If you have children or grandchildren, chances are you can't help but notice what a different world they're growing up in compared to when you were their age.
If you tell them what life was like when you were young, they may be astonished at how different things were "back then." I know when I tell my 14- and 16-year-old sons stories from when I was their age, they have a hard time grasping the concepts of typing term papers on a typewriter, writing out letters by hand, only having four television stations to watch, and having to go to the library to get information for a school project.
Of course, we've come to expect that lifestyles are going to change somewhat from one generation to the next. Amazingly, though, my kids have also remarked on how much the world has changed just since they were born. Though they're only in their mid teens, they can remember a time when people didn't carry cell phones and PDAs with them wherever they went, and when there were no such things as iPods, Wi-Fi Internet, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
They'll often note how our "slow" computer we get frustrated with today was considered a "fast" machine just a few years ago. They can also think back to a time when we didn't have to wait in long security lines at the airport, and terrorism seemed like something that only happened in far-flung lands.
Change now exploding exponentially
It all underscores a vital point: While our world has always experienced change, the rate of change is speeding up. Many historians, sociologists and journalists have expressed concern in recent years about the rapid change in our society. They tell us that today's world is changing at an accelerated rate, unlike anything past generations witnessed.
In his 2004 bestseller Margin, physician and futurist Richard Swenson explains that change picked up momentum in the early part of the 20th century and has been rapidly accelerating ever since. The reason, he states, is that "the mathematics are different. Many of the linear lines that in the past described our lives well have now disappeared. Replacing them are lines that slope upward exponentially.
"Because there is little in our day-to-day lives that changes exponentially, we tend to think with a linear mindset. The sun rises and the sun sets. Twenty-four hours. Week after week, everything seems about the same. Meanwhile, largely unnoticed by us, history has shifted to fast forward. If linear still best describes our personal lives, exponential now best describes most of historical change" (p. 40).
In other words, as time progresses the world is changing at an exponentially increasing rate. Yet a century ago, historical change was linear (maintaining the same pace) and thus was much less noticeable.
This period of accelerating change we're now witnessing can and has put a strain on individuals and entire societies. In 1970, futurist Alvin Toffler described the effects of "too much change in too short a period of time" in his contemporary classic Future Shock.
At the time, he predicted that people exposed to these rapid changes of modern life would suffer from "shattering stress and disorientation." They would be, in his words, "future-shocked." He maintained that the need to constantly adapt to changing situations could lead to feelings of helplessness, despair, depression, uncertainty, insecurity, anxiety and burnout.
Four decades later, what Toffler wrote describes our world more than ever. Future shock is here!
More change than we can handle
"The fear of rapid change is big today," observes Gabe Ignatow, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of North Texas. "Many people see the changes going on in the world around us and are worried and anxious. If they also have changes going on in their personal lives—maybe they lost their job or had to find a new place to live because their home was foreclosed—it can all be overwhelming."
Most people can handle a certain amount of change, Ignatow says. The problem is, we are increasingly being overloaded with more change than we can handle.
Susan Silbey, Ph.D., is a sociologist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a special interest in technology and societal change. She also sees the intensifying problems of uncertainty and anxiety resulting from too much change.
She notes that mankind has always faced uncertainty, along with pain, hardship and tragedy. A few centuries ago, the uncertainty might have been: What's it like in the new frontier where we're headed to? Will this season produce a good crop? When will it rain again?
A big difference between previous times and today, she says, is that in the past people looked to God to help them through difficult times. "Several hundred years ago there were very few people who didn't have some religion, which gave them an explanation of the world. But for many people today, that doesn't exist as an answer anymore."
When the religious belief system erodes away, people generally do not cope as well with change and stress, she notes.
The root of change
So what has caused our world to change so rapidly in recent years? "Ultimately, it's due to technological advances," replies Ignatow. Case in point: With the advent of the printing press in the 15th century, there was certainly a paradigm shift (a change from one way of thinking to another), but it took a century for that shift to occur. Before that (with only word of mouth and slow travel), it may have taken several centuries for a major shift in societal views to occur. Now, with the Internet, such a shift may take only a few years. "There's a case to be made that with the Internet and communication technology spreading around the world, it has really upset a lot of social patterns," Ignatow says.
Certainly technological progress can lead to very positive changes. Inventions such as computers, the Internet, communications satellites and genetic diagnostic tools help improve our lives in many ways. Difficult tasks are made simple and can be done much more quickly.
However, technological innovation can also lead to other changes—some of them not so positive. "Throughout history, when new inventions were introduced into a society, it has impacted the society's customs, values and beliefs," Silbey says.
