The Death of Routine

I have been playing around with some ideas for a book for a while. It’s based on the concept that we can understand much of what is happening in our changing world in terms of the effects of what I am calling three “action ideas” that gained momentum in the Sixties. The thesis is that these “action ideas” are still working their way through the system and contributing to “the death of routine” and the sense of unease that many people feel now. I should point out that what I am talking about here is the erosion of the shared routines that characterised much of the early post-war period, not the individual “got up, had a cup of coffee,..” routines that make up much of our lives. Anyway what follows is a draft of the Introduction. I would be interested know what you think.

The Death of Routine: Living in a World of Surprises
These are exciting times. Unsettling times. Disturbing times. A point in our history where it seems hard to understand what is going on. We have moved in to a world of surprises where some times the old rules seem to work and some times they don’t. What does seem clear is that the world of shared routines that many of us grew up in and we teach our children still exists has gone to be replaced by a world where, for much of the time, we have to make things up as we go along.
This book is an attempt to map out some of the emerging spaces for action – the places we can make our lives – that are developing in this new world of surprises. There will, of course, be spaces I miss and some of the spaces I do discuss may simply fade away or remain a minority occupation. What I do hope I can provide is a conceptual framework that helps makes some sense of what is going on. A framework that you can use to navigate your way through the exciting possibilities that seem to be opening up and avoid some of the perils that accompany them.
So what’s changed? Why do we need to develop new ways of thinking about our world?
Some of the symptoms are obvious. From all sides we have been bombarded by messages that we have to modernise, change, become more entrepreneurial, more innovative, brand ourselves, become more flexible, more agile, learn new skills and all to accommodate the inexorable demands of an unforgiving marketplace, globalisation and the digital revolution.
And we have translated these messages to mean that we have to work harder, work faster, work longer and that even then we may lose our jobs, livelihood or secure retirement. In short, many of us have a sense of unease about how our society now seems to work and do not believe that it has to be this way.
The unease turns to anxiety when we look around and there appears to be no alternative on offer. The reality, in Stewart Brand’s chilling words, seems to be, “If you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road”.
The question is what is the steamroller? Well one answer is the inexorable demands of an unforgiving marketplace, globalisation and the digital revolution. But how far does that get us?
As John Brunner, that visionary writer, who has mysteriously disappeared from the science fiction shelves, once wrote: “It is one thing to talk glibly about the determinism of history but quite another thing altogether to find oneself caught up in historical forces like dead leaf on the gale.” For many of us the image of the dead leaf being blown hither and thither by social, cultural, political, technological and economic forces we don’t understand and barely recognise, may have a powerful resonance.
But Brunner has also given us another, more optimistic image: the Shockwave Rider, surfing the waves of change, exhilarated by the ride. It is this image, I hope, that will have a still greater resonance. For it is the very turmoil we see around us, that is the grounds for my optimism. Amidst the destruction and disruption of the patterns of our daily lives, new possibilities are being created, if only we can sense them. A new landscape of human being is waiting for us to nudge into existence, if we so choose.
But first we have to go back and look at the world we have lost – the world of routines, a world that Jock Young, the criminologist, calls the inclusive society and Eric Hobsbawm, the historian, called the Golden Age. Jock Young describes this period in the following terms:
“The Golden Age of post-war Europe and North America was a world of full employment and steadily rising affluence, it witnessed the gradual incorporation of the working class into, at least the trappings, of full citizenship, the entry of women more fully into public life and the labour market, the attempt in the United States to create political equality for African Americans. It was an era of inclusion, of affluence and of conformity.”
He goes on to detail the characteristics of this time:
“…mass standardized production, near total male employment, a considerable manufacturing sector, massive hierarchical bureaucracies, a sizeable primary labour market of secure jobs and standardized career prospects, clearly demarcated jobs, corporatist government policies and mass consumption of fairly uniform products. The world of work is paralleled by the sphere of leisure and the family; underwritten by the division of labour between the sexes; the family becomes the site of consumption, the celebration of an affluent lifestyle, the essential demand side of Keynsianism, and presents an ever-expanding array of standardized consumer goods by which to measure individual success and to mark out the steady economic progress of an expanding economy.”
