Essays on the MILLENNIUM 2000


MICHAEL ADAMS January 25 1999
Essays on the MILLENNIUM 2000


MICHAEL ADAMS January 25 1999


Essays on the MILLENNIUM

As the millennium approaches, Canadians find themselves anxious about the future and discontented with social, economic and technological change. They seek new directions, renewed purpose and afresh approach to leadership. Michael Adams, 52, is president ofEnvironics Research Group, a company he co-founded while still a University of Toronto student in 1970. He is also the author of Sex in the Snow: Canadian Social Values at the End of the Millennium, published in 1997.


Among the more than 80 social trends that my colleagues and I monitor is one we call “apocalyptic anxiety”— the fear that the world is rushing towards some as-yet undefined disaster. This anxiety has grown over the past year, with a sense of impending doom extending from coast to coast. It is especially powerful among the more vulnerable seg-

ments of Canadian society, starting with the residents of Atlantic Canada dependent on Ottawa’s diminishing bounty. But it is also strong among the heretofore laid-back denizens of British Columbia’s Lotusland, now in economic recession, and in supposedly smug Ontario, whose citizens may fear that a declining Canadian dollar and a volatile stock market will wipe out all the paper wealth they had been counting on for their retirement.

The notable exception to apocalyptic anxiety is Quebec. In spite of economic difficulties over the past decade, Quebecers seem to feel better able to navigate the complexity and uncertainty of contemporary life. They have rejected the church’s threat of everlasting damnation; they survived last year’s ice storm, and they have discounted the economic sword of Damocles which, they are warned, will descend on them if they dare to assert sovereignty. Quebecers, in fact, feel a growing confidence that whatever happens, they will survive. Forty-two per cent of Quebecers tell our researchers that they “do not feel uncomfortable living with the uncertainties and the unexpected in life today”—up from 34 per cent a year ago—a huge increase in one year.

But despite Quebecers’ recent burst of opti-

mism, per agree statement, “The world is heading for disaster; within the next 10 or 20 years there will be a major upheaval.” This apocalyptic anxiety is aggravated by the fact that we are not sure how disaster will strike: will it be an ecological, technological, financial, social, natural, or even religious disaster? For a population more focused on personal control than ever before, the sense of amorphous but impending doom can lead to paralysis or panic. Many of us fear that everything may soon be lost, that the whole system may collapse, and take with it our currency, our social-safety net, and even our country. Many believe that if Quebec leaves, the rest of us will sooner or later be absorbed into the United States. It’s only a matter of time.

The implications for our government leadership are these: stay calm, stay the course, and don’t be alarmist, because the population is on edge and more susceptible to panic. Those who design products and services will want to focus on safety and security, to reassure jittery consumers and anxious investors. Big money will be made in the world of entertainment where our growing apocalyptic anxiety ensures extraordinary audiences for disaster movies. Look at three of 1998’s big budget hair-raisers: Armageddon, Godzilla, Deep Impact—two of the three about errant heavenly bodies that nearly destroy the planet, with the vast majority of people helpless, having no control over their situation. For class-conscious neo-romantics, there was Titanic, in which the sympathetic lower classes are prey to a largely cavalier upper class just begging to be sunk. The X-Files continues to have serious cult status among conspiracy theorists in the Genera-

tion-X and baby boomer segments: things are going on in the shadows over which we have no control. Even Canadian film-makers are tapping into this sense of apocalyptic anxiety. Last Night by Don McKellar portrays a world on its last day before complete devastation by some sort of environmental catastrophe.

Although the year 2000 may be an arbitrary date in Western Christianity, it has a powerful mythic appeal in popular culture. For most of history, humans have had to live with the fear of impending doom, whether it was disease, war, famine or some other catastrophe. Today,

these traditional fears, while still potent, are having to share the spotlight with less dramatic but still painful anxieties such as fear of job loss, stress in the workplace, aimless children, a lonely and boring senescence or the dissolution of our country.

Leaders in such an era have their work cut out for them. Almost nobody trusts anybody or any institution any more, and deference to officeholders in positions of authority is in well-documented decline. Politicians in the new millennium will have to

face the fact that Canadians want more personal control over more aspects of their lives. This is not to say there is no role for government. On the contrary, Canadians, especially those with the most leading-edge values who my colleagues at Environics have labelled “New Aquarians,” increasingly see the proper role of government as regulating corporate power, so that individuals have increased control.

Many of those born before the end of the Second World War wish for a restoration of traditional values and institutions. Boomers, those born between the end of the war and

1964, would still like to reform them. But for Gen-Xers, those born after 1964, traditional institutions and values are pretty well irrelevant.