Since the Industrial Revolution, when the speed of change really started picking up, society has been transforming accordingly. It began with a shift from a rural, agrarian society to an urban, industrial society. Fewer workers were needed to cultivate greater crops, so more people moved to big cities to take factory jobs. That led to a whole range of changes in lifestyle, family structure, culture and values.
The computer revolution that started around 25 years ago sent the rate of change into its exponential rise. Today, scientific and technological changes are taking place at such a breathtaking pace that many have difficulty keeping up with them.
Seven kinds of stress-producing changes
Today we see at least seven major kinds of changes that are causing a great deal of stress and anxiety. Most of these changes are directly related to the digital revolution and have only become problems in the last 10 to 20 years. Some of the other changes have been occurring for a couple of generations now but have been exacerbated
in recent years by technology.
All of these issues have played a significant role in making our era different from all those that preceded it. What are these seven areas of change, and how are they impacting our society, institutions and world?
1. The pace of life is speeding up.
We are a society in a hurry. For years we've been told that the "faster" computers are the "better" machines. Somehow that way of thinking has seeped into how we think we should live our lives. We have been cranking up the speed at which we operate, and life is becoming increasingly frantic.
Silbey believes that our faster pace of life stems from the fact that modern communications technology has "collapsed" distance and time. For instance, this allows an American lawyer to get a deposition from a client, e-mail it that afternoon to workers in India who will transcribe it, and be able to have it back the next morning, all typed up. Effectively, day and night have been erased.
"When you collapse time and distance, everything speeds up, because what had been a physical, material limitation to human action is now gone," Silbey says. It then becomes expected that everything else in the workday should go just as fast.
Even if there's no need to hurry, "faster" has become the normative way we do things today. We may find ourselves getting impatient and angry with slower drivers on the highway even when there's no reason to be in a rush. We may groan when we realize the customer in front of us at the grocery store checkout is having an item price-checked, even though it's only going to take an extra minute. We walk fast and wolf down our meals.
Sometimes we don't even want to compose an e-mail message anymore because that takes too long. Some people now prefer communicating through texting and "tweeting" because the messages are shorter and faster to compose and read.
2. We are busier than ever.
As a society, we are busier than ever before. That's because while technology allows us to do our work faster and more efficiently, it also puts more demands on us. "Nowadays we're expected to accomplish much more with our time," says David Levy, Ph.D., professor at the School of Information at the University of Washington.
In an attempt to get more done, "we multitask, always trying to do two or three things at the same time," Levy says. So we may eat our fast-food lunch and conduct business calls while we're driving or checking our e-mail.
Another trend: Portable digital communication allows employees to be reached anywhere, anytime. "You can't get away from work anymore," Ignatow says. "Even when you're relaxing on the weekends, you're often bombarded with e-mails and calls from the office." It's not unusual to see people at the beach or park with their families while frantically working at their laptops or composing messages on their Blackberries.
More people are also bringing work home with them. Everyone is working longer hours—not only because there's a lot more work to be done, but also because of concerns about getting laid off if they don't put in extra hours. Working overtime, working weekends and being on call 24 hours a day are standard for employees at many companies.
3. Life is more complicated.
Our daily lives are becoming increasingly complex. Think about some of the purchasing decisions you make. In just about any product category, the number of choices are increasing. Whether you're buying pet food, selecting a cell phone plan, making airline reservations, choosing a doctor or setting up a retirement account, you may have more choices than you can realistically consider. Having so many options can be overwhelming.
The same thing is true when seeking out information. You can easily become overloaded with facts and figures. For instance, you might do a Google search on a particular topic and get 10,000 search results. "Now you have to decide which of them you are going to read and which you are going to ignore. The very act of choosing takes time," says Levy. A lot of times you'll come across conflicting information, which can be very confusing.
Ironically, another way our lives have become more complicated is by some of the technological innovations we bring into our homes that were intended to make our lives easier. Now it's certainly true that our modern gadgets can make our lives easier. But as complex as some of them are, they can really add to our stress levels.
Some of our modern-day "time-savers" can be really hard to figure out and use! I know professionals who don't know how to use important features on their Palm Pilots, digital cameras and cell phones. As frustrating as that is, they simply have not had the time to read the manuals carefully.
Actually, there are times when I miss my simple, old typewriter. Sure, it took a lot more time to type an article on it than it does on my computer. But the typewriter never crashed, it never bogged down because of spyware or viruses, and I didn't have to read a manual to figure it out.
