The good news about the deregulation of life

8th Aug, 2014

The deregulation of life – increasing fluidity spurred by, changing social values, economic priorities and legislative changes – combined with consumer technology adoption is helping families cope with the changing world.

The amount of time people spend with digital devices and media is a common source of ammunition for those arguing that family life is in decline – apparently because we spend too much time online. Ofcom’s latest Communications Market Report this week revealed that British adults spend more time with media and communications than they do asleep.

People probably know our thinking around the family – one explored in detail at last week’s breakfast and blog. Rather than the institution being in crisis and decline, it is in fact healthy, robust and remains the critical lynchpin of individual lives and of society. Our own research shows this is true around the world.

And new technology is no threat either. Our research shows that contacts between family members are, when one takes electronic means into account,  increasing – despite reduced levels of propinquity – while time shared in-home in front of audio-visual entertainment is invaluable for many families.

Another indicator is the increased time working parents spend on childcare. Comparing our own 2011 data to the 1960s there has been a seven-fold increase. Part-time mothers and homemakers have seen significant increases too. One of the main reasons for this is changing gender roles (housework is split more evenly between men and women) and the benefits of time saving devices – a great example of technology freeing up time and allowing greater flexibility and more time with family members.

In the same 2011 study we found sixty percent of people’s time is spent in the company of family members, much of that enjoyed (an average rating of 6 out of 7). Areas like these are just some of those we will be exploring further in a new pan-European time-use study.

Another point we’d make is that some social and institutional developments are helping families adapt to change. There is the deregulation of life – as we call it – in terms of longer and more varied shopping hours, the freeing up of eating times and places and the variety of places where we can work (work place, home, 3rd space etc). All these help families cope with and embrace the modern world.

The moral of the story? Perhaps its best that we leave the moralising to others, we would prefer to point to the evidence, and to highlight the invaluable role that time-use analysis can play in understanding contemporary life.

What shines through from our work to date speaks volumes for the positive role of technology in helping individuals and families to cope with the pressures of modern life. Those that are relatively disadvantaged stand to gain the most from access to these technologies –as we saw in our BCS work.

Yes consumer technologies do present new challenges, and yes, individual and institutional behaviour and norms can lag behind technological innovation, but we would argue that the benefits outweigh the negatives – especially for the disadvantaged.

Most importantly, we can’t wish our way back into the fabled golden age – this is the only age we have, and consumer technology is at the heart of it. As such we should strive to maximise the psychological and social benefits for individuals, families and communities – as well as the economic gains.