This was a time, for those living in this world of routines, when people could feel secure about the future. As Richard Sennett describes, writing about a janitor, Enrico, he had interviewed some years before:
“What had struck me about Enrico and his generation was how linear time was in their lives: year after year of working in jobs which seldom varied from day to day. And along that line of time, achievement was cumulative: Enrico and Flavia checked the increase in their savings every week, measured their domesticity by the various improvements and additions they had made to their ranch house. Finally, the time they lived was predictable. The upheavals of the Great Depression and World War II had faded, unions protected their jobs; although he was only forty when I first met him, Enrico knew precisely when he would retire and how much money he would have.”
It was this element of predictability that permeated every aspect of life. People like Enrico would not only be able to predict what their pension would be, but what they would have to eat on any day, when the weekly washing would be done, when the shops would be open and when they would be closed, the times they would eat or take a break, what they would watch on TV or listen to on the radio, what times they would go to work and what time they would finish, even when they would have sex – a time, in fact, of few decisions, because most decisions were pre-determined by sets of collective routines.
The challenge that faces many of us now of making a life in conditions of uncertainty did not really exist in that Golden Age, except perhaps on the Bohemian fringe. Then it was more a question of fitting in to existing slots. In many cases the choice was virtually pre-determined. If you came from a family of doctors, you would probably become a doctor. If you came from a family of miners, you would become a miner. If you were a woman, you would become a housewife. Of course it was more complicated than that in practice, but that was the prevailing idea.
Fitting in to a slot meant more than just taking up a particular occupation, it also meant adopting a particular way of life, which in most cases was a similar to those of your parents. Now like most generalisations of this kind this does violence to the diversity of real lived life. Often digging below the surface you would find that people were more quirky and more complex than their apparent conformity to social conventions would suggest. Nevertheless, the surface appearance was important and many people, particularly the young, found the ways they were expected to live stifling and constrained.
Now it is quite likely that there are still people living very similar lives to Enrico and Flavia. It is still more likely that there are many more who would like the opportunity to enjoy lives with a similar sense of security. What is questionable is how many people, particularly the young, would wish to return to a life so dominated by shared routines.
There are many reasons why the world of the Golden Age began to be eroded in the mid Seventies, including the possibility that such a model of society was simply not economically sustainable. But an important component in its breakdown was the cultural revolution that ran between some point in the mid-Sixties to somewhere half way through the Seventies. Much of the impetus for that movement was a sense among those born after World War II that the comforts of a society that had been welcomed by their parents who had lived through the upheavals of depressions and war had become so ordered and conformist it left them no room to breath.
A minority, but an important and influential minority of this generation, the Baby Boomers, became receptive to ideas that challenged the consensus of the time. This people among this minority sometimes characterised themselves as the Alternative Society or the underground. As Germaine Greer wrote in OZ magazine in 1969, “The political character of the underground is still amorphous, because it is principally a clamour for freedom to move, to test alternative forms of existence to find if they were practicable, and if they were more gratifying, more creative, more positive, than mere endurance under the system”.
Germaine Greer characterised the politics of the underground as being amorphous. That word is important because the rethinking that was going on was more complex and diverse than it is now often remember. What is often forgotten is the ideas that underpinned Thatcher and Regan’s revolution were just as much a product of the Sixties as those ideas that seem to oppose them.
What I will be arguing throughout this book is that much of what is happening to us now, how we got here and how things will develop over the next two or three decades can be understood in terms of three powerful “action ideas” that achieved momentum in that period of radical rethinking. I call them “action ideas” because they are ideas that people put into practice, not simply something they think about. The three “action ideas” are:
Self-Created Identity – the idea that individuals and groups can grasp the freedom to define and to create their own identity and way of life.
