Les Binet and Sarah Carter get a little bit angry about some of the nonsense they hear around them… like nostalgia for a past that never was.
Marketing and advertising people can talk a great deal of nonsense at the best of times. But if you want to hear them at their worst, then ask them to talk about social trends. The average social trends presentation is, we've found, a heady mix of the obvious, the irrelevant and the blatantly false.
Recently we found ourselves listening to a conference speech about our 'changing lifestyles'. Life today is faster than ever, the speaker pronounced. We work longer hours. We have less and less free time. Families are fragmenting and food is eaten on the run…
We've been listening to this stuff for more than 25 years. And it's no more true now that it was then. The inconvenient, less headline-worthy truth is that people have more free time than they used to. Economic cycles wax and wane, but the long-term trend in all developed economies is toward shorter, more flexible working hours, with longer holidays. People start work later in life, and spend much longer in retirement. Work takes up a much smaller percentage of our life than it used to.
Related myths about pressures on family time are equally false. Contrary to popular belief, in developed economies, parents are spending more time with their children these days, not less. Research shows the amount of time families spend eating together has stayed remarkably constant over the years. As has the amount of time they spend together watching TV.
The idea that the pace of life is spiralling out of control is far from new. Alvin Toffler used it as the basis of his 1970 bestseller Future Shock. Nineteenth-century writers like Engels bemoaned the death of traditional family life. And even Socrates complained about the shocking manners of the youth of his day. No matter what age we live in, it seems, the past was always a slower, gentler time.
So why do we cling to this distorted view of the past? Why does life feel like it's always getting faster?
Part of the answer probably lies in the way we experience and remember our own lives. As we progress through our careers, most of us do get busier. We become more productive. We work faster. We take on more responsibilities, at work and at home. Our own pace of life does get faster. But that doesn't mean that life in general is getting faster. It's we who are changing. Not society.
This effect is compounded by the flawed nature of memory. The hazy way we remember the past makes it seem less busy, and the tendency to remember positive experiences more than negative ones gives it a rosy-tinted glow.
This personal tendency toward nostalgia is further fuelled by the media. News stories about society focus on change, and negative stories sell more papers than positive ones. Read the Daily Mail for long enough, and you too will be convinced the world is going to the dogs.
But perhaps the most intriguing explanation for this kind of nostalgia is that it reflects our concerns and desires. We feel harried and stressed, not because we have less free time, but because we feel, or are told, it's important to get the most out that time, and because increasing affluence has given us so many more options. We fret about spending 'quality time' with our loved ones, not because we do it less, but because we prize it more, now that more basic needs are largely fulfilled. For anyone who wants to understand human behaviour, this is interesting stuff.
So the next time some social commentator harks back to a golden age when life was slower, simpler and happier, with no evidence to support their view, remember this tells you far more about our society's values than our behaviour.