Way back in 2013 – that’s pre-Brexit and pre-Trump for those distracted by current events – we wrote a piece called “Going (de)Global” that highlighted the nationalistic shift in politics, culture, and macroeconomics, a shift that we thought would have a material impact on growth, cities, and ultimately, the property market.
We were optimistic. Funnelling down to the city level, we thought this nationalism would translate into a re-focusing by local governments, who would grab the bit and increasingly act as important agents of growth in what Bruce Katz from the Brookings Institute calls the “Metropolitan Revolution”. And if we could align our property investments with these trends and the right local economies, we could benefit from a secular tailwind.
Now some six years on, the evolution of this nationalism has led to consequences that have been more profound than we thought at the time, especially for the individual, and equally it has developed a more sinister undercurrent.
How has this nationalism manifested for the average person on the street? We have been found ourselves in an age of hyper-individualism and have come to focus more fully on ourselves than ever before. In our investment views, we talk about the foundational pillars of society no longer being present as stabilisers as we go through life – religion, family, community, the social contract between governments and their citizens. We’ve turned away from these pillars, or they from us. There is a striking absence of any of these “true norths” – the latticework on which to hang our sense of purpose.
I had breakfast with David Brooks, the NY Times columnist, in London recently, and he talked about this shift towards selfism. He described the transformation from the sucking conformity of the 1950s, with no authentic sense of the self, a period of time that demanded a we-are-all-in-it-together spirit in order to get through the immense challenges of the immediate post-war era. To the pendulum shift over the subsequent 60 years, a move away from doing your duty to doing your own thing. In a sort of denouement of this narrative, he argues, we’ve been driven to a point where it has become hard to fulfil the fundamentally human needs for love and connection, especially among young adults who seemingly have been thrown into life with no guardrails, no credible authorities. Into a world more unstructured and uncertain than perhaps it has ever been.
Whether this is caused by the current geopolitical environment and nationalism – as we hypothesised in 2013 – or is causing it, is an interesting but perhaps less immediately relevant question.
The fact is, the pendulum has swung too far. We are suffering from a crisis of connection.
The statistics reinforce this. And are terrifying. Less than 7% of 18- to 30-year olds describe themselves as living in good mental health. 40% of adults have experienced depression. In the UK, 9 million adults say they are often or always lonely. Two-thirds describe their neighbours as strangers and more than 70% don’t even know their names. The suicide rate in the US increased 33% between 1999 and 2017. Among those in their early 20s, it increased 75%. We could go on. The consequences of this crisis of connection are measurable, profound, and undeniable. And are tearing away at our social fabric.
We are consciously and subconsciously seeking an antidote to this lost connectivity in all sorts of ways. A desire to understand the provenance of the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the maker who produced the furniture we sit on. A rejection of mass consumerisation. In the workplace, we’re using new words like authenticity, purpose, self-actualisation. And quietly recognising that perhaps social media really is, as former vice-president for user growth at Facebook Chamath Palihapitiya heroically described, trying to provide for this lost “social-validation”, by offering “a short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loop that is destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”
So when property folk discuss what “millennials” want to the uniform response of head nodding peers, and rattle off new features like cycle racks, yoga classes, and smoothies, let’s be sure we are not just blindly following a trend or an arbitrary industry standard without appreciating causality.
We must connect the dots. Putting a bike rack into a building without truly understanding the driving force of this crisis of connection, is putting in place a solution without really comprehending the problem. Even a broken watch will be right twice a day.
Here’s the truth: we need new, authentic ways of creating connections. Not only among the tenants in our buildings, but also between tenants and the wider community. To give each of them the chance to achieve a deeper sense of purpose and meaning. For this to work, as landlords we must do so in close partnership with all stakeholders. A bike rack is not a piece of metal there to achieve a BREEAM or LEED score; this is not an outcome. The outcome surely must be more profound, and more purposeful.
Yes, these things we do address the widely discussed need to “attract and retain talent”; of course. But more deeply, we need to look at them as tools to create new pathways to connectivity that we all so desperately crave, whether we know it or not.