June 19, 2018

The Rituals of Dinner – part I

Table manners – are they dead or alive? Getting better or getting worse over time?

If you ponder these questions, then the above book is for you: The Ritual of Dinner – The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners by Margaret Visser. It covers how people – across time and across cultures – behave at the table going from how such behaviours are learnt as part of growing up and then played out during the process of a formal meal with invitations, sitting at the table, getting the food eating it and then at the end of the meal.

As you might imagine, it is a fascinating read, but with a major shortcoming: it is dated. The book was written in 1991 and updated with an additional chapter in 2008 and so misses out on the developments in food culture from the past decade. This is significant as it has been all too easy for the author to perceive, from the perspective of their understanding of the subject and the experience over their lifetime, that we have reached a nadir in table manners and respect for food.

Yes, compared to earlier generations, it could appear that we are dismissive of food, seeking poor quality but highly convenient options. Food is a means to an end – refuelling out of necessity and not an end in itself to be enjoyed and shared with others. Eating is an individualised activity – not just because we often eat on our own but this is designed into the structure of food options – as captured in this memorable description of the burger:

Every burger is self-contained, as streamlined and replete as a flying saucer, and just unmistakably as a child of the modern imagination….Hamburgers are ready very fast (we do not see, and therefore discount all the work which this speed and availability presuppose), and they take only a few minutes to eat: informality in this case cuts away time and clearly signals a disclination to share.

I do not wish to deny that eating has become individualised – in a way this has become truer than ever as much of all that we do in our lives, whether work or leisure, is done alone – think of working home alone, watching your personal choice of content on your own device, as well as having your own meal to fit in with your particular schedule and taste and health preferences. Woe betide any school child that tries to share or swop food – with much better awareness of allergies and intolerances, across all generations, we all know better than to simply offer what is on our plate/in our packed lunch with someone else – what if they are wheat intolerant?

However, I think it is fair to say that, in certain cultures, in particular more Western and urban populations, as well as among our beloved Millennials, food has been re-evaluated. We are now willing to invest significant time and effort into looking at, preparing, sharing and eating food. Some have argued that food now plays the role that music did for earlier generations – a way of establishing identity and defining their relationship with current society.

This is not to say that we are necessarily cooking more, eating healthier or adopting better table manners (I don’t think it would be hard to find evidence to challenge those assertions, in particular if you think about the rise of streetfood, food that is meant to be eaten with hands such as pulled ribs or even the rise of food in bowls- effectively taking us back several centuries when we only had a spoon and knife with which to eat). No, what I would like to challenge instead is Visser’s implicit assumption that food is not important to us – it is and having a beautiful social eating experience is an aspiration and experience that people hold dear.



September 18, 2017

A duo of posts on physiological introspection – Part II

In the second part of these two posts on health/science books I have recently read, I will focus on Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  I was particularly interested in getting to grips with this book as there is lots of chatter about genes. I have become aware of the fact that it is all too easy to merrily throw on some bullet points about genome testing, personalised health plans and diets etc, but what does this actually mean?

In reading Gene, I was struck by the fact that in order to understand how our thinking about genes has developed over time, we need to go back and look at how science explains differences between and among ourselves and also other living organisms. Perhaps, therefore not surprisingly, we spend some time with Darwin, as well as looking back at Greek philosophers/scientists, whose perspectives were always, surprisingly insightful/provocative, despite they effectively ‘knew’ less than we do now.

There was a section on the interest in eugenics in the US in the 1920s. Reading this made me realise how, when we look back in time, we often make simplistic assumptions about what ideas to associate with particular eras. Eugenics – that was obviously the handiwork of those nasty Nazis – well, not just them it seems. A number of medical professionals and politicians in the US were determined to stop ‘bad heredity’ and to set up ‘eugenic sterilizations of the feeble-minded’. In 1927, the state of Indiana passed a law to sterilize ‘confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists’ and other states followed with even stricter laws to sterilize men and women judged to be genetically inferior. This preoccupation with the right heredity was reflected in popular culture at the time, for example, by the late 1920’s, premarital genetic-fitness tests were being widely advertised to the American public. However, it is important to remember DNA testing, as we know it, had not yet been uncovered. Instead, they consisted of assessments of family histories to pick up on incidences of mental retardation, epilepsy, deafness, dwarfism, blindness etc.

