Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


John Jackson (2000) 'Futures?'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 4, <>

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Received: 23/2/2000      Accepted: 23/2/2000      Published: 29/2/2000


Even twenty years ago even the most perceptive social scientists in Ireland would not have imagined the possibility of the present booming 'Tiger economy' in the Irish Republic or even the forms of political settlement so far achieved in Northern Ireland. In general social scientists have been remarkably unsuccessful at predictions when that involved precise foresight regarding events or trends. Fortunately, this does not prevent the useful speculation about possibilities and outcomes so that future states can be subjected to analysis and systematic consideration. Such future states then become part of a competing group of possibilities pursued with varying degrees of advocacy, based on what we know about the present and the past and offering a window to the future.

On the brink of the new century one should not speculate too far ahead. Somewhere between 25 and thirty-five years is probably enough especially if some of us are to take responsibility for our ideas once the time has come.

(I am still waiting hopefully for 2020 to see if I 'guesstimated' the population of Saudi Arabia right in an analysis of demographic trends and social change done in 1985). In most Northern parts of the world 35 years is half an average lifetime - long enough to give a certain remoteness to one's biographical past while still leaving some future to contemplate - how much is of course increasingly uncertain once one reaches 70. Then it is all about risk.

Ireland 25 years ago

January 1975 was the month and year that I first came to Dublin and took up residence in the Irish Republic having spent the previous five years in Belfast. The Irish Republic was then still essentially a theocratic state, strongly influenced by traditional political allegiances shaped by the Civil War of the early 1920's. It was a society cast in a mould of family centred social conventions with a still largely protectionist economy and a traditional ascriptive social and political structure. Uniquely in Europe the demographic transition had hardly begun with constraints on fertility held off by moral and legal pressure, low urbanisation and extensive and continuous emigration. The shift toward an open economy and globalisation had begun but its effects were not yet readily apparent except for the location of the odd multinational enterprise on a 'green field' site in a rural outpost. There were changes, and social scientists were alert to them, but change was still seen as a gradual process. Few would have been prepared to predict the sudden economic take-off that has been occurring in the last five years of the 20th century or the extent to which the Irish economy was to out-perform most world economies during this period.

Looking forward for the next 25 years two possible scenarios present themselves and clearly in an age of globalisation these have wider salience than the limited national perspective from which we have reviewed the past. Both are based on the expectation that increasing atomisation or individualisation will occur alongside the declining power and public confidence in the institutional structures of society, government, church, schools, hospitals, etc.

A Positive Scenario

A positive scenario can be depicted in which individualisation becomes an opportunity for the extension of human rights. A rights approach ensures that each individual adult or child has an entitlement to the satisfaction of basic needs and protection from abuse of person and property. Such an agenda is consistent with the full realisation of individuals as full actors participating in shaping their destiny. In the next 35 years such an agenda could ensure the continuation of some of the positive trends of the last decades of the 20th century which have produced greater openness and transparency in government, increased participation of women, the progressive individualisation of personal taxation and the monitoring of states by transnational bodies such as the European Court of Justice and UNCHR with regards to the rights of individuals and their protection.

Such a scenario assumes, but is not predicated upon, economic growth. However it does imply substantial economic redistribution. Basic rights include the elimination of the conditions of poverty, affordable housing, health care and education and available care for the helpless. It also necessarily makes assumptions regarding the global distribution of resources so as to make possible the extension of such rights to the less developed and presently more disadvantaged populations of the world.

Ireland is fortunate among European countries because it will age more slowly and will only begin to face the full demographic consequences of an aging society towards the end of the period we are considering. For these reasons it may have more opportunity and more scope to act as a bridge between individualisation and the welfare state; between national interest and international obligation, between the South and the North and between institutionalised community and social values and free unfettered expression of individual greed.

