What big idea can sum up a whole host of the trends that are at work in our daily lives?
One way to sum it up is that we are in the midst of the "Great Adjustment." We are in the thick of forming a new culture that is adapting to new technologies and new economic realities, to the "Post-Modern" world.
The notion is easiest to explain with examples.
* We experienced a huge change in how we reproduce in the 1960s and 1970s with the advent of a variety of new contraceptive methods and the legalization of abortion. The sexual revolution followed, but it was followed with a sort of counter-revolution of concern about date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, STDs, teen pregnancy, child sexual abuse and pornography, and human trafficing. A bit later, women who had used these technologies and reacted to these new attitudes by postponing child bearing decided they wanted children and have turned to assisted reproduction technologies to have children late in life. Often this has had the side effect of creating affluent older mothers of young twins or triplets or higher order multiples.
Reliable contraception has also made it possible for the first time in history, pretty much, for men and women to have long term sexual relationships, within or outside marriage, without a realistic possibility of having children together before deciding to have children together (or not).
It has similarly made it possible for the first time in history, pretty much, for women to decide to focus on higher education and careers for long periods of time, even their entire lives, without commiting to sexual abstinance or being lesbians. Likewise, it has become much easier for women to have just one, two or three children and then to stop having more children and become employed full time later in life as the children get older.
Where are we now? We are at the tail end of making a permanent, at least for the indefinite future until something changes, adjustment to these realities by incorporating effective ways of managing them into to basic script of our culture.
Pessimists bemoan the end of traditional culture as we head to hell in a handbasket. They are half right. Traditional culture is dying. But, we aren't heading to hell. Instead, we are heading to a new post-modern cultural synthesis that is going to become the new traditional culture, possible for centuries or even thousands of years to come.
* Since the 1970s, our economy has slowly, but surely shifted from valuing labor to valuing intelligence. The economy has always valued both and still does. But, the economic premium that smart people can obtain relative to equally hard working, decent, not stupid people has surged immensely. The former, who make up perhaps 20% of the workforce, have received perhaps 80% of the last four decades of economic growth. The latter, who make up perhaps 80% of the workforce, have received perhaps 20% of the last four decades of economic growth. The upper middle class has grown more affluent at a rate perhaps sixteen times that of the social class rungs below them over the last forty years.
Social class divisions have hardened. After about a half a century in which servants disappeared from economic life and everyone was expected to deal with their own household needs, the older scheme in which there is a reasonably large class of people who have servants in some form or another has started to re-emerge.
The middle class has shrunk, losing "market share" to both the working class and the upper middle class. We are on the verge of seeing a meaningful and potentially long term redrawing of the social class system.
* For most of human history, the fundamental issue was simply getting enough calories. The first big change came in the Neolithic revolution when modern humans domesticated plants and animals, making possible herding and farming, and not long after that in many cultures, developed lactose tolerance, making it possible for adults to digest cow's milk. Yet, even with herding and farming, annual periods of fasting driven by the food production cycle of the seasons and the limited means of perserving food, were the norm. The developed world standard in which almost no one wants for food in their entire lives and diets have almost no connection to the season is recent indeed.
We have also, for most of human history, needed for more physical activity to sustain daily life.
Following old norms and ill advised changes in those old norms (e.g. the switch from butter to margarine, which substituted saturated fats for equally unhealthy or worse transfats), unhealthy obesity has surged. So, we are in the process of changing the food ways of our culture in a way better adapted to the new realities.
* For roughly a century, we have enjoyed an economy fueled by oil obtained easily and cheaply from oil wells. This has revolutionized transporation, urban design, and a whole host of other aspects of how we organize the global economy. This era is winding down. With it, conserving energy becomes more important, more compact land use becomes more attractive, public transit's desirability relative to private automobiles increases, and alternatives with their own demands on our culture emerge.
Oil use has already almost entirely ceased in electricity generation and has dramatically declined in industrial uses and home heating. Very active efforts are underway to find transportation alternatives and alternatives for agricultural fertilizers and chemicals that are less dependent upon petroleum.
As oil becomes more scarce, organic foods will become more attractive, not because the are healtier or more environmentally friendly than non-organic foods, but because they will become less expensive than non-organic foods because petroleum is a less important factor of production for organic foods than for non-organic ones and petroleum will grow more expensive.
Land use has already seen a period in which the affluent are returning to central cities from the suburbs.
The examples above aren't exhaustive or even particularly well explained. But, they help illustrate what I mean when I say that we are in the midst of the Great Adjustment.
Technology, demographic change, long term shifts in natural resource availability, global warming and more have made and are continuing to make irreversible changes in the enviroment within which people find themselves and in order to adapt better to these changes, our culture is being remade in a manner that is better suited to this new world order.
The name of the game is to determine what the new synthesis the results in the Great Adjustment will look like.