Unseen trends and the society we are becoming.

Societies are evolving and complex, which often makes it hard to see at any moment where things are going. It was thus with the move of Northern European countries towards democracy in the 19th century, which seems inevitable and clear in hindsight but blurred at the time by lots of other developments that have now been forgotten, such as an increase in Protestant fanaticism and an anti-technology (Luddite) movement. In the last few decades there have also been many trends, some already waning, like the increase in international migration, and some on a seemingly unstoppable growth, like increased inequality. As in previous centuries, events like covid-mania accelerate some previous trends, like state surveillance, and reverse others, like the growth of international tourism.

Many commentators have rushed towards applying a particular label to the developments of the last 50 years. One hears about neoliberalism, financialization, or unsustainable growth. Though they make things sound neat and simple, such labels immediately make things moral and political, forcing people to take sides, which obscures the breadth of changes and makes a calmer assessment impossible. Let us thus look here at some of the less noticed trends which do not easily fit into existing labels. In this short post I just want to flag some trends in the Western world and briefly mention some instances of misperceptions of trends, leaving analysis for later. I will deliberately not show any statistics, forcing you to engage with the ideas rather than be a ring-side observer. See what you yourself make of these issues.

One major trend is the stark increase in the volume and extent of state regulation ever since the early 1970s, under any political leadership, pretty much everywhere in the Western world. From a few hundred pages of regulation per year, our bureaucracies and parliaments are now producing hundreds of thousands of pages of regulation per year. This rise makes a mockery of the idea that we are in a period of neoliberal deregulation, which is pretty much the exact opposite of the true direction of travel. The change defies any simple left/right or neoliberal/socialist label. It is a rise in bureaucracy. It has many causes, including meddling bureaucrats looking to expand their sphere of influence, but also the demands from large corporations for regulations that make life harder for the small business competition. The rise in regulation thus does not fit existing labels.

Another major trend is the decrease in IQ of the population in the Western world, probably due to increased use of mobile phones and social media. The mayor loss is the reduced capacity for abstract thought and seeing the interconnections between events. This is a profound dumbing down of the population with effects on every sphere of life, ranging from the quality of our institutions to the types of art enjoyed. Again, this trend is hardly known though it has been clear from the late 1990s. The phenomenon furthermore is not easily given a political label. It is neither pro-environment nor anti-environment, liberal or anti-liberal, woke or populist. Yet it is deeply worrying as a dumber population is less productive and easier to mislead.

Another such trend is the move towards monoculturalism in many areas of life, including politics, media, corporations, entertainment, academia, and commerce: the people, the manners, and the morals in these spheres all look the same. The gradual increase in similarity between people in the same sphere was noted a long time ago by Ortega Y Gasset (1930s) and Theodor Adorno (1960s), and has now reached a zenith: the coffee shop in Berlin is pretty much the same as in Melbourne or Los Angeles. The coffee shop is furthermore pretty similar to the movie theatre or the truck hire company: similar protocols and staff manners. The left-wing politician in Sydney is pretty much the same as the right-wing one in Ontario, using similar language and media methods. Italian artists differ in the language from the famous Polish or Kiwi ones, but the sounds, images, and personalities are very similar. Once again, such a trend is not so easy to put into a political or moral box. But it is a profound change with many consequences.

Let us then briefly mention the issue of misperceptions in trends.

There are the slow changes that are talked about in particular circles, but hardly known by a wide audience. A big one is the changes in demography. As they say, demography is destiny, so any observer of politics and international relations should have a good grasp of what is happening with demographic trends. But how many truly do? How many know whether fertility rates in the Muslim world have remained steady or are decreasing? How many know if the population of Latin America is still expanding or stabilising? Who would know if and when India will overtake China as the most populous country? The answers are ‘decreasing’, ‘still expanding but at a slowing rate’, and ‘in the next 10 years’. Did you know and do you see the great significance of such trends for analyses of the future? Once again, such trends are not so easily put into a political or moral box.

