Everything’s Different! Except When It’s Not
Why change doesn’t happen as quickly as people always think it will
We humans are creatures of habit and the older we get the more difficult it is to change our habits. This basic fact is encapsulated in such folk expressions as “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
Well, some old dogs probably can be taught new tricks but most old humans resist change quite successfully.
We seem hardwired to look back to an imaginary version of the past when everything was magically better than it is today, and the older we become the more backward-looking our notions are. Idiocies like Brexit and Trump were significantly more popular among older and less intelligent people than among younger and cleverer citizens. Those whose already-limited cognitive abilities have declined with age are those most likely to cling to simple-minded nonsense merely because it’s easy for them to grasp. When simplistic soundbites are blended with nostalgia they become irresistible to the less mentally adequate among us.
Yet it’s not only old people living in trailers and shacks and terrace houses who are unable to deal with the pace of change in our modern world. For as long as humans have been recording their thoughts on non-perishable media, they’ve been lamenting the passing of the Golden Age and complaining about feckless youth. It seems that we struggle to “find ourselves” during our teen years and early adulthood and then we settle down into a complacent middle-age followed by years of grumbling about “the young people of today.”
This is why meaningful social change nearly always requires the death of the old. It’s easy to release SmartPhone 17 or the latest EcoCar (Now With Extra Eco!) but it is exceedingly difficult to change attitudes and behaviors. Consider how long it took for smoking to stop being socially acceptable and instead recognized as (i) a vile habit, and (ii) a significant health risk. Despite decades of purposeful lies and obfuscation by the large tobacco companies and their paid-for politicians, it was clear as far back as the late 1950s that smoking caused a wide variety of chronic illnesses. Yet it’s only been in the last two decades that smoking bans coupled to significant tax-induced price-rises have begun to reduce smoking in many Western countries. And even today a lot of people still willingly self-harm to get their transient nicotine fix.
With regard to the prevalent obesity epidemic it’s clear that a similar shift in social norms is a long way off: every year more and more people get more and more fat. As junk food is moderately profitable and large corporations like General Mills, Kraft, Nestle, and so many others depend for their existence on peddling harmful sugar-fat-salt laden products it’s not surprising that they’ve been eager to support lawsuits fighting any attempt to restrict the sale of harmful junk. I have no doubt whatsoever that in years to come we’ll also discover they have been supporting mindless lefty-trendy nonsense about “body shaming” and the idea that being obese is “a valid body choice.” The fact is, we’re probably at least thirty years away from seeing any meaningful change in our attitudes to over-consumption of toxic foods. Until those currently in their 30s and 40s age and die, the attitudes prevalent within this cohort will remain dominant.
Even science suffers from this problem. There is no shortage of evidence to show that older scientists very often strongly resist the ideas of younger scientists. The brilliant Fred Hoyle, whom the Nobel committee shamefully overlooked despite his brilliant exposition of how solar fusion creates carbon, simply couldn’t accept the notion that his beloved static universe was disproved by all the available evidence. He coined the term Big Bang dismissively, intending it to ridicule the idea of an ever-expanding universe that had its beginnings in a tiny energy-dense area of spacetime. And Craig Venter famously had his application for a grant to support genome sequencing denied by a study group of prestigious older scientists — who then never forgave him for publishing the first gene sequences a mere three weeks after they rejected his proposal as completely infeasible.
The physicist Max Plank described this problem in his autobiography and his formulation was later summarized as “science proceeds one funeral at a time.” We can extend this to say in general that “social change proceeds in proportion to the number of older people buried.”
This should temper our enthusiasm for imagining that lasting change will result from the recent fashionable coronapanic and the resulting flurry of desperate measures imposed by hapless politicians seeking to minimize loss of votes. Excitable commentators have been writing and talking about the future being full of people working from home. Now that it’s been shown that people are actually a little more productive when not required to burn time and energy on commuting, surely any sensible employer would embrace this simple change?
Let’s take a look at a few recent statements from those who sit at the top of large and highly influential organizations:
David Solomon, who runs Goldman Sachs (the world’s pre-eminent investment bank) calls working from home an “aberration” and has made it abundantly clear that he wants his minions back in the office at the earliest possible opportunity. Jamie Diamon, head of JP MorganChase, has gone on record as saying that working from home has a negative effect on productivity, despite the vast majority of studies showing the exact opposite. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the heads of large banks being economical with the truth. Still in the finance sector, Jes Staley of Barclays Bank has likewise made it very clear that he wants his serfs (sorry, employees) back in their cubicles as soon as restrictions are eased.
The fact is that across most sectors — the only notable exception being the world of hi-tech where even the CEOs tend to be younger than the average F500 balding paunchy executive — CEOs and MDs and PDGs are all saying very loudly and very clearly that they want their wage slaves back in the office where they can be seen to be performing all the ritual genuflections that their superiors expect. Hardly any French company, for example, has expressed even the vaguest tepid enthusiasm for permitting work-from-home to continue after restrictions have been eased.
So for all the excited chatter about the dawn of a more humane and rational approach to knowledge working, the hard fact is that the people who control organizations — the old, the inflexible, the backward-looking — will not allow it.
Within 12 months of the end of government-imposed restrictions it will for the most part be as though 2020 and 2021 never happened. People will resume their tedious and energy-sapping commutes that unnecessarily pump billions of tons of CO2 into the air, merely because their organizations are run by people who are unable to change their attitudes. These older people spent decades of groveling to superiors, brown-nosing their way up the corporate ladder. They coveted the status of having an office rather than a dreary little cubicle; they played the political game to get a bigger office and a nicer title; they back-stabbed and equivocated and dodged responsibility in order to reach the upper echelons of corporate life where all the less exalted peons have to defer and show respect and provide much-needed ego gratification to compensate for unhappy marriages and estranged children.
Sure, a few tech companies will permit work-from-home. But Facebook and others have already begun to do more than hint that this “flexibility” will be accompanied by lower salaries, on the grounds that if one is working from home then surely one has relocated to a place with more affordable housing. Then there’s the overwhelming probability that those who do come into the office and genuflect to the powerful will get the promotions and pay increases while those who labor remotely will inevitably be left behind.
The media loves stories about people moving out of a high-cost city or urban center to telecommute from a rural idyl. But how many of these optimistic relocators will still be in those idyls three years from now when the cost of such a transplantation becomes painfully apparent?
It’s easy to get starry-eyed about possibilities. But most possibilities never materialize because we’re a simple-minded group primate species with hardwired emotions and behaviors. Being part of a group is fundamental to our existence. Today we can be members of various groups both consecutively (different employers over the course of a career) and simultaneously (one’s department at work, the local theatrical society, a football club supporters’ organization) but we always want to be part of something. And those who’ve spent decades getting near the top of something desperately want the ego gratification that’s supposed to accompany an important-sounding title.
We have always been excellent at rationalizing our folly. We invent the most risible excuses for aberrant behavior and then we absolutely believe these excuses. We ignore all inconvenient data that shows how wildly wrong our beliefs are. In short, we’re basically stupid apes that find it exceedingly difficult to entertain any meaningful social change.
That’s why it requires the demise of the older generation in order for the ideas of the younger members of society to gain prominence. And then those younger people grow older and resist change themselves.
So personally I wouldn’t be moving to a rural idyl in the belief that telecommuting is here to stay. The only thing absolutely certainly here to stay is intractable human nature.