How discipline is rapidly transforming into the new decadence

From the 5:2 diet to Tiger Mothers, discipline is now the guiding principle, but is it a step too far when OCD and increased workloads become badges of honor?

By Jess Cartner-Morley  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Thu, Jul 04, 2013 - Page 9

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Meanwhile, the narrative of reality TV has changed: bad behavior has been replaced by Saturday-night preaching of the age-old Sunday-morning mantras that hard work will be rewarded, that mentors must be respected and listened to.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.”

Lorraine Candy, editor-in-chief of fashion magazine Elle, says that discipline “makes us feel more in control of our lives in a time when the recession defines us and how we live. The Elle reader [average age 28] is more thoughtful about her way of life and her purchases because her future may not be as rosy as the generation before. Discipline is part of her mindset now.”

In the age of discipline, gossip around water coolers in offices has taken a pious turn. Showing off about how drunk you were last night has been superseded by showing off about how many nights since you last drank.

When I was first doing working lunches, 15 years ago, a glass of wine was perfectly normal — such a thing is unheard of now. At evening events in the fashion industry, the meaning of the hand over the wineglass has gone from “I’m pregnant” (2005) to “I’ve got a job interview/meeting with the boss tomorrow” (2010) to “Can’t afford to look unprofessional in this economic climate” (2013). Among Candy’s readers, “sharing a great film, band or book is much more of a social currency on Facebook than saying how much they drank. That isn’t the driver for an evening out any more.”

Conversely, as Benson notes: “It has become far more acceptable to boast about going to the gym or running. The posting of one’s runs to Facebook is increasingly becoming a pressing issue of etiquette.”

Last month, a major US health magazine ran an article entitled “10 signs you may have OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder].”

It was a straightforward, well-meaning article attempting to tease apart character traits that mean you are more than usually careful or organized from those that suggest OCD. (Double-checking you turned the oven off is fine, but having to check exactly three times before you leave the house is a warning sign.)

What was striking about the article, though, was the visuals that accompanied it. The front page was illustrated by an expensive looking wooden rail on which hung a handsome row of shirts, pleasingly color-coordinated so that mid-blue segued into pale duck egg, through a cream check and into lemon. On the next page was an action closeup of a handwash, with elegant French manicured nails gleaming in the suds.

When did OCD get glamorous?

Only a few years ago, the layperson’s description for someone who straightened paperclips and laminated everything was “being anal.” It was an ugly description, with nothing remotely admiring about it, but perfectionism has rebranded itself, from being just a bit uncool to being “a Type-A personality” (essentially a way of saying “I’m Alpha, you’re Beta” while hiding behind psychological terminology), or “a bit OCD” — a phrase used these days as a kind of faux self-deprecating compliment. (“Don’t worry, it’s fine you’re late, it gave me a chance to clear my inbox. Me, I’m totally OCD about punctuality. I wish I could be more laid back, like you.”)

Benson reports having had “younger bloggers who want to write for us suggesting blogs about being OCD and proud. Connected to this is the barely concealed boast that one is geeky or nerdy about certain things — it is no longer enough to merely like something, is it?”

This new rosy tint to a work-obsessed, office-neat personality is starting to affect the way our homes look. Interiors magazines are abandoning the country house and seaside cottage ideals in favor of a more industrial aesthetic. Shabby-chic chandeliers have been replaced by light fixtures that celebrate the bare bulb and foxed mirrors over mantelpieces taken down in favor of utilitarian or abstract light-up signs — “LIVE” in neon, say, or “LUNCHEONETTE” in retro fairground bulbs.

Gwyneth Paltrow is the poster girl for the age of discipline. Paltrow has a higher profile now, when she makes only one film a year, than she did when she was wowing Hollywood and winning Oscars, by virtue of being a pioneer for a disciplined lifestyle.

It began with fitness and the hardcore transformation of her body through what she freely admitted was a grueling exercise and diet program. What was new was not the regime, it was that Paltrow championed it rather than disguised it. Before Paltrow, most actresses and models towed the party line (“eat what I want/fast metabolism”).

Since Paltrow, it has become de rigeur to own up to the effort.

“When I interview supermodels today they explain how their bodies have been ‘made’ with exercise and good diet, especially the Victoria’s Secret [US retailer of lingerie] ‘Angels,’” Candy said. “It is rare to meet one who says she can eat anything she wants and never goes to the gym.”

The Paltrow brand has since extended into family life.

Couples like Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband, Chris Martin, maintain a strict abstention from goofy shows of public affection, only allow their children to watch cartoons in foreign languages and exclude most carbohydrates from the family kitchen.

Paltrow has become a figure that people either love or hate in popular culture, partly because we project onto her character the negative traits we associate with discipline (being dull company, not having sex) as well as the positive ones.