There is also the converse, which is trends large parts of the population believe are immense which are in fact relatively minor compared to other factors. For instance, if one were to ask a random person in the West whether the food security of Africa is more threatened by climate change than by reversing economic growth, I bet many would say ‘climate change’. Don’t even get me started on the magnitude of the threat of covid as compared to that of lockdowns! A sense of real proportions is thus rare because moral and political imperatives increasingly distort our view of things, which is itself an important trend.

A final trend that is hardly known I wish to alert you to is the major reduction in autonomy among workers in the West. Since about the 1980s more and more workers, even the well-paid ones, are spending their working lives surrounded by tight protocols and schedules, with increasingly less discretion over what they do and how they do it. It has been a creeping change wherein labour is more and more shackled to processes and compliance mechanisms. It is an explosion in regulation inside both private and public workplaces. Being bossed around in every aspect of life is now a lived reality for most of us, but who realises this or minds? What effects will the increased habit of obedience have on our societies?

There are hence many profound changes that have been brewing for decades, changes that defy easy political or moral labels. ‘We’ are becoming more regulated, dumber, similar to others, obedient, and ignorant of demographic and social realities.

What kind of society are we then moving towards? I am not sure. Are you? Do put your views in the comments!

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21 Responses to Unseen trends and the society we are becoming.

  1. Chris Lloyd says:

    Interesting idea for a post Paul. Thanks.

    Over-regulation: It is everywhere. Parking meters without punctuation. Safety limits on power garden muncher that makes it next to useless. My mobile earphones have limited volume and automatically turns down when I turn it up. Providing a “safe” work environment (which is definitely a political tool). Accepting terms and conditions that nobody at all had ever read, several times per week. Reducing speed limits. Censorious testing for marijuana at the Byron Blues festival. Drug testing in the Olympics. (An equestrian competitor was sent home today for testing positive for Cocaine!)

    Demography: I am surprised you did not mention the African population bomb. They still have fertility rates in the range 5-6. Nigeria alone is projected at 400 million in 2050 and Africa will be 2.5 billion. I do not see the economic development to offset this, even with their current youth premium. I do not clearly sese how the fertility rate does down.

    Monoculturism: Are you saying Germany had converged culturally towards NZ? I guess that is a true if the unit of analysis is the country. It is consequence of immigration and international movies and news outlets. But within countries, there is increasing balkanisation of cultures, both ethnic and political.

    • paul frijters says:

      Hi Chris,

      yes, regulation is a scourge. As I heard Andreas once say “we all love a good form, but this is ridiculous!”
      On demography, yes, much to discuss. My understanding is that in most of Africa pre-pandemic fertility rates were going down, basically because of increasing levels of education which makes kids expensive to the parents. But the point in the post above is the lack of general awareness of such important trends.

      On monoculture, the post talks about spheres of life. There is indeed also a kind of balkanisation of identities, complete with ‘resurgent’ local identities, such as those of cities and regions. Still, I find there to be a huge uniformity in those supposed ‘new’ identities. If you like, the consumption of authenticity is pretty similar around the Western world, whether it concerns that of gender fluidity or of a neo-Pommerian. They are all busy constructing histories and proclaiming their uniqueness in almost identical fashion. So yes, monoculture of authenticity too! You are unique, just like everyone else. No?

  2. Graham Young says:

    Just a thought Paul. The increase in regulation could be also driven by increasing risk aversion, or phrased differently, the desire for perfection. Regulations hold out the promise of a perfect, ie risk-free, future, but they actually increase the chance of error by turning people into box-tickers rather than active assessors of risk and reward.

    • paul frijters says:

      Hi Graham,

      an appeal to purity is certainly how regulation is always sold, both internal and external. It is costly and often (in terms of bang-for-buck) totally nonsensical, so there must be reasons for why the ground is so fertile for all this bossing around.

      I sometimes wonder if the brutal reality is that people need to live through a major war to teach them what is important and what is not. In the absence of big problems, they pretend the small problems are big. Just a thought though.

