Inequality and social change, 2022 pontification edition

Someone paid me to talk about social trends for an hour. To get your month’s worth, I recorded my end of the conversation, cut out some of the dumber parts, and then tried out Happy Scribe to transcribe it, which cost a few dollars. The lightly edited text is below.

And you can listen to it on your holiday drive or doing the dishes. Sped up a little (I sound smarter and less boring that way) and with some editing, it’s 30 minutes. Here’s the Soundcloud link:

Here’s the text:

Fast and slow, unequally

I think my two overarching things are one, sort of a disjuncture between fast and slow. A lot of things have slowed down, but things have slowed down very unequally. So you have relatively rich people staying home all day while life goes by at the same speed on their phones, and at their jobs. And I think that just widens the gap in perceptions of how people see and understand the world.

And the second thing is really widening inequality. Inequality is very foundational to what’s happening socially right now. Even if you’re only looking at one person, the inequality affects that person because it affects their social context. So inequality is a property of groups but it affects everybody’s experience. This feeds into all kinds of other polarization that we have, just growing differences in perception and experience, which are increasingly sort of unstable or unpredictable.

In the olden days, when it took six months to get information from between Europe and North America, things that happened six months ago were only happening now. And then instant communication means the whole world is happening at the same time. That’s a very new experience for us. So time is perception of time and place is foundational. We have to get used to the size of what just happened. If we had something like a 40% drop in people moving around last spring – nothing like that has happened in modern times. So even if we get down to just 5% or 10%, that would have been huge on the previous scale. So even if there’s a large reduction in the pandemic effect, we’re still dealing with disruptions on a historic scale, even if things moderate quite a bit. I think we’re still looking at a quite different landscape when it comes to things like how people relate to their work, their physical spaces and other things, also, as far as sense of risk.

A lot of it depends on the pandemic. Some things are already certain — global travel is going to be disrupted. If all you do is go between two countries in Europe for vacation, maybe not so much, but business travel, travel to poor countries, it’s going to be radically disrupted regardless of what happens at this point with the pandemic. So that’s already sort of written in.

Families

Family life. I think you can say some aspects have become more intense. Time together has increased. Some aspects have become less intense. So time together with extended family has been decreased. So I would expect certain things to follow from that, like people prioritizing family oriented leisure. If you couldn’t see your grandparents for the last two years, then your next vacation. Very well, maybe to visit your grandparents instead of going to Euro Disney.

And so that will change people’s priorities. Short term priorities. As far as making up for things they lost, people are getting together to have graduation parties for the graduations they missed. So there’s a big backlog of things weddings, baby showers, things that are celebrations or things that people consider to be milestones or life events that they don’t want to just lose. If you lost a breakfast at your favorite restaurant, you don’t have to make that up. But if you lost your grandmother’s 80th birthday party, that might be something that you do make up. So I think there’s a lot of catch up to be done that we’ll see in social life.

That relates actually to the inequality issue. To some degree, the first evidence we saw the sort of supply chain issues that are beguiling us so much now in the US were actually construction related things like lumber that started right away. And that’s when we realized that people were rich.

People who were staying home were renovating their homes a lot already in the pandemic, which seems sort of counterintuitive, like, normally, that’s something you do during economic good times and so on. But then we saw real estate prices going up. So we see that for people whose incomes were not disrupted, their consumption didn’t decline. And in fact, it may have shifted to be more active in some respects, especially in the home sphere. People investing in improving their homes and furnishings

Take me and my home office. I mean, I painted the wall green — by the time I painted the wall green that means I was thinking about a semipermanent situation in my house. So this used to be the guest room. Now it’s the office.

That’s very minor. But that’s indicative of the sort of the changes that people made that have their own momentum and some of them become permanent.

Fear and uncertainty

So people becoming more home oriented seems somewhat inevitable, but also the fear and uncertainty. It’s very unpredictable what that does. But I think it’s inevitable that we’ll have more. I don’t know if you remember, there was sort of a meme in 2020 that was sort of like, oh, how could this year get any worse? And then the joke was like, 2021 is the same. And I think part of that is just coping with the reality of a baseline shift in risk of catastrophic things.

