Social Trends: The New Conservatism?

Social change and trends relate intimately to the world of work and work life balance, and understanding social changes, mores and norms is an important tool for leaders and employers, and anyone who has an interest in understanding how human nature works. Hopefully, that’s all of us.

The increasing focus on gay marriage in Australia and across the western world brings movements in social change into close focus.

At first glance, the call for allowing gay marriage looks like a move to increased social liberality and equality. Homosexuality has increasingly, and rightly, lost its stigma in modern society and most people in Australia currently believe that the gay community, like anyone else, should have the right to marriage.

But if we look beyond the gay question, it seems that the thing that no-one is questioning anymore is the institution of marriage itself.

In the 1960’s and 70’s the institution of marriage came under serious philosophical and social attack. As a result of the general social disillusionment resulting from the Second World War, marriage became a central target in the rise of liberalism and new social tolerance with the rise of Second-wave Feminism, general social liberality, the Anti-War Movement, the Sexual Revolution largely brought about by the introduction of the Pill, the Hippie Movement, and the tearing down of the influence of the Church and general conservatism.

To social reformers, and the generation who are now referred to as Baby Boomers, there was no place in an enlightened, socially tolerant society for the institution of marriage. Marriage symbolised social conservatism, slavery and ownership of women by men, and religious, sexual and social tyranny. In a huge wave of change, a generation began to foreswear the dominance of marriage, and its role in a modern, tolerant society began to be over-turned.

There were various ways that this was enacted: women stopped changing their names and wearing wedding rings when they married, the practice of calling women by the titles of “Miss” or “Mrs” which defined them by their marital status (and thus whether they were “available” or not) when men were not labelled in this way became largely redundant, and very many people refused to be married at all.

Some of the effects of this huge social change have remained, most notably that now most couples don’t think twice about living together without being married, and most people wouldn’t think to disapprove of this. Children born to parents who are not married are no longer stigmatised and we refer to couples as “partners” now, whether they are married or not, heterosexual or gay.

But many of the effects have disappeared, and I think this indicates a New Conservatism that most of us are not aware of. There seems to be a growing trend for young women to change their names when they marry, for girls and young women to fantasise about weddings and associated paraphernalia without any apparent social guilt or embarrassment, and for wedding rings to have returned without a thought. You can even buy Bride Dolls again! These seem to be a part of a general and growing conservatism, evidenced by things like increasing hero-worship of soldiers and the new reverence for Anzac Day, and the return of blatant sexism to all sorts of advertising (is it just me, or have you noticed that TV and print ads are looking just like the 1950’s?) and other forms of social culture.

It’s an interesting turn of events.

The question of gay marriage should make us re-visit what we think the role of marriage should be in modern life. Is it a religious ritual? Is it a secular rite and right? Is it to ensure the stable upbringing of children? Is it a public statement of personal commitment? Is it a financial contract? Is it between two people regardless of gender? Or even, as was often said in the past, is it to protect women when they “lose their looks”?!

I make no judgements about marriage, and am married myself. But I can’t help noticing certain shifts in social trends and I know a ship is steered more safely if we know what lies beneath the surface. We can manage our staff, our roles, our relationships and ourselves better if we recognise and understand underlying social trends and structures.

Human beings should never be judged by their sexuality, but what does the return of the unquestioning of the institution of marriage mean in a society that clearly regards itself as liberal, sophisticated and enlightened? Are we really being more inclusive and tolerant, or are we just homogenising apparent “difference”? Have we become more enlightened, or just more conservative? And has anyone noticed?

“Curiouser and Curiouser”, said Alice.

Lynette Jensen

Lynette Jensen is a director and co-founder of Genesys Australia and is committed to helping people achieve work-life balance through good job fit. In addition to contributing to this blog, she also writes regularly for HR Daily Community and Dynamic Business Magazine. Her articles have been re-published in India & the United Kingdom.

Please click on the heading to leave a comment. More posts below.

NB: We are an independent workplace psychology practice. All views expressed here are our own and are the opinions of Stephen Kohl & his associates, which do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher and developer of GeneSys assessments, Psytech International.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply