Dr. Jan Meyer: We’re always surrounded by ‘signs of the times’

By : 
Dr. Jan Meyer
The Biker's Diary

A long time ago I read about a woman whose business was identifying trends in our culture. Her company accomplished this by scouring newspapers, magazines, advertisements and many other cultural “artifacts” to find emerging topics and norms. It was very impressive and interesting stuff; unfortunately now I haven’t been able to locate that source.

I have realized that what she was doing was reading the “signs of our times.” Every little thing she identified became a piece of data to be looked at in conjunction with all of the other little things her people observed and read. Accumulate enough of those “little things,” and the trend emerges. Trends most often become the new “informal rules” of our culture.

I was also curious about the origin of that phrase “sign, or signs, of our times.” Evidently it was originally a Biblical reference, in the book of Matthew, referring to the end of the world, and how certain happenings would predict that time was close at hand. It has become a common idiom, usually meaning bad things.

There is now a magazine by that name, and an alternative news source, and even a sign-making company. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the phrase as “something typical of the (bad) way things are now.” These “signs” are indicative of trends.

A cartoon in a Sunday paper a few years ago showed a small group of people sitting on a log in an isolated area. The apparent leader standing in front of those seated was holding a candle to light up the darkness surrounding the site. He said, “This secret meeting of those still not on Facebook shall now come to order.” Communicating via Facebook had moved from a trend to the new norm. A few years later, another article was headlined “Teens less happy than before ‘devices,’” adding that one indicator is the increased rates of suicide and drug addition.

A new term has been added to the vocabulary of workers and bosses. It is called “ghosting.” A recent headline read, “More workers are quitting without telling their boss” (Star Tribune, Oct. 8, 2018). The article pointed out that “phones and the internet have created less of a bond between individuals…. Connections are so easy to cut off, so, why not do it for a job?” It is more prevalent among younger people “whose dependence on texts and chats can make them less experienced with tough conversations. Many deal with uncomfortable situations by just cutting off communication.” Ghosting is showing up elsewhere: no-shows at job interviews, and even no-shows on their first scheduled day on the new job.

Related to that may be the kinds of jobs now available for the next generations. The grandson of a friend lives in the Los Angeles area. When asked what he does, he said he is “a personal social media consultant.” The term “social media” was still a new phrase, and he explained that he advises and guides big name stars on how to manage the impressions they make via various personal devices.

Another sign of changing behavioral norms was an article describing a situation in which a couple was deciding whether to hire a particular workman to do some repairs on their house. He had been highly recommended by someone they trusted. When he arrived for their first meeting to go over the costs, they noticed a political bumper sticker on the man’s car, showing support for the opposite party’s candidate. When they asked friends for advice, the responses ranged from a sensible “you are hiring him for his skills not his political beliefs” to “I wouldn’t let him on my property.” I read (in a non-attributed article) that there are now protestors who ride from site to site on “protest buses” to participate; they get paid double if they can start a riot. And why is it that the newest “exercise” product being advertised in our marketplace is electric bicycles?

Signage is another piece of data that can point to a changing or developing trend. Does the restroom door say “Men” or “Women” or “Unisex?” A few years ago, landing in Osaka, Japan, there was a welcoming sign that had not been there the last time. It said, “In Japan, it is illegal to bring evil social items…” such as guns, bombs and drugs, among other things. That sign had not been necessary in the past.

Trends mean something. They all represent underlying values and attitudes that drive our behavior. The obvious conclusion is that our deeply-held cultural values are changing. That isn’t necessarily comfortable, and it can certainly lead to yearning for the “good old days,” when things were more simple and people actually talked to each other, face to face, in person.

If we think things are “worse” now, we could listen to Harry Styles’ recent song titled “Signs of the Times.” His lyrics say, “This isn’t the first time we’ve been in a hard time, and it’s not going to be the last.” It’s been another deeply-held cultural value of ours that the future is always going to be better. That’s a great one, and important to keep on expecting that.