Breaking Points

All over the world, people are giving up.

Think about it. Where they get to vote, often nowadays, a majority can’t be bothered. When asked, they simply say “it makes no difference”.

More and more are going beyond that. You see people refusing promotions now, refusing to go higher on the career ladder where there are fewer spots to compete for.

If there are 120 spots for a senior clerk or technician, but only 10 supervisor’s roles, in your community, which slot gives you more security? Are the extra few dollars worth it, especially if next year the company your work for is downsizing, offshoring, outsourcing or is acquired? (That the senior staff position may well be one that pays overtime and the management position doesn’t could actually see your take home pay drop when you’re promoted, too — in a time when every bit of income matters.)

Along Europe’s Mediterranean coast, it’s now the norm that your 35 year old son has never left home, never married, never started a family of his own — and maybe never held a job. If that’s the case, why expect that today will bring something different?

These, and many many more, are showing up in our society as breaking points, fracture lines in the body politic.

The world is changing, and rapidly, and in ways that don’t necessarily make tomorrow better than today (that is, if you measure better as “more”, or in terms of advancements).

I live in a neighbourhood where nearly half the shops are shuttered, either formally out of business or where they may still be being rented but nobody blows the dust off from one month to the next (the office used by the former MP, defeated in the election of 2011, is still apparently rented by her, although I’ve never seen any signs of life for two years now).

Yet the street is not dead: the neighbourhood comes together to paint and refurbish empty storefronts, and they’re used for pop-up shops to test new business ideas regularly. Some have even rented digs and set up shop permanently.

When you see a former corporate high-flyer with their goods at “Artisans-at-Work”, you’re seeing another sort of breaking point unfolding.

The neighbourhood, too, is filled with people who work from home. But then, this city is filled with people who don’t have jobs as we used to know them. Over half the urban area of 6.5 million people is self-employed (or -underemployed), a contract worker, permanent part-time, or some other profile that doesn’t fit the traditional 9-5, 37.5 hour week.

Just as well, too, because the transit system is groaning under the commuting that’s going on now in rush hour, and the roads are in gridlock.

I recall meeting a start up CEO two years ago. She was adamant that during working hours she simply would not meet with anyone outside a certain set of streets. The reason was simple: no amount of potential business was worth the lost time struggling to get around, and what that did to her quality of life.

She’d rather, she said, have a much smaller business and a happier existence, than lose the reason she went on her own in the quest for more.

Less is more. That’s a breaking point, in spades, for a society that’s built around endless growth and the consumer as the heart of the economy.

We are coming to an inflection point. We are not ready for it.

Almost all our government programs for things will be useless. They’re geared to doing one of two jobs: funnelling money into established organizations, or providing transitional support to get individuals back into the mainstream.

No micro-business, something that provides a life for its owner but not much more, can afford to deal with the bureaucracy. No one walking the artist’s way is an organization, and thus they’ll remain outside the mainstream.

Meanwhile, many of our best and brightest won’t be running things — by choice. They’ll have stayed on the front desk at the community centre, in a low role in the kitchen, or at a small desk in cubicleland rather than move up and take on more risk for little reward.

More and more people are eschewing possessions — they’re not owning cars, they’re living in postage stamp-sized spaces, they’re people who rent when needed rather than cluttering up their lives with “stuff” — with disastrous effects if your only measure of success is the GDP.

It’s a problem of scale. Things are getting smaller. But we’re left with an infrastructure and institutional landscape — public sector and private — that’s behemoth in size.

For a while, yet, at least. When your breaking points are reached, how will you deal with them?



Add yours →

  1. This is an excellent post to kick around in my head in my bed tonight! Looks like another sleepless night coming on… I do love the false sense of security my job gives me…

  2. themodernidiot 14/05/2013 — 19:39

    I liked this. The macro is crumbling into lots of little baby micros. Finally!

  3. The second kind of breaking point you describe feels very close to home at the moment.

  4. I agree. The inflection point you’re describing is very evident in book writing, which I did successfully in New Zealand for many years, publishing with the big international houses. But book writing in general has essentially died here, in part on the e-revolution, in part on local changes to the retail market, and in part on fashions in what sells across the book trade. The key to surviving is reinvention, of course – but also reinvention to a different paradigm. The old one’s failed.