It was not until the 1950’s that the chemical structure of the gene was uncovered. I find it fascinating that so much had already happened, eg laws instituted, as described above, around a part of ourselves – the genome – which we had not really ‘seen’ as such and did not know really how it worked. As a child of the modern era, I have the naïve and simplistic assumption that we know everything before we decide to ‘use’ it!

Reading Gene made me realise that there in fact is much more uncertainty around the impact genes have than perhaps comes across in popular media and culture. One aspect to this is that there still seems to be much life in the nature versus nurture debate. This is down to the fairly new area within gene studies of epigenetics. As explained here, “Epigenetics is essentially additional information layered on top of the sequence of letters (strings of molecules called A, C, G, and T) that makes up DNA. If you consider a DNA sequence as the text of an instruction manual that explains how to make a human body, epigenetics is as if someone’s taken a pack of highlighters and used different colours to mark up different parts of the text in different ways. For example, someone might use a pink highlighter to mark parts of the text that need to be read the most carefully, and a blue highlighter to mark parts that aren’t as important….But the really interesting thing about epigenetics is that the marks aren’t fixed in the same way the DNA sequence is: some of them can change throughout your lifetime, and in response to outside influences. Some can even be inherited, just like some highlighting still shows up when text is photocopied.” So it seems looking at what it’s in your genome will only tell you so much; the messiness of real life has an important impact.

Another angle is the fact that only about 1 percent of our genome encodes proteins. The rest is DNA dark matter. It is still incompletely understood, but some of it involves regulation of the genome itself. As a reviewer observed, “Ironically, the more we study the genome, the more “the gene” recedes. … Some scientists are even moving away from the gene as a physical thing. They think of it as a “higher-order concept” or a “framework” that shifts with the needs of the cell. The old genome was a linear set of instructions, interspersed with junk; the new genome is a dynamic, three-dimensional body. The gene is not a Platonic ideal. It is a human idea, ever changing and always rooted in time and place.”

It makes me wonder what Gene – An Intimate History would include if it was written a hundred years from now?


February 21, 2016

Eating across the generations

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Demographics,Innovation,Marketing — by xrematon @ 9:10 pm
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I stirred my spoon disconsolately, looking at the concoction in the bowl in front of me: prawns in miso broth with udon noodles and some slices of red pepper for add of extra colour. This meal had been a special request from my children and as I sat forlornly, thinking how I would have prefer something nice and creamy or at least properly spice-y and sleek with oil, it made me realise how taste preferences and eating habits vary across generations, even within a family unit.

In a way, the fact my children asked for Japanese broth is because I have been a victim of my own success. Some time ago, I made a New Year’s Resolution to try a new recipe each week and this commitment has seen me diversify well beyond meat and two veg. It has led to children who may ask for globe artichokes – I got very excited one season about trying as many different vegetables as possible – as well as for things I really don’t like – such as the prawns still swimming around sadly in the miso broth. They’re too much like chopped up fingers or earthworms in my opinion.

My children’s generation will have grown with parents who like to invest time and effort in food; parents who themselves grew up during a period when food went from being not much more than fuel into a massive industry which itself fuels many different forms of media and entertainment. We remember the Angel Delight and Findus Krispy Pancakes we ate in our youth and now aspire for something different for our own children.

Cut beyond the middle-class snobbishness about processed food and there are more interesting implications to consider for the food industry of these aspirations to eat well. Take lunchboxes for example: no longer will they simply contain sliced white bread with cheese spread, a packet of crisps, a bit of fruit and a Penguin. Sandwiches are more of a rare sighting these days – in their place come wraps, oatcakes, bread sticks and many other delights. Whereas I grew up thinking the most important thing in a packed lunch was bread spread with something, this expectation is no longer there and the habit to spread is fading. Tellingly, sales of traditional sliced bread are on the decline in the UK, as they are too for dairy spreads.