A human rights approach also assumes a plural society in which the diffuse identities of persons are respected and honoured; be they Protestant or Catholic ; Christian or Muslim; Nigerian , Romanian or Chinese. In spite of hiccups in the Northern Ireland peace process and recent evidence of racist reaction to refugees in what has been historically a country exporting its own emigrants, there is reason within this optimistic scenario to predict a full acceptance of pluralism in Irish society as an alternative to a fractured and flawed nationalism.

An important aspect of this will be the part played by a newly confident Ireland on the international stage. Hopefully, as a member of the next Security Council of the UN Ireland will have an opportunity to contribute to the very necessary rebuilding of the United Nations . If it bases that contribution on the human rights approach shaped and developed at home and represented in the UN itself by its former President Mary Robinson, it may contribute significantly to new dialogues of development in Africa and elsewhere in the South where lack of coloniser baggage has hitherto allowed its voice to be heard.

Just as the economy is important but not central to the human rights approach so is technology significant but not essential. Already it is apparent at the end of the 20th century that the market for consumer goods has reached near saturation. Technological progress will continue but be driven more my defined consumer needs than market forces. A human rights approach thus protects the need of the consumer to make informed choices in conditions of their own choosing instead of slavishly responding to market forces. But it also threatens the traditional assumptions of production, labour and property that underpinned 19th and 20th century capitalism. Real fortunes are beginning to be made from virtual realities and will continue to be made from niche positions rather than profitable enterprises in communications and IT.

Individual identity will be realised increasingly through the exercise of choice in the marketplace, in the work environment, particularly with regard to participation (hours and shifts worked), in leisure time and activities. Again human rights will be the touchstone to demand self-realisation in a climate of tolerance for the rights of others and the different needs that they may have.

Negative Scenario

The second scenario is also based on the expectation of individualisation but it is informed by the increasing breakdown of social ties and responsibilities in the restless pursuit of selfish ends and material possessions. In this sense the post-modernist vision of total consumer choice gives rise to anomic confusion and a restless search for satisfaction of imagined wants created by assertive marketing. Social unrest and frustration and the failure to address fundamental social inequalities will lead to a climate increasingly like that imagined by films like 'Mad Max'. Such a situation is most likely to produce reactions on the part of the state both locally and nationally which will increasingly threaten individual liberty and restrict the possibility for the full exercise of human rights. Institutional terror will attempt, somewhat vainly, to control the excesses of human greed and the exercise of force by vigilantes to impose such social order as can be preserved. Already we have the zones of security and inaccessibility for the poor provided in the large out of town shopping malls with their own security provision for those who have access and the cars that are now a pre-condition of entry. Other aspects of the 'security camera' state reflect the tendencies toward 'total' and totalitarian control foreshadowed in George Orwell's '1984'.

Such a chaos scenario suggests the almost total breakdown of many of the institutions that make up the social fabric and constitute much of the form of society that have been central to sociological endeavour and sociological enquiry of the past century. Most typically in such situations all terrains become contested and there is no longer space for the exercise of dispassionate and objective social enquiry. Such situations have been experienced in the recent past by social scientists in Eastern Europe and especially the former Yugoslavia as well as in Northern Ireland, South Africa or Algeria. A state of war and engagement protects only the rights of the strong and even those are temporary and dependant on good fortune. The weak inevitably lose their livelihood, their land and their property and may be forced to flee their homes and countries.

Less dramatically the instability of social order in these circumstances affects not only parts of the world and sections of society but gradually corrodes the social fabric at all levels and causes personal insecurity and risk for all groups particularly those in dependent categories such as children, the old and needless to say the poor.