Market Romance – the idea that markets are the most effective way to organise human affairs, leading to widespread liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation
Digital Everything – the idea that any activity or process can be described in terms of binary numbers and simulated in a computer system.
When we look around and see what has changed from that world of shared routines to the more complex world we seem to be now creating we can usually find at least one of these action ideas at work. I am not saying that these ideas are the sole cause of what we see going on, the world is a more complex place than that, but what I am saying is that pragmatically they provide a useful tool for understanding and taking appropriate action to deal with the changing human landscape.
Thinking about these kinds of changes I find it useful to look at all human ways of being and organising ourselves as experiments. Some them are long-lived and last for generations. Others turn out to have no staying power and are soon forgotten. In the following chapters I will be looking at a range of different kinds of experiments that are going on now and how the action ideas I have identified relate to them. Some of them are huge global experiments like the enormous over capacity we have created for generating goods and services for current markets or the vast, complex web for moving almost unimaginable quantities of cash around the globe in nanoseconds in the search for financial profits.
Others experiments are less developed but may prove significant to our future like the new kinds of multi-national corporations that are emerging in places like Mexico or Taiwan, the transformation of some of our most traditional industries into knowledge driven hi-tech enterprises or the slow discovery of enormous new markets that may radically shift how we thing about business.
But, perhaps the experiments that have the most immediate impact on our everyday lives are those that happen at an individual level. It is here that I see the greatest amount of rethinking and much of this centres on the issue of livelihood. For more and more of us how we make a living is becoming a major concern. For some it is a simple question of how to continue provide an income to maintain an existing way of life? For others it is a wider, more interesting question; how to make a more fulfilling life?
The phrase “making a living” generally means making enough money to support a certain style of life. But, if you reframe it to mean a means of creating the material conditions to support a form of life it becomes a much wider, more complex concept involving more than a source of cash income.
For most people on our planet the questions of how to make a more fulfilling life and how to create the material conditions to support it are, in practical terms, meaningless. The issue is how to get by from day to day. A condition, which James Scott, the anthropologist, describes in a vivid metaphor as being like “constantly standing (with one’s family!) up to one’s chin in water, which can, at any moment, move up.”
But even in the slums of Nairobi or the barrios of Rio de Janeiro or the remote village of the Indian sub-continent there are individuals who manage to transcend the contingencies of every day life to imagine something different and improvise their way into new spaces that offer more possibilities for action and fulfilment.
For the more affluent, like most readers of this book the dilemmas may seem different. Getting by may mean the difference between replacing your car this year or next. But equally here too there are growing numbers of people who question what seems to be on offer. As Shoshana Zuboff puts it, “For millions of people today, life is no longer foretold, but rather is an open canvas waiting to be painted by individual choice.” She later goes on to say, “No longer born to a biography, their identities must be invented as they go – cobbled together from personal initiative and private judgement.
What I want to do in the rest of this book is to explore some of the spaces that are being created by the death of routine and some of the elements from which we can cobble together the material conditions to make a more fulfilling life within them. It is as Zuboff says an open canvas, but it is also important to remember that it is not a blank canvas. As Theodore Zeldin has argued, “Nothing influences our ability to cope with the difficulty of existence so much as the context in which we view them; the more contexts we can choose between, the less do the difficulties appear to be inevitable and insurmountable. The fact that the world has become fuller than ever of complexity of every kind may suggest at first that it is harder to find a way out of our dilemmas, but in reality the more complexities, the more crevices there through which we can crawl.”
This book is, if you like, a search for those some of those crevices and I hope provides some tools and ideas that will help you find your own. But before we go there, we must first look more closely at the three action ideas that I maintain will help us understand more of what is going on and which shape the open canvas on which we can improvise our lives. It is to those action ideas of Self Created Identity, Market Romance and Digital Everything the next chapter will turn.