You would think, given the way boomers have rejected the church and transformed the family and the workplace, that they would have done something revolutionary to our anachronistic parliamentary institutions. Why do we still have a foreign Queen as our head of state, an unelected Senate, political patronage, and a party system that has seen power shift from ordinary MPs and even cabinet members to senior bureaucrats and the Prime

As the millennium nears, Canadians seek greater control over their own lives

Essays on the___


Minister’s office? Why is jurisdiction not de volving from Ottawa to ordinary citizens more quickly? And why, when Canadians had the chance to rebalance power from the centre, did voters reject such proposals, first in the public opinion polls on Meech Lake in 1990 and later in a referendum on the Charlottetown accord in 1992? In many ways, the Canadian public has proven more conservative—in the sense of conserving the political status quo—than its leaders. It is the so-called elites who have pushed free trade, constitutional change, the Goods and Services Tax, employment insurance reform, bank mergers and Quebec sovereignty on a public that either rejects out of hand, or only reluctantly and slowly accepts, dramatic changes in Canadian public policy and our social-safety net.

Compare Canada to other countries. Europeans are ceding more sovereignty to Brussels, and are moving to a common currency, the euro. The British are devolving powers to Scotland and Wales, and are in the process of ridding themselves of hereditary peers in the House of Lords and modifying the firstpast-the-post system of electing MPs to incorporate a form of proportional representation. The Australians are moving to the status of a republic. Meanwhile, here in Canada there is no discussion of serious reform of our political institutions. Even Quebecers seem unwilling to do anything that would interfere with their vacation plans.

In the face of revolutionary changes, it is significant that the governing Liberals seem to be more in tune with Canadians’ social liberalism and political conservatism than the opposition Reform party. Reform, in its attitudes and policies, seems to favour the return to traditional social values, such as capital punishment, but in its constitutional and governance positions suggests more radical departures, most notably the devolution of powers to the provinces. So far, such revolutionary ideas do not travel easily across Canada and thus, like the Bloc in Quebec, their electoral appeal remains largely regional and tribal.

Leaders who can convey to Canadians that they are on their side, that they are helping them reach their personal goals—whatever those may be—are the type of leaders who will be attractive to Canadians in the year 2000. Canadians are no longer interested in leaders who represent what are now considered to be anachronistic values, such as patriarchy, hierarchy, deference to authority, duty, guilt and noblesse oblige. Instead, they want leaders who look, talk and think like they do and who are willing to use the power of the state to defend Canadians against the abuses of large corporate organizations as well as the global market

and technological forces that threaten our sovereignty as a nation, and as individuals. Politicians underestimate at their peril how strongly Canadians feel about maintaining their relatively weak attachments to each other.

Confronted by the upheaval in our social values and institutions—and the rapid globalization of commerce, culture and communications—Canadians are saying let’s not get too carried away with radical change. Let’s keep some of the “peace, order and good government” promised in our 1867 British North America Act. After all, since 1988 we have seen the official opposition in Ottawa occupied by two parties that weren’t even represented in Parliament 10 years ago—the Bloc Québécois and the Reform party—and one of them says it wants to break up the country.

Canadians already feel that too much is beyond their control. Do we really want to add Senate reform to the agenda when Quebec continues to threaten the rest of us with another vote on separation and when market forces seemingly beyond our control are eroding the value of our currency and our standard of living?

We should not be too hard on Jean Chrétien, the don’t-worry-be-happy prime minister. His approval rating is at 55 per cent. His activist predecessor, Brian Mulroney, who gave us free trade, Meech Lake, the GST and the Charlottetown accord, was flirting with single digits six years into his mandate, and left a political legacy that effectively destroyed his party. It may be a cliché, but we are getting the leadership most of us want and that leadership, as never before, is our own.

There is no dearth of leadership in Canada; it’s just that most of it is happening outside Ottawa, the provincial capitals, and our traditional parliamentary institutions. Instead it is taking place in all of our communities, and in the thousands upon thousands of voluntary and charitable groups across the country. These include our traditional church groups and the YMCA, but more and more often new groups promoting environmental protection, gay rights, the plight of battered women, or some other worthy cause. The next generation of political leadership in Ottawa should recognize that Canadians are interested in forming communities, not long-term top-down hierarchical ones, but rather more “heterarchical” and egalitarian associations, fluid and serving particular purposes and achievable goals.

Empty pews reflect the shift away from traditional moral codes and practices

Instead of bemoaning the lack of leadership in this country, we should be celebrating the fact we are all now leaders. Not every minute of every day, but when we have time and when we are motivated.

There is no permanent class of leaders, with the rest of us relegated to a permanent class of followers. We are all leaders and followers, and more and more of us are in the elite for at least 15 minutes in our lifetimes: at our place of work, when we vote, when we attend a PTA meeting, when we volunteer our time and money for some charity or cause, or when we speak up when we see an injustice instead of letting it pass.