4. Families are structured—and function—differently.
Family structure changed dramatically in the last half of the 20th century. The traditional nuclear family with Dad, Mom and kids has been largely replaced by new configurations, including "blended" families, single parents and unmarried couples with children.
The divorce rate in the United States peaked at around 50 percent in the 1980s, after climbing for two decades. Since then, it has remained at that level. "The stigma associated with divorce has largely disappeared, and marriage as an institution has been weakened," says William Doherty, Ph.D., professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.
While divorce rates were climbing, more women were entering the workforce. During the 1950s, 20 to 30 percent of mothers were employed outside the home. These were primarily poor women who needed to work out of necessity. By the late 1980s, 70 percent of American mothers were employed outside the home, either full- or part-time. Unlike before, a lot of these were women in middle- and upper-income households who were working to sustain their lifestyles and to pay an increasing tax burden.
Today, three out of four households have two working parents, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In recent years, the American family has changed still further, albeit more subtly. Dads and moms are both working longer hours outside the home. Their commute times are increasing. At the same time, parents have been involving their children in outside activities such as music and sports. This is quite a shift from 10 to 15 years ago, when parents and kids spent most of their downtime relaxing at home.
"Now parents are busy all weekend shuffling their kids to all the different sporting events they're involved with," Doherty says. "That's in addition to running errands or catching up on housework that didn't get done during the week." As a result, there's much less time available for quality face-to-face time between parents and kids.
Of course nowadays, even when family members are home together, parents may be too worn out to talk and may instead simply "veg out" in front of the TV. Kids are either on the Internet or plugged into their iPods. "In the past, you had to talk to the people under your roof and spend time with them, whether you liked it or not," observes Ignatow. "Today family members can tune into their iPods or laptops and tune everyone else out and 'be with' whomever they choose to be with."
5. "Traditional" beliefs and values are being challenged.
As was mentioned up front, religion has been eroding in much of the Western world. Scientific developments have "invalidated" many of the assumptions underlying traditional systems of faith, Silbey says.
As a result, religion has lost a lot of its authority, and many people no longer hold to a system of ethics and concrete values. In its place is a secular view where everything is relative. This has reconfigured families, upset moral structures and devastated traditions.
We now live in a society where just about anything goes and nothing is certain. We see a tolerance and acceptance of promiscuity, adultery, couples living together outside of wedlock, homosexual relationships, lying, cheating, alcohol and drug abuse, use of indiscreet and explicit language—to name just some of society's ills we've grown used to.
This period of rapidly changing values started accelerating in the 1960s, about the time television gained a major foothold in society. TV proved to be an extremely effective medium to promote new values and new ways of thinking.
Today, this media blitz has intensified with around-the-clock exposure through satellite TV, MP3 players, laptops and smartphones—much of it challenging traditional beliefs and values. Probably most of us can think of music with lyrics that shouldn't be repeated or TV programs where the characters with traditional values are made to look like fools.
Regrettably, most of the new media is viewed or listened to in isolation (unlike TV, which can be watched together as a family, or music on the radio, which everyone within earshot hears). "More often than not, parents do not even know what their kids are listening to on their iPods or what sites they're checking out on the Internet," Doherty says, "so kids are not getting any kind of direction as to what's wrong with these messages, and they go unchallenged."
6. Our sense of community is disappearing.
In recent decades, Americans have become increasingly disconnected from friends and neighbors, and less involved with community organizations like parent-teacher groups, civic groups or recreation clubs.
Harvard professor and political scientist Robert Putnam discussed this social change several years ago in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. This loss of "community," maintains Putnam, threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, everyday honesty and even our health and happiness.
Why the loss of community? One factor is certainly our busy lifestyles. With people working longer hours, often on the weekends, we have less time for chats with the neighbors or for neighborhood barbecues.
We're also changing residences more frequently than we used to, primarily due to divorce and job changes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 37.1 million Americans changed residences in 2009, up from 35.2 million in 2008. In a five-year period, between 40 and 50 percent of Americans will change addresses. Increasingly, these are out-of-state moves. All this moving means many people no longer live in the towns they grew up in, further eroding the sense of community.
A third factor is that for many people, social networking sites, chat rooms and other online venues have become their "community" of choice. "Instead of socializing with others face-to-face, more and more people are spending their free time sitting in front of their laptop," says Deborah Barreau, Ph.D., associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Such communication is "often much more trivial and superficial than face-to-face conversations," she says. "There's just not going to be the same kind of connections with others digitally that you would have in person."