  3. conrad says:

    I generally agree with these — it is surprising how homogenous the world is becoming. I remember going to Nepal in the late nineties, and finally it was somewhere that really was different. That being said, there are places that are superficially similar (same shops etc.) but the longer you are there the more you realise people think differently. HK is like this. Superficially it appears Western, but the longer you are there, the less so.

    This one is obviously multifactorial:

    “Another major trend is the decrease in IQ of the population in the Western world, probably due to increased use of mobile phones and social media”

    but I suspect you really want to say technology that replaces thought and basic cognitive skills which then never get learnt well (and increase distraction). This I think is certainly some of it (people should throw graphical calculators away tomorrow…), but if you track early mathematics education and performance, then it has been declining before kids get exposed to all all of this stuff, and it’s not like kids who grew up before this wern’t watching huge amounts of junk on TV which probably accounted for similar amounts of time as social media. One might think it is a social trend in teaching or similar, but since it is pretty pervasive worldwide and countries do different things, it must be something more. Inequality probably accounts for a lot of it but there might be other things like people having less children and hence children simply having easier lives and hence trying and learning less.

    • Conrad
      Id suggest that IQ is akin to muscle ; it needs to be exercised regularly in order to grow or at least maintain its strength . Perhaps the decline in IQ is related to the increase in regulations and the decline in autonomy and consequent rise in a life of box ticking ?

      • conrad says:

        In adults it wouldn’t be the slightest surprise, although I think kids are another story.

        • So what might be going on with kids.
          BTW what is the age at which kids are likely to do their first IQ test?

          • conrad says:

            There’s no typical IQ screening in most places as far as I’m aware but some of the long running tests are good correlates of IQ.

            No-one really knows what is going on (but there are endless incorrect suggestions — all of which have some effect but can’t explain the global decline e.g., teacher quality, curriculum, and so on). Some things certainly have effects like SES, but many places like Aus have gone down despite SES being relatively stable. There are also bad systems (charter schools) that can hurt a lot and good programs that help (No Child Left Behind — bribe poor kids to go to school with food). But all of these should help any subject matter, but maths has declined and literacy is pretty stable.

            It is alsoi important to look at things more closely, because when you do, you realise a lot of things are off the mark just based on the data and the fact people care about the mean and not the distribution.

            One of the best Aus data sets I saw on this was from Andrew Leigh (now politician), who showed the decline in Aus wasn’t because kids were getting worse overall, but that the right tail was getting much smaller (i.e., all the kids who would have otherwise been really good). So if this is the case worldwide (I don’t know if it is), then the causes are going to be quite different to what they might be if it was across the spectrum.

            If I remember AL’s data correctly, then the pinnacle of Aus mathematics achievement for I think year 12 students was 1986. So if you subtract 12 years from this, this is basically the time-span in which things were going well. So what’s changed? Who knows — lots and lots of stuff.

            He’s my guess as one possible global factor: One thing that seems ubiquitous is that everyone wants ‘practical maths’ — that is, maths taught with obvious application in ‘real life’ . This fails to realise that maths is largely abstract, especially hard maths. So if you indoctrinate kids with the idea that maths has to have a practical application, you’re basically indoctrinating them to dislike the off-with-the-fairies maths that moves them from good to great. That might help the average kid (or it might not), but it will penalise kids that would have otherwise loved maths because abstract maths really is one of the greatest human inventions.

            One might also consider how one learns things. If you always get practical examples and you can always find the answer easily (which you can these days), you never really learn to think deeply about the problem — and this is not a good strategy for learning. Alternatively, if you spend your time pondering and thinking hard about the abstract, you will remember what you did, and you will learn all the easy so well, you won’t need to expend effort on them before you get to the difficult abstract stuff.

            So it’s basically a war against abstract thought — and hence the cognitive benefits that come with it.

            • interesting, id guess that there must be a few places that have bucked the trend ( yes?) if so do they have local traits that might explain things?

