Complicated Lives: The Malaise of Modernity

Complicated Lives: The Malaise of Modernity

by Michael Willmott, William Nelson


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Complicated Lives examines the greatest conundrum of the modern world: why, despite being richer, healthier and more empowered than ever before, do we continue to feel threatened, under pressure and stressed? There's no denying that we've never had it so good, yet the stark truth is that levels of happiness are unchanged since the 1950s. Offering strategies and insights for avoiding 'the malaise of modernity' whilst exploiting positive experiences the 21st century has to offer, Michael Willmott and William Nelson take readers on a journey of self-discovery into the realities of life in today's complex, multi-channel world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780470012635
Publisher: Wiley
Publication date: 10/24/2005
Pages: 246
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Michael Willmott is co-founder of the Future Foundation, a consumer think-tank that advises organisations on emerging customer needs. He has 25 years experience as a researcher, analyst and forecaster and is a regular writer, presenter and media commentator on social, economic, political and technological change and its implications for business, government and society. His book Citizen Brands, recently published by John Wiley and Sons, deals with the dynamics of the relationship between companies and society and the implications for branding.

William Nelson is Analysis Manager for nVision, the Future Foundation’s online social and consumer trends and forecasting service. In recent years, he has managed research projects for a number of major clients including a three-year programme of research for retail bank Abbey National on the subject of life’s complications. He is Editor of practioner papers for the Journal of Consumer Behaviour.

Read an Excerpt

Complicated Lives

By Michael Willmott

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-470-01263-3

Chapter One


Go into a hypermarket anywhere across the world and think what it would feel like for someone transported from the 1950s into the present day. The range of goods would seem incredible: exotic fruits, Asian spices, wines from around the globe, compact discs, light bulbs and home appliances like microwave ovens or even televisions. There would be a fantastic, and to our 1950s visitor an unbelievable, array of brands, sub-brands and varieties. There would not be just Coke or Pepsi but diet, caffeine-free, cherry and now vanilla versions of cola too. Then there would be the own-brands. The choice would seem huge, unimaginable and unmanageable.

Even those of us brought up in the modern era sometimes find the choice simply overwhelming. In a personal example, one of us was looking for orange juice in a grocery store in Florida. Of course there was the issue of brand choice, but the real complication came with the different varieties - eight in all for the world's leading fruit juice brand, Tropicana. Some had added calcium, others were 'low acid'; there was one specially for children and another with double vitamins. The process of deciding what was wanted did not take long - but finding it took several minutes.

The same is true across the world. Thus, shops supply many different types of dental floss (14 in one British pharmacy we visited) or brandy (too numerous to count in a Spanish hypermarket) or microwave ovens (22 models in a French hypermarket). In a London electrical store, we found 15 different models of toaster, in a grocery retailer over 40 different variations of coffee (brand/size/type of grind) and too many cooking marinades to count in an American food outlet. One TV crew filming in an English store to illustrate the variety that we highlight in this book was 'overwhelmed' with the fresh milk options. These included a special 'night-time' milk and one that was kind to woodland animals!

And this range of choices permeates our lives. Homes hold a far greater inventory of foods, drinks and personal care products (to match the individual household members' tastes, or health concerns) and of cleaning and washing products (to match different tasks). Our music choices are more varied, with a typical home having many more CDs than our parents would have had LPs and cassettes. There is a much wider range of beers, wines and spirits to be found in bars. And we have more TVs in our homes (with around a hundred times more channels to choose from than twenty years ago) so that different members of the household can watch what they want, not to mention the increased options arising from video tapes, DVDs and video-on-demand. This is just one example of how our lives are more complicated than they were for our friend from the 1950s. But a large number of developments are adding to the complexity of life.

This book is about such complexity and the challenges and opportunities that it presents to us as individuals and as a society. We believe that not only is this a fundamentally new way of considering consumer attitudes and behaviour, but it provides the tools for seeking the solutions that we, as consumers, parents, workers and citizens, need. Our basic thesis is that life is better but it is more complex. If we can all understand this and what it implies for our lives, we can then assess what will help and what will not. We can determine the best choices, how we should prioritise things and the products and services that need to be improved or developed anew.