There is an interesting dynamic going on with the generation in between my own and that of my children – those that are young adults now – Millennials I suppose. This group is also ‘into’ food – but with more style than substance. And it can lead to some rather paradoxical outcomes. A survey in the US found that 50% of Millennials refer to themselves as “foodies,” but 60% of those self-identified foodies still visit fast-food restaurants at least once a week (compared with 48 percent for older adults).

There are also more serious implications about this gap between passion and cooking ability: it doesn’t come cheap. Research, this time from the UK, found that 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK spend more on food than any other age group because they know so little about cooking and had a greater outlay due to eating out more. There is something to be said for bog standard home cooking.

Perhaps later once everyone else has happily finished off their prawns, I could sneakily do myself some fried eggs.

Japanese broth

December 18, 2015

Insight through fiction

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Demographics,Marketing — by xrematon @ 10:06 pm
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My preference for ‘story books’ over ‘fact books’, regardless of whether the latter are history, science or business, has always been strong. The value of making this choice has been vindicated by studies which have shown that those who read fiction are better at empathising.

Building on this idea, I was struck by the notion that reading a novel could act as a form of secondary research to help understand a consumer context. I happen to have just finished “Five Star Billionaire” by Tash Aw and feel my hypothesis can be illustrated with this particular novel, whilst also highlighting some interesting limitations.

This book is a recent publication (from 2013) and tells the tale of five migrant workers who come to make their fortunes in Shanghai. Reading the book provides a more engaging version of the insights I have been developing over the past 12 months of working on various Chinese consumer projects. For these projects, my research has been more traditional: analysis of consumer surveys, reading market reports, checking out online media etc.

“Five Star Billionaire” helps me to better understand concepts I had already grasped. Through the characters narrating their different stories, the novel shows how Shanghai is melting pot of individuals who have come from near and far to make it big in the big city.

However, the book does not touch on some significant issues relating to migrant status. Though the idea individuals may not wish to reveal where they really come from is an important part of the book, the difference in status between true Shanghai residents, who have more access to welfare and other social support, compared to those who are either illegal migrants from abroad or rural migrants, was not touched upon. Reform of the hukou system to address these issues is under way but many feel this needs to be sped up.

Another aspect to modern China that was present in the novel, but not explored for all its implications, is the rise of the economic power of women. Two out of the five characters are female and both reflect how women can progress rapidly in this dynamic society. Phoebe goes from being an illegal factory worker to the manager of a high end spa thanks to her determination and commitment to making the most of the opportunities around her. Yinghui is a successful business woman with a whole chain of enterprises to her credit. The phenomenon of ground-breaking women is true in reality. Half the world’s self-made female billionaires are Chinese.

However, interestingly, the book does not go on to explore the impact of modern urban lifestyles and great careers on social dynamics and societal structures. Women take longer to find a spouse, settle down and start a family; or else struggle to bring up their children in the city with them. Describing the lives of those ‘left-behind’ children who are kept in the rural areas to be brought up by close and not so close (often illiterate) relatives could be the stuff of a deeply engrossing but probably also deeply tragic story.

However, where reading “Five Star Billionaire” really came into its own was for developing a more nuanced understanding of personal progression. People have to start at the bottom of the pile.

“Here are some of the jobs her friends took in the year they left home. Trainee waiter. Assistant fake-watch stall-holder. Karaoke hostess. Assembly-line worker in a semi-conductor factory. Bar girl. Shampoo girl. Water-cooler delivery man. Seafood restaurant cleaner. “

The ambition and drive needed to succeed and fulfil one’s aspirations is well articulated

“That day Phoebe felt her life was awash with good feelings. She was dressed according to the rules of fashion that she had picked up from observing Shanghai women: wear the biggest possible sunglasses you can find, carry the largest handbag possible. The new attitude she had been cultivating was filling her with magnificent confidence.”

Whilst consumer surveys show that people are optimistic about their future and statistics reveal that wages and income are increasing, what doesn’t come across from these source of insight is that getting there is not always a straight path upwards. People slip and fall: one character was a successful pop star who suffered a breakdown and had to start over again; another was conned and lost all their savings; another decided they felt more comfortable going back to their old life in their village.

