On tipping points and paradigms

“Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people”.⁠1 

Greta Thunburg

Such were the words spoken before the World Economic Forum in January by a young Gen Z Swede who, in the summer of 2018, started skipping school to stand outside the Swedish parliament with a ‘school strike for climate’ sign, demanding urgent systemic action to tackle climate change.⁠2 A few months later the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that only 12 years remain within which to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C, a tipping point beyond which exponential effects on global ecosystems are expected to have dramatic impacts on society.⁠3 Fast forward to Spring 2019 and what started as a single person sitting outside their national parliament with a placard has become a global movement of staggering proportions: an estimated 1.4 million young people in more than 2,000 cities across 120 countries on every continent. From an individual act of defiance Greta Thunburg has found solidarity across the globe. 

The “school strike for climate” perhaps uniquely illustrates the idea that we are reaching a range of tipping points almost simultaneously: the planet’s ability to absorb human impact that is demanding radical action; the mobilisation and activation of young people that is demanding new ways of engaging and doing politics; a range of social challenges emerging from the capitalist ‘growth at all costs’ mindset that is demanding fairer economic models. Collectively these tipping points are challenging the needs, expectations and support we all seek, in varying degrees, through our relationships and in our communities. What are our individual responsibilities? What is the role of our families and the wider community? When and on which issues do we look to the state for guidance and support? Answers to these questions underpin the notion of a ‘social settlement’, an unwritten “framework for deciding how we live together, what we expect from our Governments and what we want to achieve for ourselves and others”.⁠4 

Things that were once taken for granted as part of our collective social consciousness can no longer be relied upon and are increasingly called into question. The notion that continued economic growth is a given and will lead to successively more prosperous generations is being challenged not only by those highlighting the limits of our planet to sustain that growth but also by predictions that today’s young people are the first generation to be worse off than their parents.⁠5 Millennials and Gen Zs⁠6 will in all likelihood live to 100, undertake portfolio/multiple careers, suffer a range of lifestyle illnesses, struggle to access the housing market, lose jobs to robots, be increasingly lonely, and so on. Existing societal norms are looking out-dated, unfit for purpose. The traditional model of ‘learn – earn – retire’ is being replaced with one which sees learn/earn as parallel tracks and retire as the ambition of only the most affluent. The notion of 9-5 and the need to commute developed as a response to a manufacturing, factory-based world and seems increasingly incongruent with a knowledge economy in which remote working is more likely and you simply don’t clock your brain out of work at 5pm. 

These changing trends and expectations are rendering traditional services – especially public services – obsolete. As Will Stronge summarises, “we continue to use the policies and withering infrastructures of post-war industrialism, whilst the composition of the workforce, the nature of jobs themselves and the productive powers available to us have drastically changed. We need to move toward a new settlement in order to secure out-of-work security and in-work prosperity”.⁠7 Products such as mortgages that were offered on the basis of multipliers of fixed monthly incomes have been slow to change to meet the demands of portfolio careers or those with uncertain incomes. Hospitals that were designed to meet the demands of industrialisation and urbanisation by maximising economies of scale are poorly equipped to drive prevention of obesity or diabetes. The benefits system, designed to support people into a new job should they suffer the ignominy of redundancy, can’t keep pace with the volatility of a changing labour market with variable hours and fluctuating incomes. 

A crucial idea underpinning the creation of the welfare state in post-war Britain was that people could rely help with unemployment, illness, education, housing and retirement, and so on. Yet, if this analysis holds, and we are living through an epistemic shift in which social, economic, political, cultural, tech and environmental trends are overwriting our previously held expectations for a good life, the institutions and mechanisms designed to help us are exposed as no longer fit for purpose. Individually and in aggregation these tipping points are rendering the existing paradigm obsolete. A new set of challenges are emerging that are in need of a new set of responses. The question follows – how do we as a society broker and co-ordinate that response? When can we resolve things ourselves as individuals, when do we rely on others within our community and our networks, and when do we look to the state for support? 

This forms a core theme throughout my work and writing.

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1 https://www.fridaysforfuture.org/greta-speeches#greta_speech_jan22_2019

2 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/11/greta-thunberg-schoolgirl-climate-change-warrior-some-people-can-let-things-go-i-cant

3 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report

4 Nef Social Settlement

5 McKinsey “Poorer than their parents? A new perspective on income inequality” Accessed on 12th March 2019 at https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/employment-and-growth/poorer-than-their-parents-a-new-perspective-on-income-inequality

6 Millennials (or Gen Y) are usually defined as being those born in the 1980s to mid 1990s; Gen Z (sometimes called the iGen) are those born in the late 1990s to around 2010. Interestingly, MTV call this the ‘Founder generation’: “MTV President Sean Atkins says the name acknowledges that while millennials have disrupted society, it’s this new generation’s job to rebuild it. “They have this self-awareness that systems have been broken,” he told TIME ahead of the announcement. “But they can’t be the generation that says we’ll break it even more.”” Retrieved from: http://time.com/4130679/millennials-mtv-generation/

7 https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/work-and-free-time-new-social-settlement/

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