So now climate change events that are unambiguously attributable to climate change are more frequent just over the last few years. Maybe it’s just our consciousness to some degree, but it certainly is the perception that, oh, this is going to change. Oh, this is the erosion of democracy. This is the fear of global health crisis.

People already talking about things like the next pandemic. I heard today that they’re changing the way the doors work on the buses in our city to allow people to enter from the rear, which was a problem during the pandemic because they wanted people to enter from the rear so that the bus driver wouldn’t have to face everybody and have risk. Well, they said on the news today, it also will be helpful in a future public health crisis to make this change. Well, we never cared that much about preparing for public health crisis before, so now we do.

Polarization and culture wars

I think what both the mask and the vaccine things show us — which are both such ridiculous issues to have culture wars over — I think what it shows us is that we’ll do it over anything. So even if we don’t continue to have politically polarized, culturally divisive conflicts over masks and vaccines, we’ll find the next topic.

That’s a reality that we have to anticipate beyond the pandemic. I think barring an extreme evolutionary development by the virus itself, we’re not going back to this sort of mass death event of the early pandemic. But again, if we realize how much our baseline has shifted, even if we’re making 5% to 10% adjustments, it’s still huge. And I think the people’s sense of what they would call ontological security, like the sense that I know how the world works, is disrupted.

And I think the polarization and cultural war stuff that we see is partly reaction to that. It always was partly reaction to social change. It always was, oh, some people saying, Why do you have to change the society so much? Why do we need the Internet? Why do we need affirmative action? Why do we need immigration? Why can’t we just have the world the way it used to be? So to the extent that social change is accelerated, then the culture war stuff inevitably will be, too.

And I can also add this is geopolitical, which is really not my area. But some of this is stoked by conflict between countries. So like the Russian intervention and the US political system — there are just opportunities for people to make mischief deliberately. Once we have exposed this vulnerability, once we expose that we’re prone to turn anything into a culture war, then it’s easy for anybody to take advantage of that, whether it’s companies with simple commercial objectives or countries with massive geopolitical ambitions.

One of the irrationalities about people react how people react to the virus is that they tend to be more afraid they’ll catch the virus from people who are not like them. So people don’t wear masks around their neighborhood, although they might when they leave the neighborhood. I think that perception is just sort of other people are more scary.

Diversity and social change

The race and ethnic equity and diversity issues become wrapped up in whatever else is going on. The fact that the Black Lives Matter protests were so enhanced during the Pandemic year was not an accident because it was a sense of things being a dramatic change and uncertainty, and people not liking the people have had enough.

So I think that continues. I do think there are generational changes in that which we haven’t yet grappled with. You can see this a little bit with how different young people’s attitudes are about gender and gender identity to older people, how fast something so fundamental shifted that a large portion of young people have a very different attitude toward gender identity than five years ago.

Generational change is very important. And if we think about how this has changed during the pandemic times, I think it had to do with how old you were when the pandemic came. And so how you were affected. Kids who were in school and had to switch school at home will be permanently affected. We don’t know exactly how much, but the impacts on academic achievement have been pretty dramatic in the US and very unequal. So low income and minority kids lost more reading and math and science development than richer kids. And that’s in an amount that would have shocked us before. And you can get some of that back. But you can’t get that all back.

I think if you look at the mental health data on young people, just a phenomenal crisis in terms of depression and anxiety, suicidal ideation. Young people’s mental health is in trouble. I see it in my students, and we see it in the data. And so that stays with them to some degree that experience stays with them forever. But in terms of cultural shifts, like the kind of things people think about with generational change, or are they more progressive? Are they more open minded?

Are they becoming more entitled, more spoiled and all those issues? I think a lot of that is really just age related, not generational. It’s old people thinking, kids these days. But there are some things that change.