    This is but one specific instance, and as you say, it’s evident in many ways worldwide. Why? I suspect a lot of it is generational. A lot is to do with the larger-scale ways the late twentieth century panned out, notably cultural values and attitudes. In some ways we are still paying the costs of the Cold War and the shake-down that followed its end. There is also the impact of the second industrial revolution in Asia and the flood of cheap products. Plus generational change, attitudes, and of course the information age – which only Arthur C. Clarke ever really predicted in a social sense, and which has changed everything.

    Where next? Hard to say. It will pan out one way or another, but I suspect it will involve hardship before it involves happiness, if we’re not careful – and, potentially, on a large scale.

    • Very well said. That bulge known as the baby boomers, aka “history’s most self-centred generation”, continues to work its way through the python of history. The changes that should have been made when some of the limits now painfully obvious were first appearing back in the 1970s were shoved to the side in favour of a debt-fuelled “let the good times roll” (this is the continuation of the cold war by other means). We are, in other words, the architects of our own problems.

      So yes, it’ll pan out, but more painfully than it needed to.

    • Couldn’t help but get involved in what you guys have to say…
      while what Bruce has depicted so artistically in his blog ,is what has today become some kind of a general phenomena… the more important point we need to address here is what could possibly be the solution to this crisis…and while although Matthew’s comment , I feel, has pointed out rather tactfully to the repercussions of a society that’s blind to everyone’s needs is very correct… but what i feel is that whether it be a country or an individual, until and unless we change our attitude from one of selfishness to that of concern for others..from one that focuses on only “I,ME,MYSELF” to that of ‘US’…and from ‘what’s in it for me…to what can i do for others’ ,…we will continue to have unstoppable breaking points, where everyone who’s in this race ,will be collapsing over the other … and we will find ourselves no place to run, but fall over this heap of mass….

  5. I have had a couple of breaking points in my life, but I keep on moving ahead. Reason being, I remember that there is someone else out there that is worst off than I and I should appreciate what I have. Right?

    • Well, that’s the theory. I have a different way of looking at it: you can think that you’re entitled to a certain kind of life and then the breaking points you hit are obstacles to be overcome. Or you can think that it’s society and its view on how things ought to be that’s breaking around you, in which case the ups-and-downs get replaced by more than an appreciation for what you have, but with a quest for a different course outside the norms.

  6. That’s just the true picture of recession going on around the world

    • It is, although what’s driving that recession isn’t being explored by many in the media. Too much of our society is at “end of life”, and that’s why things aren’t coming back no matter how much they’re stimulated.

  7. This goes to show that one’s perception truly is most important. What is my priority? Is it job security? Is it pay? Is it retirement? Is it status? Is it pride? Is it comfort? Is it power? Depending on which (if any) of these priorities I employ, my perception of my own standing will vary.

  8. A welcome change. Bring it.

  9. wonderful post! thanks sharing 🙂

  10. northernmalewhite 15/05/2013 — 12:36

    maybe people are realising the way of
    life currently favoured/learned of/unthought is
    outdated and even
    being conned into working extra hours to obtain something you dont really
    then working more hours to keep

    i’d rather give up or do nothing as well


    • The local crossing guard has a son who is a barista. He lives to travel — so he lives small with his part-time job, and two to three times a year makes a trip somewhere. Last year it was a year in Melbourne, VIC, Australia, where he worked as, yes, a barista (legally). Just recently it’s been a month in California. I have another friend in British Columbia who walked away from his life as a chef and now works in a community centre, by choice, where, although it’s a job, he feels more in control and gets the non-material rewards of seeing children grow and light up through the programs he runs. There’s more than one way to live, and we’re seeing some credibility come to some of the others that aren’t about money.

  11. Interesting post.

    I’ve begun to reach my own, as a freelance writer (luckily able to do so, financially) in turning down work that is going to make me insane and exhausted for pennies. I applied last year here (I am also from Toronto, living in NY since 1989) for a major fellowship (and became one of 14 [of 278] finalists] to address this very problem — as you point out, much of the way government is organized no longer has much to do with how many of us work, and prefer to work. I could go “get a job” but, having been laid off from a few already, have no desire for the attendant stress of wondering when it will happen again and throw my life back into emotional and financial chaos. Working for yourself offers a much higher degree of control, even at a lower income level. I agree that we are very much at an inflection point as well.

    • Thanks — I’m also in agreement with the notion that if I were to look for another job I’d just be throwing myself under the bus again in a year or two as a downsizing or acquisition froze that position out. So far I’m managing to eke out a future without trying for any government money to back it up, if only because the return on investment of my time isn’t likely to be as good as it is posting a free blog for others to read.