In this book we show why life is becoming more complex and the stresses and strains it places on people. We explain the factors driving the need for more choice, the problems this creates and the strategies consumers utilise to cope with it. We discuss the types of advice that people need and how technological innovation can help but also exacerbate people's problems. We explain why employment policies will have to become more flexible, and companies and their marketing activity more consumer focused and friendly.


When we say life is more complicated, what do we mean? What are the processes that are driving this change and why do we as individuals and a society accept it?

We have already hinted at one of the reasons - the range of choices available to consumers, even in the more mundane aspects of their daily living. This very much reflects the empowering effect of rising affluence that allows people to indulge in, and embrace, a wider range of wishes. This is the paradox of economic growth; it is an enabler but it is also a complicator.

But it is not just a question of affluence - economic growth sustains a wide range of factors that are making life more complicated.

The rise of the new individualism

First is the rise of what we might call the new individualism. Of course, economics again is an issue here. Most people, being more financially empowered, can exercise greater discretion with their purchases and, even more fundamentally, have less to lose when they buy the wrong thing - making a mistake is less painful. We buy clothes we never wear, food we do not eat and books we have no time to read. Many commentators have noted that there is something about the development of human society that encourages the definition of the self to be more individualised - put bluntly, people are happier doing their own thing. This economic discretion and the growth of individualism mean that consumers require, indeed insist upon, more choice. Not only do we have the means and desire to do our own thing but we also want to do much more; we want to 'have it all'. As individual players in a world where barriers to what you can and cannot do have largely broken down, we expect to be able to be good parents, have a great career and lead fulfilling and exciting lives outside the worlds of family and work. But wanting it all and, more stressfully, expecting it all, obviously have consequences.

The rise of individualism means people want individual solutions and there are three ways that the market can deliver this to us. First, it explains the growth in interest in hand-made products that provide authentic and unique goods. This has always existed, of course, and has always, inevitably, involved a price premium - craftsmen and women expect, and often achieve, a reasonable wage for their labours. But not only has increased affluence allowed more people to 'indulge' in such premium products and in a wider range of markets, but globalisation has allowed a growth in imports of hand-made, authentic but reasonably priced items.

Then there is the development of mass customisation, where although automated in some way, consumers can literally specify exactly how they want a product or service formulated. A classic example is Dell Computers, where a customised computer can be ordered online. Another is Starbucks. Love it or hate it, the success is built in part on consumers being able to choose an almost limitless variety of drinks to suit their particular tastes: from a double decaff espresso to a white chocolate mocha. It is almost impossible to work out exactly how many different coffee beverages one can construct in a Starbucks but we reckon it is over 8000. As a journalist suggested to us, if you tried a different type each day it would take over 20 years to work your way through the Starbucks coffee menu (and that's before you got started on the teas and other drinks they serve). And none of this takes account of the different coffee beans the shops offer - currently 45 according to the company's website.

In a sense, another form of customisation, and the third market response, is increasing sub-branding and varietisation (as with the Tropicana example already mentioned). To some extent, of course, this will depend on the market in question.

All three of these developments are helping to spur the growing, often bewildering, array of choices that people face. We discuss this issue later in this chapter and elsewhere in the book, but here we will restrict ourselves to one comment: it is one explanation of why brands remain an important factor in consumer behaviour. This is particularly so for young, inexperienced consumers who can be daunted by the choice on offer and use brands as a 'choice editor'. (Our research shows that young people are much more positive about brands.) But younger consumers are also more likely to use brands to help position and anchor themselves in the world - almost as a part of their identity.

Thus, an irony of the growth of individualism is that it promotes the need for brands, especially among certain groups in society.