The baby boom generation, especially in the US, was a generation that experienced change more than over the course of their lives more than other people. So if you were born in the you were born into that stereotypical 1950s family, those people are the people who destroyed that in their own lives. So just in the course of one generation, they were born in the 1950s family, and then they created the 80s family.

They’re getting older. So they get more conservative in some sense. But they’ve changed the way we do old age things that old people do now that the baby who brought us include divorce, include coming out as transgender, being more willing to adopt other kinds of family forms, like cohabitation, like living apart together, the whole attitude towards sex at older age. Those things came from that generation. And those things are young people can look forward to moving into that kind of old age. It’s harder to see what today’s young people are going to bring into older ages.

Demographic change

So what I said before about giant change, slipping back into just very large change, I think maybe what we see. So the overall birth rate decline in the US in 2020 was about 4%, which is the biggest one year change in 50 years. So that was crisis response.

But we’re still seeing lower birth rates. We already were seeing lower birth rates. So it’s a question of how the pandemic merged with existing trends. And here I’ll go back to the slow thing. Demographic things all slowed down except death, birth slowed down, marriage, divorce even slowed down and migration, at least immigration migration within countries.

Even if those things head back towards normal, the shifts that we saw were pretty big. If you look sort of between November and February, that four-month period birth rates were probably down in the US more like 10%. So half a year of a 10% decline is a very big ripple, no matter what.

And you can’t get that back. That’s the way birth rates work is even if you can’t have more babies born last year, no matter what you do. Even if birth rates come back. And I think probably what we’re going to see with birth rates is a combination of some births that we make a distinction between quantum and tempo, between births that are permanently lost and birds that are delayed. And there’s a relationship between them. If all young people together decide not to have a baby this year, and then they all decide that they will do it next year, some of them won’t.

So there’s a relationship between delay and total and total decline that we’ll definitely see. So birth rates are going to be down. And so that means population growth so slow. That means populations will continue to age. And even if it’s a short term effect, it’s contributing to the longer term trend in that direction in all developed societies, for sure.

When we look at the other demographic things like marriage and divorce, it’s the kind of thing where you could see a rebound that makes up for those things. I think when housing prices go down, it’s harder to divorce because you have to sell your house to divorce. On the other hand, high house prices give certain people opportunities. Okay, so if there’s, like, a roaring 20s reaction and we’re all thrilled and excited when this is all over, you could see a rebound of certain things like marriage. But so far, there’s no sign of that. We had a huge decline in 2020, and it’s come back a little bit, but it has nothing to make up. So we lost a lot of marriages, maybe forever.

And then when it comes to migration, in terms of the wealthy societies, immigration was the only hedge against population decline. And if the culture turns more against immigration, either because of racism and nativism or because the pandemic prohibits travel and stuff, then that means that our ability to respond to population decline is reduced.

So population decline seems pretty inevitable in the rich countries being accelerated by these events.

Policy and economics

Well, I do think there’s a possibility on health, a good possibility that this whole thing in the US pushes us more in the direction of paying attention to public health and maybe even access to health. I was really intrigued that everybody assumed that COVID related testing and vaccination, of course, would be free. There’s no reason that COVID stuff should be free, but cancer treatment is not. It’s just that it happened so fast and we had to deal with it. It’s sort of like we learned how important healthcare is.

So, of course, Americans, no offense, are terrible at learning lessons, but it’s possible some people there’s possibly positive direction, positive change in some of that area. We’ll understand the public responsibility for things like healthcare. I am afraid that for personal relationships and romantic relationships and families, it’s mostly damage. So even if there’s sort of silver linings and people come to appreciate the good things in life and so on, those are all rebound effects from trauma and so they don’t overcome the bad things. I don’t see that happening anyway.

So if you think about the vulnerability and fear and heartache and all those things, I don’t know, I guess I think people will overreact will overreact to things in positive and negatively. So if you’re trying to predict people’s behavior, it probably gets harder and riskier. Well for white collar and middle class people. Certainly a shift. The working at home is not going away.

And it’s very class skewed. It’s not only related to income and status, but it’s highly correlated and it’s not changing. I mean, it’s not going all the way back.