Reading fiction makes it clear that real life is more complicated than market intelligence would suggest. It doesn’t have all the answers – as discussed above – important aspects can be omitted – but it does help with the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’.


June 2, 2015

Japan: the good, the bad and the rather odd

So what came to mind when you read the word ‘Japan’? Perhaps nuclear accidents? Or sushi? Economic has-been?

Japan is worthy of more considered reflection. I have recently had the opportunity myself to go beyond uninformed preconceptions to a more positive perspective. I would like to put Japan forward as an overlooked paradigm – as an example of how things could be. I have done this before with another initially less then prepossessing area: Thanet.

I will begin by acknowledging the peculiarities and deficiencies of Japan (please note this is not meant to be an exhaustive survey). It is facing significant population decline – which in itself is interesting given that most of the discourse around population tends to focus on how there are going to be more of us on the planet. Some forecasts put the extent of this decline at really quite dramatic levels: a population which is two thirds of its current size in 2060.

This leads into another facet of the country. Many other nations, when faced with the fact that there won’t be enough young people to work and support the old (there are limits to what robots can do), would boost the population with immigrants. However, this is not an idea which goes down well in Japan, where it is a point of pride that it remains a very homogenous people. This isn’t just a myth the country tells about itself – the figures back it up: under 2% of the population are foreign, compared to over 14% in the US.

Another approach to stemming the population decline would be to encourage women to have more children, but this rubs up against other distinctive features of Japanese society. The idea of solo living – not even settling down, let alone delivering sprogs – is gaining popularity and social acceptance. In a distinctly conservative and buttoned down country, it’s one way for the younger generations to rebel and make it clear they want to do things their way. Another form of rebellion is dressing up. Have you heard of cosplay? It’s short for ‘costume play’ and what young Japanese do at the weekends.


Time to think again about Japan. Let’s start with a quote from an article comparing the experiences of a traveller arriving in the US versus Japan.

“Arriving in the US can feel like rolling back a decade or more, returning to a time when information was scarce, infrastructure creaky, and basic services like ground transportation chaotic and unreliable. Landing in Tokyo, though, is a breeze. All the travelators and escalators glide silently; the wall-mounted clocks, digital and analogue, tell the right time. When I reach the baggage carousel, my suitcase is already circling. Trains and buses depart punctually. I don’t have to pre-book because they’re scheduled merely minutes apart. I don’t have to think of anything beyond the last book I was reading upon touchdown, fishing out my passport at immigration, and what I might order for dinner that evening once I reach my apartment. Everything seems to be taken care of, and nothing is broken.”

Now I will bring in words from James Hollow, another ex-WPP Fellow, who has been based in Tokyo for well over a decade, which challenge the idea that Japan is a ‘train-wreck’ economy as so often (and lazily) portrayed in Western media.

  • GDP has been stable at more or less the same level it reached in the early 90s after the post war “economic miracle” and it is still the world’s third largest economy.
  • Life expectancy has risen to lead the world (in contrast to the opposite trend in life expectancy in the US and elsewhere) largely through improvements in healthcare provision.
  • Japan regularly tops academic quality-of-life studies that factor in prosperity, access to high quality services including but not only healthcare, diet etc.
  • Japan has retained the relatively small wealth gap so important to a healthy, cohesive and robust society.

Let’s go back to the idea of Japan as a paradigm. One of the more interesting ideas in the aftermath of the global financial crisis (that wasn’t simply about bashing bankers), was the idea that we should move away from an obsession with continuous economic growth and instead aim for prosperity without growth and living within our limits. Well, with its GDP averaging barely more than a couple percentage growth per annum during the past decade or so, as well its relatively small wealth gap (another vexed feature often associated with fast growing societies), I think Japan actually make a pretty good poster child for this idea. Let’s just leave out the manga-inspired outfits!

(The image comes from Flickr / Emil Olsen and is used with thanks.)