The routeless society - the decline in deference

Alongside, and interplaying with, the new individualism is the declining influence of a range of established institutions. Again, populist views about this are not entirely correct. These talk about the decline in trust in institutions, and while there is some evidence of this, it is not universally true. For example, in a MORI poll in Britain, the proportion of the general public saying (in 2005) that they trust the police, judges and politicians to tell the truth has not changed much since 1983. Indeed, the proportions trusting doctors and teachers have risen. A way to describe our relationships with such institutions and such professions is that we show less deference towards them - their views have less impact on our own life choices. There are fewer 'givens' in life. In the past, people's moral, ethical or social decisions were more likely to be determined by others: the church, the government, elders in the family or the class you came from. Now this is less true. For many people this is a liberating experience (although it is not seen like this for some of those on the right of the political spectrum) but it can bring problems. With fewer 'givens', people have less guidance and fewer 'signposts'. They have to plot their own life strategies; make their own choices. With fewer set courses, life becomes more complicated. As it becomes more complex and as the deference towards traditional institutions wanes, so there is a growing interest (contrary to the claims of many critics) in various guises of community. Some of these are local (note the growth in local and regional identity across the world) and some are built around activities (communities of interest).

But this is a key area where we all need help, and all of us can help. As individuals we can seek advice from friends, family or work colleagues and also provide it too. But the government, the private sector and the media also have roles and responsibility here in providing information and sensible guidelines.

The critical thing for each of us is to ensure we reap the benefits of this liberation by having an open mind as to what we can (and cannot) do, and being relaxed about seeking ideas and advice from a variety of sources.

Human capital and the network society

As the traditional constraints and controls of institutions, classes, religions, communities and families have waned, so the need to manage connections and networks has become more important. Sociologist Manuel Castells describes the defining zeitgeist of the times as the 'network society' - the critical thing nowadays is who you know and who you are connected to; the communities (in the broadest sense) that you are part of or have access to. Jeremy Rifkin, an economist, believes access to networks is becoming more and more important. Work by social scientists at Essex University in Britain also suggests that such networks are of rising significance (see Chapter 3). Again, the outcome here does not chime with popular belief. To take families as one example, it is clear that the potential influence of parents is growing. Although their ability to proscribe what their children might or should do is decreasing, their role in providing access to services and networks is becoming more crucial. The same is true of other institutions - their strength and importance to the individual comes not from predetermining life courses and individual actions but from providing options and life chances through their access to networks of suitably minded people, services and organisations. The importance of networks is, of course, heightened by the new technologies that we consider later. But, and this is the critical point, the very essence of negotiating and managing networks is not only constantly evolving but is, in itself, complicated, requiring a range of social and other skills.

Related to the increasing importance of networks and the skills required to navigate them - what we refer to as 'social capital' - is the growth in what has been called 'cultural capital'. In a service economy, it is access to services, networks and the consumption of culture that is important, argues Rifkin in his book, Age of Access. Echoing the work of influential French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Rifkin maintains that the critical currency of the modern world is cultural capital. This is the knowledge and experience of arts, culture and hobbies that help to define who we are and, critically, differentiate us from others (can you talk authoritatively about opera, wine or even a fashionable TV drama like The West Wing or Desperate Housewives?). Rifkin argues we are moving from an era of industrial to cultural capitalism, where 'cultural production is increasingly becoming the dominant form of economic activity' and 'securing access to the many cultural resources and experiences that nurture one's psychological existence becomes just as important as holding property'. Whether the culture is 'high' (opera?) or 'low' (celebrity watching?), you can differentiate yourself, gain kudos and access to opportunities by having cultural knowledge or experience ('been to the match', 'seen the play'); by having cultural capital. This is important because surely the management of this 'cultural' capital is more complex than that of physical goods. As Rifkin points out, 'They are immaterial and intangible. They are performed not produced. They exist only at the moment they are rendered. They cannot be held, accumulated, or inherited.' In other words they (the components of cultural capital) need to be maintained and nurtured on a regular basis. This is another pressure in modern life that we believe is critically important in understanding the complications people face.