            • conrad says:

              Hi John — the biggest and longest running survey which is the most useful is the TIMMS . Somewhere or other there is a plot of all the countries for each age level… The countries that consistently sit at the top and are generally stable are from East Asia, so to me we should look at what they are doing (and it’s not just tough school conditions). Confirmatory data and data from before this is scattered all over the place and so you shouldn’t take it too seriously.

              Some countries go up as they get richer (unsurprising) and some like Australia fall off a cliff for reasons unknown. This also includes the previously loved left-wing favourite Finland (these people don’t think highly of East Asia, so their success is almost never mentioned or put down to sterotypes) whose wonder-education system is still pretty good but isn’t so wonderous more, and for literacy was in part wonderful because learning to read Finnish is ridiculously easy compared to English.

              • From talking to few parents , for Australia they would list, far too many things on the curricular so not enough time for the basics and lots of parents who seem to believe that , all of the work of education is for schools to do.

                Personally Id point to the almost obsessive cultural focus on higher education, when its truly the first ten or so years of a child’s life that make or break.

            • re ” a war against abstract thought” could even be true. However recognising patterns, connecting apparently unrelated things is the heart of thinking n0?

              Not so sure about “practical” in practice :-)
              For example: playing music or painting pictures is practical, physical and mentally very demanding.
              And Australia these days produces very few engineers , we have to import almost all .

              • conrad says:

                I think recognising patterns is certainly really important. That’s why I always complain about graphical calculators which are good at teaching kids not to do this. I suspect painting is really good in this respect and music is certainly good for memory and learning to concentrate over long periods of time (and of course, enjoyment, so you are willing to practice more).

                • Actually both playing music and painting at heart are not so much about memory as they are about ,a way of moving. It’s indivisible.
                  I taste colour and a few of the musicians I’ve known when the hear they see colour , nothing abstract about it.

  4. ianl says:

    The rise in regulation thus does not fit existing labels.

    Well, those labels that pf chooses. Me, I have watched this spreading stain of increasing regulation and its’ corollary of compulsive bureaucratic hoarding of information about new regulations for decades with a feeling of utter impotence, regarding it as powerlust. It grows in an atmosphere of “Please make me safe”, which no rational argument can breach.

    … the decrease in IQ of the population in the Western world

    Intelligence scares most people. They find it unsettling. It makes them uneasy. I only get into trouble when I use it. So the collectivism of “Please keep me safe” feeds the bureaucracy to control it, corral it, discourage it in the young with dumbed down, stripped out curricula. The most powerful influence on disowning high IQ is the brutal hammer of social media flattening it when it shows its’ independence. Why are Asians now regarded as non-persons of colour ? So, best to hide it and teach one’s children to do that … my wife and I did the exact opposite with our children, who learnt to use their genetic inheritance with discreet skill and have been successful because of that. Hiding in plain sight, I call it, to avoid frightening the horses. But that is becoming much more difficult with the envious stench of enveloping social media.

  5. Aaron Nicholas says:

    Every time an error is made in an organisation that exposes said organisation to lawsuits/political backlash, new rules and redtape are added. This process can only end in ‘death by bureaucracy’, since rules are only ever added and never removed. This is closely related to your last point on worker autonomy.

    I am curious about the thesis of monoculturalism. I am reminded of Ritzer’s idea of “McDonaldization”; however has the world ever been at a point where it was growing less rather than more homogenized? It seems increased communication and reduction in travel costs in general should lead to homogenisation, with little social forces working in the opposite direction throughout mankind’s history.

    • paul frijters says:

      Hi Aaron,

      yes, I think this dynamic of needing to ‘look good to an extremely uninformed and judgmental audience’ is very important in the explanation for the rise of bureaucracy. But there are probably many other drivers out of left-field, such as the lower costs of actually writing and disseminating regulation.

      Yes on the gradual homogenisation too. Its been a long-running thing with reduced travel costs and increased (electronic) communication as big drivers. There too though, one suspects all kinds of left-field drivers, such as increasingly similar university curricula and increasingly similar ways of thinking.

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