Future party leaders will have to recognize that fewer and fewer of us will be willing to run as candidates for office with the prospect of touting the party line like trained seals on the backbenches of Parliament, hoping for the reward someday of some sinecure patronage ap-

pointaient. Those days are not dead in Canada, but they are dying. And more and more of us are refusing to be “nobodies” on Parliament Hill, and are demanding a real role in the development of public policy. Without a real chance for efficacy, potentially good candidates will choose other ways of effecting social and political change and our political system will encompass only the frustrated with a few lucky leaders at the top.

The evolution of social values from tradition to modernity and from institutions to individuals has occurred throughout this century, but began to accelerate in the 1960s and 1970s and has continued into the 1980s and 1990s. To understand where we are going in the next

century, we must first understand where we are and where we have already been.

The social values research Environics conducts in Canada has been showing a longterm evolution of values away from traditional patriarchal Judeo-Christian moral codes and practices and toward the values of autonomy, self-fulfillment and personal choice in many areas of life. In the 1950s, 60 per cent of Canadians attended church every Sunday; today that number is less than 30 per cent. As recently as 1983, 42 per cent of Canadians agreed that “the father of the family must be the master in his own house.” Now, the figure is 17 per cent. The time is long past when sexual harassment could be swept under the carpet in the military, or when women could be denied roles simply on the basis of their sex.

Though there is much stress and anxiety associated with Canadians’ newfound freedom, there is also a higher level of personal choice and a feeling of self-fulfillment. More and more Canadians want to succeed, even risking failure on their own rather than depend on the unreliable munificence of others to take care of them. Personal au-

tonomy is the key to self-respect today.

Yes, the family is still important to people, but if s one that Ward and June Cleaver would scarcely recognize. And religion, too, is important, even for the three-quarters of us who no longer show up in church on Sunday. However, it is a personal religion in which God is understanding and forgiving, not the omniscient, omnipotent, transcendent figure sitting in judgment whom we feared in our childhood. Whereas our American cousins seem to never tire of that Old Time religion, Canadians prefer a more modern and nuanced interpretation of Christian values, with less emphasis on guilt and fear, and more on spiritual fulfilment and a quest for meaning.

Personal autonomy, hedonism and a personal definition of spirituality are a troika of

trends that first gained sociocultural significance in the 1950s. They have progressed in each decade since. They are underlying social currents largely independent of any single factor, like the health of the economy, technology or which political party is in power. And while there is no one factor that explains why our social values are changing, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the baby boomers were not an aberration, and that the Gen-Xers, the most diverse generation in history, will not return us to traditional values.

The questioning of traditional authority and increasing pluralistic relativism has led Canadians to an openness towards others that is unparalleled anywhere on the planet. Canadians evidence as profound a belief in the equality of the sexes and between adults and children, as well as liberal attitudes to gays and lesbians, as people anywhere in the world. Though there is often a discrepancy between actions and ideals, 92 per cent of Canadians agree that taking care of the home and kids is as much a man’s as a woman’s work. And fully 45 per cent of Canadians agree that “Society should regard people of

the same sex who live together as being the same as a married couple,” up 10 points from 1992. Added to this is an openness to racial and ethnic minorities, which we call multiculturalism, that is almost unique to Canada, in contrast to the America ideology of the melting pot’s e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”). We not only tolerate difference, we often celebrate it, and in spite of this, or because of it, manage to hang together.

Perhaps a fitting millennial project—and one that our tight-fisted finance minister might approve—is changing our 19th-century imperialistic motto “From Sea Even Unto Sea” to something more 21st century. I would propose ‘Within one, many”—a concept that not only describes our society, but also the increasingly flexible multiple personalities of the 30 million of us who live in it. Moreover, I would translate it into the 100 living languages spoken in this country before I asked the Latin scholars for their version.

n spite of their apocalyptic anxiety, Canadians are telling us that they are feeling better about the country, thanks to its improving fiscal situation, relatively secure about their jobs, and even relatively content with their after-tax income that economists tell us has been eroding over the past decade. I suspect this state of relative satisfaction reflects the wisdom of a society becoming increasingly aware of its mortality, starting to count its blessings, and savouring some of the good things in life: a good cup of coffee, the serendipitous sighting of an attractive person, a walk in the park, the latest gossip or joke about Bill Clinton.

Imagine a Canada with peace, order and relatively good government that allows for individual autonomy, pleasures both intellectual and sensual, and a personal definition of spiritual fulfilment What then is there to fear as we enter the third millennium? There must be something. Is it AIDS, cancer or Alzheimer’s disease? Is it the impending collapse of global capitalism, or the possibility that the seemingly interminable conflicts in the Balkans or the Middle East will lead to the Third World War? Is it some new mad cow disease or radical climate change? Perhaps the year 2000 computer bug? Which of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will do us in, here on the eve of the third millennium? Personally, I think Canadians’ current apocalyptic anxiety is only another ironic expression of our classic penchant for understatement As an inveterate optimist it is my view that to steal a phrase from FDR, Canadians “have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” □