May 2, 2015

The end of demographics – don’t give up on them just yet

Ever since I started working in marketing (some 15 years ago), there have always been articles popping up now and again about how demographics just aren’t relevant any more and that instead we should think about more diverse and exciting ways to group and understand people. Well, as with any categorical statement, it’s possible to find some things which jiggle around and make the situation appear less black and white.

Let’s start with some examples of products which are explicitly going for a particular demographic. I have found a rich seam of manifestations in Romania, perhaps as there is less interest in playing around with established stereotypes and more of a need to establish those stereotypes in the first place to ensure the right type of consumer becomes your customer. There’s a yogurt brand in Romania with the fabulous name of Zazu Max, as well as a beer brand, Bergenbier which has campaigned for a ‘Man’s Day’ to balance out the existing Women’s Day. And of course we mustn’t forget Yorkie, which has had a bit of a troubled relationship with its ‘for men/not for girls’ stance.

And when it comes to women, it’s not even clear that businesses are even able to target them correctly, let alone move on from thinking in terms of gender. The recent This Girl Can campaign from Sport England comes to mind, which has demonstrated that talking to women about physical activity can involve taking a very different approach to the sleek and slick approach which many sports brands use. All the chatter and excitement This Girl Can has raised demonstrates that bothering to properly understand women and address them in a way that resonates with their true concerns is still important. And I haven’t even got started on the never-ending ‘real beauty’ stories which Dove is using to engage women.

Age is another interesting area. Here some of the standard statements which tend to get trotted out might say we don’t act our age anymore and thus age-based approaches aren’t relevant; and then again, we also hear that there is a dearth of advertising which shows older consumers for what they are. Instead young models, who alienate rather than inspire, always crop up.

There have recently been a rash of adverts which do show women d’un certain age and which don’t try to pretend that being of that age is anything other being of that age. L’Oreal has used older women to general acclaim. Or perhaps we are in fact seeing this ageing trend going too far and it’s working in reverse, where ‘elderly models’ are used to make younger oldies feel more sprightly. The below quote from a recent Guardian article on the Celine advertising using Joan Didion explores this idea:

“Much of the appeal of Céline’s campaign lies in the fact that it speaks to the label’s key target market – affluent women in their 40s and 50s – who appreciate the fact that they are open-minded and edgy and educated enough to get it. These women are sick of being bombarded with images of dewy-skinned youth, and will drink up suggestions that 80 is the new 18. Céline’s campaign is classy, of course, and respectfully celebrates a woman its creative director admirers. But there is something about the wider trend for casting older women to make middle-aged and younger women feel great that feels rather cynical.”

As someone who is now getting close to undeniable middle-agedom, I know that I should be paying more attention to those wrinkle cream and hair dye adverts. I need to acknowledge my own demographics.

I can't ignore the sands of time

April 5, 2015

Consumption of “Consumed”

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Demographics,Marketing — by xrematon @ 8:38 pm
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I am in the throes of an identity crisis. Having just read Harry Wallop’s “Consumed“, I am pretty sure I should be classified as a Wood Burning Stover (well, I am partial to The Guardian and Radio 4), but I really don’t drink any kind of coffee, let alone know how to use a mocha pot; I also think that farmers’ markets are a rip off and have never been to Daunt bookshop. So perhaps I am not a WBS…

Why this angst? Well, this questioning of ‘where do I fit in’ is the first response one has when reading “Consumed”. In it, Wallop sets out his thesis that the traditional determinants of class (ownership of land, title, educational background) have been superseded by consumer choice. Goodbye aristocrats, upper class, middle class, working class etc, and hello to these new groups (listed below in terms of buying power and status):

  • Portland Privateers: the nouveaux riche, generally foreign
  • Rockabillies: public school, Tatler-reading, of red trousers fame
  • Wood Burning Stovers: close to my heart
  • Middletons: lower middle class done good
  • Sun Skittlers: readers of the aforementioned paper, content in their status
  • Asda Mums: striving to do better for their family
  • Hyphen Leighs: blingy and brand-obsessed

As befits a text written by a journalist, it’s all very entertaining and most readable, in particular given the honesty with which Wallop describes his own background (very much at the top end – this is someone who received Christmas presents from earls, countesses and viscounts). And there are many interesting little nuggets he draws up, such as the story behind the development of the first M&S ready meal (chicken Kiev), as well as the unexpected similarities between the top and low end. This includes disdain for culture and education, as well as tendency to produce large broods.

Given that we are all meant to be middle class now, it is perhaps somewhat ironic/paradoxical that the area where the book fell short was in terms of thinking about the middle. The Portland Privateers, the Rockabillies and the WBS clearly don’t represent a large group – no figures are given but I am sure they are in the top 5-10% income wise; and then there are the three groups at the lower end, but just one for the middle. Why don’t we hear about them – or there is nothing to say because no one actually wants to be there?

If these groups are about lifestyles, then perhaps it has to be at the extreme to capture our imagination. In marketing more generally, this reflects what we are seeing: namely the death of the middle. The struggles of Tesco and the success of Aldi and Waitrose demonstrate this well.

This is very much a British book: about an old British obsession (class) and a new one (consumption). I do wonder whether the equivalent could be written in other markets where choice and affluence have recently appeared on the scene and are changing the dynamics of identity and social status. I wonder what Wood Burners Stovers might be in China. Actually, does Boden even exist out there? There are Boden factories – not quite the same!

Boden in China

March 13, 2014

The World Until Yesterday

Filed under: Demographics,Sustainability — by xrematon @ 9:31 pm
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That’s the title of the book I recently finished reading. You may recognise it – it’s the latest offering from Jared Diamond. His basic premise is that traditional societies, still living today as our ancestors did many thousands of years ago, have much to teach us in how to deal with essential human problems, such as how to deal with conflict resolution and look after children and the elderly.

As expected, it was a very insightful and stimulating read. However, there are three areas where it seemed to me as though the author was missing a trick.

The first is the concern about the treatment of the elderly in our modern societies. I would not wish to deny that this is indeed a very valid issue, but it needs to be tempered with a recognition that the situation for younger generations now is also something we need to worry about as a society. I am thinking about the high levels of youth unemployment found across many European countries, which has led some to talk of a lost generation . It’s a very different kind problem and I doubt whether there is template for a solution to be found amongst the Tsembaga Maring society of New Society or their equivalents.

The second point is that Diamond could have made more of another important way in which traditional societies appear to be healthier than modern ones – namely, in the area of mental health. This isn’t mentioned beyond a discussion of the benefits of multilingualism in possibly helping to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. Perhaps it could be argued that there is an unspoken assumption that those living in traditional societies are emotionally secure and self-reliant. However, given that mental illness is getting more recognition today , I would be interested to get Diamond’s thoughts on why depression and anxiety don’t figure in the tribal societies he surveys.

Finally, I want to bring up food. Diamond does have a chapter on ‘Salt, Sugar, Fat and Sloth’, but this talks about the ill effects of modern diets. What would be interesting to pick up on is how traditional diets have something good to offer as well as the absence of negatives. Who hasn’t heard of the Paleo diet or the 5:2 eating routine? Regardless of whether all the hype around these new diet fads is actually valid, it would be good to add these ideas to the list of pluses for traditional societies. And as well as the eating style, what foods are actually consumed is noteworthy. There is growing interest in learning from indigenous diets : they can contain nutritionally important foods (quinoa, anyone?), as well show us how to eat well with greater sensitivity to the long term sustainability of the local ecosystem. This is very different to modern industrial farming.

Putting the above points aside, I have one final comment to make: the book is fascinating, it has made me question many aspects of modern life, but, even so, in no way would I be ready to step into a time machine to swap what I have now for something more traditional. Anyway, I should be going forwards – I do try to claim expertise in futures after all!

February 14, 2014

National Trust and its two audiences

National Trust

Last year, my annual pass at Legoland inspired me to write a blog post. This year we had National Trust membership and as it comes to an end, let me share a couple of observations about our experience.

The recent marketing strategy of the National Trust, which involves repositioning its offer away from grand houses and ‘look and don’t touch’ to happy memories, is well known. Has it been trying too hard to get with the times? It opened the Big Brother house to the public at the end of September last year – I won’t get side tracked on this issue.

What is interesting is to see how this repositioning has been put into practice.

The result is that the National Trust appears to have two main visitor groups: its core audience of ‘oldies’, and now young families too. Though these groups have quite different lifestyles, or at the very least, tend to not to spend their time in the same way, their needs are surprisingly similar in certain regards.

The idea of membership and having a pass which allows you limitless entry makes sense you have more time on your hands. This is the case for those whose children have left home and are retired. It also makes sense for those who are looking for low-risk days out – when you have a pass, it doesn’t matter if you only stay an hour one time as someone forgot to pack the nappies. And you can go again and again, giving you something to explore each weekend, or occupy a full day during the long school holidays. It’s not surprising, therefore, to read that membership has continued to grow despite the recent recession.

Both groups may experience limited mobility and thus appreciate support in this area. Hence, a sensible investment in golf buggies, which appeal to those whose legs have already put into many years of service, as well to those whose legs are still so small that even short distances can be rather tiring. My children found a high-speed ride on a golf buggy to be the highlight of the visit to one property. ‘Oldies’ and young families are also likely to be good customers at cafes.

In other areas, the expectations of these groups are not going to dovetail quite so neatly, and hats off to the National Trust for finding a way to include something which works for both in each situation. Take the shops, for instance. Whilst the oldies may check out pretty mugs and elegant gardening equipment, the young children will be congregating around the displays piled high with tasteful plastic tat that fits pocket money budgets. In the garden, whilst some may admire the carefully designed flower beds, others will be disappearing into tree houses, going on Easter Egg hunts or following other such trails.

The properties themselves are perhaps a higher risk area. However, handy worksheets will keep children curious and motivated to work through the building, whilst others can peer at the detail at their leisure.

And just in case it gets all too much, there are ways in which each group can go off and do their own thing. For the young families, there are often rooms filled with dressing-up clothes and replicas of old toys they can bash to their heart’s content, whilst hard core members can indulge in the nitty gritty of the history on a guided tour in peace and quiet. Given that I fall into the young family group, I must confess that the guided tour is something I have yet to experience.

February 11, 2013

Half the sky

The Futures Company, where I worked for almost a decade, releases extended articles on a regular basis. I had the good fortune to be involved in the early stage development of Women 2020 released in December 2012.

Now the final polished piece has come out, it’s great to have the opportunity to have a proper read through – which I highly recommend (albeit from a rather biased perspective)! It contains many interesting points and wide-ranging examples. Here are three things that caught my attention:

  1. If one charts the changes in women’s lives over the past half century, it is clear opportunities and experiences have changed radically. More women have got educated, up to higher levels and have entered the workplace. However, in some countries, there is a tension between women’s progress in terms of their role as economic agents, and the social and cultural role they are still expected to maintain. Interestingly, there are examples of where technology can help women play within the rules: in Nigeria, working women can have mobile phone conversations with male business colleagues. It would be otherwise unacceptable to meet these male colleagues alone in a face to face meeting.
  2. There is still much progress to be made before it can be said women have made it to the top.  To quote Sheryl Sandberg as cited in the report: ‘Of the 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13% are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top, C level jobs and board seats, tops out at 15, 16%.’ However, it’s not just about the numbers – it’s also about corrosive attitudes. The characteristics usually associated with leadership are seen as typically male, and when women exhibit these traits, they make women unlikeable. As described in a recent HBS article, a woman runs the risk of being seen as ‘abrasive instead of assertive, arrogant instead of self-confident, and self-promoting instead of entrepreneurial.’
  3. We need to rethink the model of how careers progress when it comes to women if they have children. Rather than assuming that having a career means a neat straight upwards projectory, it becomes messier stairstepping – or what I would describe as ‘intermittent flatlining’. A woman will put things on hold whilst they are on maternity leave, and take it slower whilst her children are young, and pick up the pace again when they are older. This should mean things get interesting in the forties and fifties as oppose to the thirties.

As I haven’t yet left my thirties, it gives me hope yet!


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