A Risky Middle Way and Some Threats and Opportunities

The effects that are already apparent in developed societies at the end of the 20th century in relation to the family provide a good example of some of the consequences for that fundamental institution of modernism- the nuclear family. Structural functionalist theory developed by Talcott Parsons and his contemporaries saw the nuclear family as the key institution of the social fabric, particularly in its role of nurturing the young and providing structured support for adults, particularly adult males as the principal economic wage earners of advanced society. The transition to the nuclear family was one of the characteristics of greater division of labour and of the development of industrialisation and economic production outside of and apart from the home. The family formed by the voluntary joining of an adult man and an adult woman in a union cemented by religion and civil law was assumed to provide the normative model for the fulfilment of sexual needs and species reproduction needs in modern society. The ideology of the union was supported by the idea of romantic love which developed alongside the nuclear family at the end of the 19th century. In Ireland the family, structured around property and farm ownership under land reform provisions of the 1880's and bolstered by the moral teachings of the Catholic Church and the vocations available for those who could not inherit, became the central institution of the new state. It is now in considerable disarray with around 30% of births to unmarried parents, a growth in consensual partnership, a full recognition of homosexuality and almost daily revelations of the hypocrisy of the institutional church with regard to sexual offences and cruelty toward those children and the helpless that it and the Irish family claimed to care for.[1] Patriarchal marriage together with the 'breadwinner' bargain and large family size on which it was founded is now seriously undermined as is the notion of a single and continuous union. The recognition of divorce by a Constitutional referendum has finally separated civil society from the Church and allowed civic recognition of a reality of separation and marital breakdown that has long affected many couples and increasingly their children.

The disarray of the institution of the family indicated here is symptomatic of the destruction of one of the key modernist institutions with only a slow and reluctant response by legislation and administration to recognise the new freedoms of choice that are being exercised by individuals in pursuit of their rights. The adjustment of the state and major institutions to these new circumstances becomes critical to the future development of adequate structures for the support and nurture of children and the protection of individual adults within the new forms of consensual contract that they enter into with their partners. One of the interesting consequences of the property boom in Ireland in recent years has been that shared commitment to the mortgage and dependence on a continuous double income may act as an effective alternative to religion and ideology in holding together otherwise imperfect partnerships. But there is enough unfinished business around this area especially with regard to the rights of children and adoptive parents to suggest that the next 30 years will be much preoccupied with issues of domestic affairs and arrangements.

A further inevitable challenge arises in relation to the decline in the significance of nationalism and the nation state as the natural bonding and boundary mechanism for human societies.[2] Increasing salience of ethnic attachment within loosely structured plural societies with porous boundaries and freedom of movement for trade, finance, information, entertainment, travel and intellectual and other property threatens existing national attachments and will increasingly undermine the power of centralised institutions. The public protests at the WTO meetings at the end of November 1999 in Seattle give some indication of the increasing ways in which civil society focussed on issues rather than parties or organised interests is likely to begin to undermine existing mechanisms of government at an international as well as a national and local level.

Irrespective of other factors geographic space and territorial definitions will have less significance with regard to individual identity and belonging. The lack of temporal certainty implied by rapid change and the loss of predictable career futures ensures that it will be normal for individuals to experience many spatial environments and many work situations in the course of a normal life. Diversity of experience will give rise to greater opportunities for expression of the self and many potential selves in a world governed less and less by ascriptive condition defined by origin or achieved condition defined by education and occupation but by circumstances and opportunities that allow for the location of a person at a particular conjuncture of space and time. Social belonging will shift markedly from institutional attachment to the exercise of determinate choice within the ever-widening range of alternatives available for social makeovers.

Such a future will have few certainties and need to constantly be renegotiated through and with the social players and significant others to whom the individual relates. The risks will be high at both an individual level as well as for the larger social units that will form the building blocks of world society. It will be undoubtedly an exciting time of rapid and constant change in what will become a more demanding and challenging world in which the population of Europe and North America will only form 14% of the total of 9.7 billion by 2150. Perhaps greater wisdom will be available to world leaders then since 22% of the total will be aged 60 - but I wouldn't bet on it on the basis of past experience.[3]


1 See for instance: Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan (1999) Suffer Little Children- the Inside story of Irelands Industrial Schools

2As for instance: Tom Nairn (2000), After Britain, Granta Books.

3It seems as well to close with one of the most comprehensive forward projections available. United Nations (1999), Executive Summary: Long Range World Population Projections: based on the 1998 Revision, Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, (ESA/P.WP.153), .Tables 1 and 2 pp. 8 and 9.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000