We have reached the endgame of have-it-all culture. “Because I’m Worth It” has had its day and discipline is the new decadence.
The Nike Fuel Band, which tracks your calorie expenditure and praises you for an active lifestyle, has more smug-factor than a Rolex watch right now. The dominant meme of annoying Facebook behavior has segued from the posting of party photos to “inspirational” quotes (American men — Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson — are especially hot right now).
Meanwhile, the narrative of reality TV has changed: bad behavior has been replaced by Saturday-night preaching of the age-old Sunday-morning mantras that hard work will be rewarded, that mentors must be respected and listened to.
Even family life has taken on a new set of values. With every issue of Goop, the online publication founded by actor Gwyneth Paltrow, the cosy, cupcake-baking ideal of motherhood cedes territory to the Tiger Mothers (whose children will be more successful than yours) and the Gwyneth Paltrowesque mothers (whose children will be slimmer and healthier, ergo more successful, than yours.)
We will always desire that element which is elusive in our culture — and right now, that element is discipline.
Five months ago, Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, gave a speech in which he noted the drawbacks of a culture of instant access to information and of the infinite flexibility of schedule made possible by a world in which everyone is instantly contactable. Discipline, he said, was missing in this setup and this was a handicap in some areas of achievement.
“Collaboration and sharing are not good for finishing your organic chemistry problem set,” he said.
Patience, strategic thinking and deference to authority, he added, are things “that do not come naturally to” those who have grown up in an online culture.
The Net-A-Porter online fashion Web site, most of whose customers surely walk past several Starbucks coffee outlets on their way to work, is currently hosting an online video in which the Australian supermodel Miranda Kerr demonstrates how she makes her green “breakfast smoothie” out of a nine-ingredient list that includes coconut water, goji berries, spirulina and acai powder.
Extreme diet plans — from the 5:2 intermittent fasting plan to juice-only days — have reinvigorated the dreary business of weight loss, turning your self-discipline into a potential cocktail-party turn. (No one wants to hear how many WeightWatchers points are in your lunchtime sandwich, but if you’ve found a formula to stick to 500 calories a day you will hold the floor.)
The ascent of the age of discipline is changing the mood music in every aspect of our culture. It is the reason why skivers-and-strivers hit a nerve.
Richard Benson, editor of the Middle Class Handbook blog, attributes the shift to “the tremendous increase in workloads and competitiveness that has occurred over the past decade, due in part to the influence of Americanized corporate culture and in part to the current recession. All recessions seem to have a dominant, lasting cultural impact — in the early ’80s it was the loss of the old industrial community, in the early ’90s it was the loss of the job for life. This time, it feels like the impact may be the acceptance of previously unthinkable workloads and working hours. Many people say they are still earning the same salary, but having to work much harder for it, which perhaps explains some of the focus on discipline, and there is a certain disenchantment with the non-judgemental, diverse, emotionally literate approach that pre-dated this, for various reasons — it seems to dodge tough decisions, it is often disingenuous, it leads to awful corporate team-building exercises, and so that disenchantment leads to a counter-reaction, which is an appreciation of old-fashioned, no-nonsense school-marmishness.”