So that’s very big. When we talk about the great resignation and people quitting their jobs again. Remember the scale, if we have a 10% increase in unemployment for a few months, that’s extreme. And we shouldn’t expect that to ever happen again. So if a few million people quit their jobs in anger, that might be a one-time thing. But if quitting your job in anger becomes even 5% more likely in the coming years, that’s very noticeable from a business perspective. And so I think some of that continues inevitably. So I think it fits into the pattern of diversity where we will see some people happy, attached, risk averse stay in their jobs. And some people fed up disgruntled, unable to accept frustration, will quit their jobs. And if the baseline is nobody quit their job and you can’t quit your job less than zero amount.

So if the experience diverges, it shows up as a rising average, because even if some people love their jobs more, they can’t quit their jobs less than zero. So inevitably we have more people quitting their jobs, even if what’s driving that is just a greater unpredictability to work. So if you’re expecting your employees to stick around, you’re going to have more of them quitting anyway. Yes, definitely more people quitting with technology and Zoom and all that. And like this, more work being outsourced and including geographically. So that is going to include international call centers and all that stuff that was already happening. People reading your chest X ray in India and all that is only going to happen more and more.

One thing I did want to mention is that global travel being reduced changes people’s perspective on things, even if not everybody travels globally between countries, those that do have a disproportionate impact, even if it’s only middle class or rich people who travel to other countries for vacations.

Those people have more impact on the culture than poor people. And so the loss of that and the fact that the pandemic is diverging between rich and poor countries means that travel is not coming back the way it was, and that’s bad for our attitudes, our open mindedness, our cultural integration, like all those things, are undermined by the loss of global travel, which I think we’re going to have for quite a while.

Youth power

If you look at in the US when we had was that rash of school shootings and that generation very short generation, a few years of young people who are super into gun control and were great activists and brilliant spokespeople or like Greta Thornberg with the climate change.

These things maybe are ephemeral, like they come and go. But on the other hand, I would expect young people’s progressive, not everybody, but like a large portion of young people doing progressive things dramatically. I think that will only continue. And that’s great, mostly that’s for the good, even if it increases kind of generational conflict, generational conflict, probably in the long run, is a positive thing. Young people are usually more right than old people.

So climate change inevitably will be a huge part of that. But I don’t know what they’ll do next, whether it’s gender, race, climate change or whatever. But I think don’t expect that permanent presence of a surprising group of young people suddenly showing up and doing something dramatic. So I expect that to keep happening unpredictably. And I think that’s definitely good.

Socialism

I think part of what happens as the Cold War fades is that the label doesn’t mean anything doesn’t have carries no negative connotation with young people anymore.

There’s no socialist country or society that is creating a negative example right now. Nobody really believes that China is Communist or whatever that doesn’t register with people who want more redistributive policies. So they don’t think, oh, no, we’ll become China if we raise taxes on Mark Zuckerberg. So to young people, that’s nonsensical to old people that still carries weight. But yes, and go back to the question of scale.

We spent a few trillion dollars on infrastructure. I think the idea of raising taxes 10% on rich people and redistributing that wealth will seem very, not shocking to young people. And so I do think that continues. And whether or not that actually becomes policy. I don’t know.

But I do think that the baseline has shifted on what’s an acceptable amount of economic disruption because doing things on a very large scale is not surprising. We just sent every kid home for over a year. So they’re not going to be shocked at the idea of a 10% tax increase on rich people, which would be totally revolutionized to welfare state in the US.

But in terms of stimulus and infrastructure, they’re pretty big. If they get the second one passed, then that could become baked in as new normal, a higher degree of infrastructure spending which us desperately needs. People do not realize. Americans have been very slow to realize how badly our infrastructure was failing. And I think Biden was very smart. And the Democrats were very smart to package all this other social stuff as infrastructure like elder care and prescription drugs and all that stuff.

Even if that doesn’t radically change people’s ideology in some ways, even if they just successfully spend that money, it will have a large effect. So that does mean things like Internet and airports and things like that could be improved, which are positive, even if they don’t, even if they’re not exciting on social media. I do think those things are pretty big. It’s not gone. It turns out the people who said Trump was just a symptom of a larger problem were right.

Trumpism

And so even if Trump died today, I don’t think it’s not going away. And what it means in politics is virulent racist nationalism is probably increasing. It means respect for democratic norms is less stable or secure than in the past.

And that also increases. And it means in terms of my kind of work, like social science and science in general, it means the science denialism, the undermining of the scholarship fascism like to tell us the authoritarians want to undermine truth itself. They don’t want us to be able to have a discourse that has any rational basis. And I think that continues when you look at the politicians. One thing the Democrats still haven’t learned is that explaining to the public that the Republicans are hypocrites doesn’t hurt them. They don’t care, the public doesn’t care, and the politicians don’t care. So that just increases. And in Europe, the far right nationalism has the added feature of being related to conflict between countries, especially Russia. And so it just continues to be stoked. So I think that’s bad.

And it continues. And in terms of democratic values such as they are, I think it’s quite bad.

Technology

I think a lot of the way technology gets into our heads is usually unconscious. And so one of the reasons why people are so angry at Silicon Valley and social media companies and things is because they always seem to know where we’re going before we get there. And it’s partly because they build us the ramp to get to the next place we’re going. So when Facebook introduced the Like button, nobody realized that that was going to change the way the Internet works for everybody.

So things like that keep happening. I don’t put much stock in the Mark Zuckerberg Metaverse at the moment, but on the other hand, I do think the people who will determine that are not us.

So the way we cope with these changes is by using technological tools. On the other hand, we’re stuck using the tools they give us. And I think that’s sort of true if you look at the smart technologies, the Internet of things, the things that connect everything to each other. I think people don’t realize how much of that capacity is becoming already part of our regular lives.

So even if it’s just your watch knows what your phone knows what your computer knows, what your thermostat knows what your car is doing, those things. It’s unpredictable, like we don’t realize we need those things, but we’re going to get used to them more and more. And the way that they make people want those things is by sort of the quantification of self. So like your watch tells you your calories and your steps that you’re breathing and your heart rate and also your consumer confidence and your insurability that stimulates people’s competitive thinking and their sense of responsibility sort of what they would call neoliberalism: if you fail, it’s your fault. The more people believe that, the more they want stuff like a daily score.

I think if the people trying to sell this technology are going to have figured this out, that you do it in the sense of giving people the illusion of control and self improvement and all that, that’s what people think they want. So you want your car to tell you that you haven’t taken enough steps today and they don’t realize that that involved that technologically.

What that means is that everything has to communicate with everything else. So they’ll tell us what we need and then we’ll demand it.

The bottom line

I still think it’s inequality. I mean, we were already upset about inequality, the people who were concerned. But even if you’re not upset about inequality, what it does is it widens the gap in perception and experience.

We’ve said before, if inequality increases crime and crime increases fear, then inequality is bad for rich people, too. It makes them afraid and anxious. And that’s maybe metaphorical. But I think it’s really true. So the divergence in perception is just large.

And I think you see it in sort of what Andy Slav at the public health expert, called in his book, the room service lockdown. Some people were locked down and some people were delivering them things. And I think Bob Dylan said in the whole world, like some of us are prisoners and some of us are guards.

It’s polarization in the literal sense of just extreme differences in experience. And so that undermines all kinds of social things. But I also think it just becomes a source of stress. And I think it contributes to the mental health problems. Honestly, if you interact with people that have a very different perception of life than you, it’s just harder to relate to them. And people are social, and they need to relate to each other. And so the widening gulf in experience between different groups just makes social life more tense and more difficult. And so I’m sorry to have my main social trend to be so negative. But I do think it is mostly negative. And that’s then to the extent that good things happen, it’s in response to that.

I’m optimistic about young people, that’s always the potential. But I do think that the underlying thing that we’re reacting to is the shift. Inequality, not just economic but in difference in experience and perception.

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