What does this mean for us in our everyday lives? Well, first we are going to seek an ever-wider range of experiences as we work on building our cultural capital. But the implicit barriers to entry for cultural activities (defined in the broad sense we are using here) mean that we will be looking for ways of gaining 'easy entry'. The growth in guidebooks in a variety of guises and of 'How to ...' and 'Introduction to ...' titles is testament to this; as are the various 'make-over', cookery and other 'educational' TV programmes.

As we all realise that networking in both social and work environments is important, we will want not only to hone our skills in communication but also to acquire and use the modern communication technologies that can be such an aid in this.

In the network society, word-of-mouth becomes more important - we listen to, and pass on, information from friends, family and colleagues.

New life courses; new challenges

Together with the economic, social and political changes already outlined are some purely demographic ones that are changing the nature of people's life courses and hence their life choices. People are living longer, retiring earlier, delaying getting married or cohabiting, having children later (and fewer of them) and having a more pronounced period of Bridget Jones style 'singledom' (something that hardly existed at all in the past - people may have been single but they most likely would have lived in the parental home whatever their age). The old progression of living at home, getting married and leaving home, having kids, children leaving home and then retiring has been replaced by a more differentiated and complex set of life stages. Increasing numbers of people: temporarily return to their parents at some point after having left home; cohabitat for a while (often a long while); decide not to have children; experience divorce or separation; have a prolonged 'empty-nest' period after the children have left home (and between the times when they are temporarily back); or delay retirement. All these increase the variety of possible stages in life that people can go through.


Excerpted from Complicated Lives by Michael Willmott Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents



Life could be easier.


Why is life becoming more complex?

Technology and complexity.

The manifestation of increasing complexity.

Complicated times – understanding time and priorities.

Navigating a complex world.


The affluent society.

A more demanding and marketing-literate consumer.

Seeking fulfilment and experiences – the lure of cultural capital.

Self-expression and ‘inconspicuous’ consumption.

Wanting it all.

Age and individualism.

Managing in a world of individuals.


The changing influence of institutions.

The personalisation of authority (and the re-emergence of community?).

Collaborative individualists.

The growing importance of social capital.

Life without a map.


Work and intellectual capital.

Cultural capital.

The three capitals.


From simple to complex life paths.

From simple to complex (but enduring) families.

The vertical family.

The time of their lives.

Anticipating transitions.


Love and hate.

The pace and breadth of change.

Techno-determinism, complication and feature overload.

More, and more complex, communications in the network society.

The blurring of the boundaries between work, home and play.

Looking ahead.


Drowning in choice?

The choice explosion.

How is today’s consumer handling choice?


Educational performance and earnings power.

Women on top?

Housework and shopping.

Gender and finance.

Who pays?

Openness about finances: who controls the truth?

Avoiding polemics.


Professional parenting verges on the paranoid.

Professional parenting.

Paranoid parenting.

The negotiated family.

Forever parents.

Coping with complicated parenting.


The Fear Paradox.

Myths of Social and Environmental Decline.

Why is this happening?

Worrying ourselves to death?


The value of time.

Overworked or not? Trends in paid work.

Unpaid work – the chores of life.

A life of leisure?

The value of time.

In search of happiness.

Don’t discount time.


The happiness problem.

Don’t believe the worst.

Accept that we can’t control everything.

Plan and prioritise.

Try to assess the true value of your time.

Don’t spend too much time choosing.

Trust others.

Use and choose technology selectively.

Training, skills and networking tools.

Final thoughts.



What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Comprehensive, cogent, thought provoking: at once both practical and visionary.  This important book has its finger on the pulse.  Don't overlook it."

Alan Mitchell, author of Right Side Up, and co-author of The New Bottom Line.


"For anyone interested in today's society this is a must read.  A brilliant book which brings empirical understanding to our complex lifestyles."

Alan McWalter - now has a porfolio of business interests having previously been Group Marketing director at Marks & Spencer and a Director of Woolworths and Comet.


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