  12. Really interesting read!! Congrats on FRESHLY PRESSED!

  13. breaking point is always close to boiling point for me…

  14. When reaching a breaking point I try to remember what I read in 21st Century Science and Health, “Don’t worry when breaking away from mutating time and feelings, because you will not lose a sense of reality, life, or your own identity.” Change is going to keep happening but it’s hopefully used to change for the better. Thanks.

    • I hope it is, too. Too much of our lives has become “financialized”, meaning not just that we’ve put a price tag on everything and made the getting and spending of money the be all and end all of things, but that we use the language of the financial sector to express thoughts for which it is ill suited. Doing so is a key source of losing touch with what’s real.

  15. Great post. I couldn’t have agreed anymore. The world is changing and so many people are just complacent with life. After going to college, a lot of graduates just sit around and not try to be productive with their life. I one day just realized I was doing the same monotonous tasks everyday. I don’t want to wake up twenty years later and not be happy with me life. I think it’s important each person looks around and really decides what they want out of life, and do it. Really inspirational stuff 🙂

    • Bingo! I was talking to my partner Neil Morris (Personal Due Diligence) this morning and we both spoke your words of responsibility — or response-ability, really — in the face of a situation different from your expectations, do you change your projection of the future or do you sit and wait for the world to conform to your will?

      • I think we need to change our perspective of the future all the time. The world is always changing and that means whatever situation we are in will change as well. Even in this midst of adaption, we need to keep pushing forward and being productive. This is the only way to achieve our goals.

      • Yes, and that requires an openness to change not enough are demonstrating right now (they remain hung up on how “unfair” it all is).

      • Great point. Instead of screaming why are things unfair, why not embrace it. We should be happy we are given these obstacles because they will make us stronger and more prepared. I think I will write about this today, thanks for the great, thought-provoking post.

  16. Yes, I think you are on to something. Where there is breakage there is reduction so that small results. There is a lot of good things about small: flexible, crafty, light of feet, not an easy target even though it can be crushed if detected. It is a sobering thought, all the same, to remember that more of us die by bacteria than tandem trucks. No, it might be better to be small.

  17. Reblogged this on cwfact and commented:

  18. I sense there’s a push-pull between the macro and the micro for many things in modern life, although there are many who want to, and some who do, cross over from one to another. For many of us, the micro is the primary focus (my blogs don’t go viral!) because we don’t see the way or have the luck to become “larger than life.”
    I look at people such as Obama and ask how its even possible to do a good job of being a president of the USA…..and perhaps it isn’t even possible, but some people are still willing to try. So, most of us have to focus on doing good at the micro level, but typically that’s not viewed as sexy. Do something for someone on the street today, give a bit of your time for a good cause, share your experience/wisdom freely. All of these are ways to avoid giving up!
    I also think that the world may be slipping down the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy and generally feeling less secure than in the past. Global recessions, economies in trouble, Insecurity in having a job, insecurity in marriage relationships, insecurity even in having enough food, all of which help to change the overall outlook.
    Breaking points, paradigm shifts, information age, whatever you call it – it certainly is something few people are truly prepared for.

  19. breaking points … I take on a religious view here. Only when someone is broken do they call for help; do they want to be lifted up. Sometimes a breaking point is what it takes for someone to realize that something wasn’t right. Sometimes a breaking point is what we need to learn, to make us stronger.

  20. This post definitely applies to me. As a “millennial” (I hate these stupid generational titles, but what can you do) I’ve been told that I’m lazy, unmotivated, a complete loser. All this despite the fact that I work, and work hard, at something that I enjoy, and that I’m going back to school to advance myself. I don’t own a house or have a family because I don’t have enough of an income to do so, and even if I did I’m not sure I’d want those things. The old way of life is simply dying out – too bad it seems like this shift is causing, and will continue to cause, a lot of problems.

  21. well said …I am a baby boomer. worked my self hard for 30 years then I look around and the generations behind me …not so much …so many scholars …where are the Indians …we need Indians.

  22. This was a great post gives us something to think about.

  23. the old saying – branches which do not bend, break!
    an eye-opener, loved it. congrats on being freshly pressed.

  24. A very thought provoking blog. I’m new here. And if I find the follow button, I believe I’ll click it! 🙂

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