7. The world is shrinking.
Technological innovations like the jet plane, satellite communication and the Internet have allowed businesses to expand across national borders and become global economic players. This process has integrated nations and peoples—economically, politically and culturally—and created a "global village" for the world's 6.8 billion residents.
But like so many of the areas of change already discussed, we are treading on uncharted ground. Globalization is a new phenomenon. Many are concerned about where it will take us in the months and years ahead and how it will impact the world.
On the one hand, globalization provides a global market for companies to trade their products, which can create economic growth for rich and poor nations alike. On the other hand, it could cause millions in Western nations to lose their jobs as work is outsourced to other countries where labor costs are cheaper. We may wonder whether our nation will remain competitive in the world marketplace and if we'll still have jobs in the future.
Because nations around the world are linked economically, a stock market crash or banking crisis in one country can quickly spread to other countries—something we witnessed several years ago after the U.S. housing bubble burst.
Broadly speaking, though, globalization means more than just economic integration. "What used to be considered 'localized problems' are now worldwide concerns," Ignatow says. New infectious pathogens that emerge in remote regions of the world do not stay there. Someone who has come in contact with a disease can get on a plane and carry it to the other side of the world in a matter of 24 to 36 hours, in some cases long before symptoms even appear. Air travel has made the world a smaller place.
Terrorism is another problem that used to be localized, primarily in the Middle East. Sadly, that is no longer the case. Terrorists have taken advantage of technology, such as the ease of international travel and the ability to communicate with their networks around the world, contributing to the spread of terrorism worldwide.
"It's the uncertainty of thinking about what could happen that has a lot of people feeling unsettled," Ignatow says.
Our "Island of Stability"
If you are old enough to remember "the way things used to be," that in and of itself can be disconcerting. Most of us don't enjoy having to deal with changes that are thrust upon us, especially if there's a lot of change all at once. We prefer to stay with the status quo. That's more comfortable.
Of course, even if we find all the technological changes exciting, it can be stressful trying to keep up with it all.
And then the changes themselves can cause us angst—having too many pressures on our time, seeing morals deteriorate all around us, seeing how "family" has been redefined in our modern world. Or perhaps we feel disconnected from the people around us and wish we had more of a sense of community. Maybe we grasp how change is speeding up and are concerned about what society will be like a generation from now. How can we possibly cope with these changes?
In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler wrote that when people go through times of rapid change, they need what he calls "islands of stability." Those are things that do not change in your life—sources of security, safe harbors and anchors for the inevitable storms.
You can probably think of some "islands of stability" in your life where you can find solid ground in challenging and difficult times—your spouse, longtime close friends, some sound advice that you were given long ago—to name a few.
Ultimately, though, our true source of stability is the one thing much of society has let go of in recent years—God. He tells us in Isaiah 45:5, "I am the Lord, and there is no other; there is no God besides Me." Jesus Christ similarly says in Matthew 28:20, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
No matter how tumultuous or volatile this world gets, we can count on God to be our anchor and refuge.
Malachi 3:6 assures us, "For I am the Lord, I do not change." We're reminded again in Hebrews 13:8 that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever." God does not change. He is steady and reliable, His promises enduring forever.
Indeed, we can trust completely in God's Word. Of course, in our society today, what's "true" one year might not be the next. We hear of studies that document the health benefits of a certain food, and then a short time later we find that another researcher reports the same food to be harmful. This doesn't happen with God's Word.
In Isaiah 40:8 God says, "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever" (see also 1 Peter 1:25). The Bible withstands the test of time. It will never be disproved and never goes out of date. God's truths are as applicable to our society today as they were to people hundreds or thousands of years ago.
It's also important to remember that God's plan and purpose for us will never change. Psalm 33:11 says: "His plans endure forever, his purposes last eternally" (Good News Bible, compare Proverbs 19:21).
We know that God the Father will be sending Jesus Christ back to the earth to establish His eternal Kingdom, and included in that plan is "bringing many sons to glory" (Hebrews 2:10). That should give us confidence and peace of mind. What a spectacular future to look forward to!
Of course, in the meantime, we will face difficult, even perilous, times ahead (2 Timothy 3:1). Yet God will give us the strength we need to make it through if we look to Him and His Word to guide us. He is our refuge and our strength (Psalm 46:1).
Moreover, God in His Word has given us a wonderful vision of a better world that's coming. His promises are sure (Hebrews 6:9-20). Indeed, we can face our rapidly changing, uncertain world with a truly positive and confident outlook—if we hold tightly to the God who does not change and whose eternal truths are utterly certain! GN