when online dating became the major precursor to marriage.
Perhaps you noticed that in the past couple of years, there has been a resurgence in crafts – an evolution of the ‘make do and mend’ mentality of the early austerity years. Social tastes are exciting, and often the most universal things we observe.
Here are two.
Stress To Loneliness
Stress is certainly a 21st Century ailment, and it manifests itself in many diseases: the WHO predicts that by 2020, half of all diseases will be stress related. Our mental health, perhaps better described as mental wellbeing, is deteriorating: one in four UK citizens will experience episodes of mental illness in their lives.
However, stress is only part of the story. It exists in a vicious and co-dependent circle with loneliness. We get stressed because (amongst other causes) we are busy; often busy doing unfulfilling or unmeaningful activities. That stress means we have less time for the people who matter to us, and this causes loneliness. Loneliness then causes more stress.
Many aspects of modern life exacerbate the situation. Our devotion to work means that we are more tired. The benefits of mobile working and flexible hours also mean that we spend more time home-working; even in large organisations. Those same organisations often use mobile working as an opportunity to trim their estates and institute hot-desking: which means employees lose the relationships which are forged by sitting with the same people each day.
Back at home, jump on Facebook and many people have 500 or more friends on their social networks. But not only is this online rather than face-to-face which therefore lacks intimacy, our social networked lives are strictly edited for public consumption. Indeed, social networks give us all the tools we need – groups, pictures etc. – to pick the medium and the audience for any social message. They're often used as broadcast tools, for keeping people at a specific distance, not tools for enhancing friendships.
These issues will continue to challenge modern society. Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence technologies will allow us to become ever more disconnected from the people around us if we let them; and this will lead to soullessly lonely lives. The workplace, meanwhile, is in line for a series of changes which are almost entirely unpredictable. We may be forced to work harder by economic pressures. Equally, technologists predict with alarming regularity that advances in technology will render over 50% of jobs obsolete. Perhaps this will mean we will have more time for each other. The jury’s out; but we need to rediscover the importance of shared human experiences and value them for their contribution to our lives. (Even when we do choose to get close – really close – to one another, dating apps like Tinder can make the experience a commodity rather than something more engaging and meaningful). Healthy relationships are about being in real touch with other real people – our sometimes foolish, flawed conflictual and challenging selves; not a collection of edited avatars.
Ownership To Access
The definition of wealth is changing. We will own fewer physical goods, but have access to more overall, thanks to simple online marketplaces which handle the complexities of resource management and availability timings to give us on-demand access to resources. Need a car? Try Zipcar. Need a dress for that special night out? My Secret Dressing Room is there to help. The access economy works for everyone. For the owners of assets, it can be a way to monetise them when they are not in use. Most cars, for example, are only in use 3% of the time – to be able to profit from this downtime is a win-win; especially as cars have a high fixed cost of ownership in terms of maintenance and taxation.
And users of these services get simple, by-the-hour rental without any of the hassles of ownership. There’s no need to maintain, back up, clean or store things, and you only pay for what you use. In many cases, as with My Secret Dressing Room’s luxury clothing, this gives users access to products which would simply not otherwise be financially viable.
As we largely move to more crowded cities, where storage space is at a premium, it makes more sense for us, and for the environment, to own less, consume less, and share more.
This trend is being seen in business, too. Office space is shared on short leases and resource managed through hot-desking. Unused media slots on TV and radio can be sold on or subbed out. The entire principle of Cloud digital services exploits the economies of scale that come with many users sharing the same computers, security protection and backups; and then also benefiting from the total agility of being able to scale up or down on demand. Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure can both provision massive web services in minutes – the sort of systems which would previously have required six months and millions of pounds in expenditure. The access economy breeds flexibility, allowing entrepreneurs to build more nimble businesses, which are either more profitable or can exploit their leanness to find viability in new niches.
The sharing economy creates two types of company. Zipcar owns its fleet of cars; and makes its money by minimising costs and maintaining a high usage rate. Other ventures oil the wheels of the sharing economy by acting solely as a marketplace – Streetbank, for example, is a local sharing service for tools. Most drills, for example, are only used twice. Yet someone within 400m of your home probably has one they could lend you.
There are some caveats. Sharing services have become particularly popular as the recession bites; and there are warnings that they pander to a deeper propagation of social inequality: low end wages are stagnating, and the sharing economy keeps wealth in the hands of property owners. And only owners can modify, customise and control the use of property. Only owners can give away or bequeath property. That said, the ability to improve and personalise shared assets in the access economy no doubt represents an opportunity for the new breed of entrepreneurs coming through.