Is it important to be modern and follow trends? Yes, I think so. We should live in our time and follow the moods and trends, even the whims of the time. To be part of the going Zeitgeist is important, although that can sometimes also mean that we raise questions as we don’t have to agree with all. Sometimes, we may think that things were better before, and that we should not adopt wholesale new fashions and ways; other times, we may only have reservations about certain aspects of the latest happenings. In the end, we may only be nostalgic about things in conversation, but we would in actual fact not want to turn the time back – not in social and economic issues, and not in culture and politics. Well, sometimes I wonder, though.

In today’s article, I shall reflect on some key social and political issues of the time when I came of age. There are several themes and topics from the 1960s and 70s up to the present time that I would like to comment on, not just because it is interesting, but because we can draw some lessons from the recent decades gone by – at the turn of a century and millennium.

When looking back, those of us who have lived for a while may be surprised how fast certain things have changed. We may then also understand that what we thought was modern and in when we were teenagers, may now be outdated and old fashioned – and those who are young today, will soon find the same about all the new gadgets of our time, indeed the Internet and mobile phones. Ideas and thoughts change, but maybe a bit more slowly than technology and hardware; communication tools are different today, but the content is less different; volume is bigger, but the time to digest and reflect is the same, even less, as our ‘inboxes’ get full faster so that our minds get clogged. The volume of information makes it more difficult to think deep, feel tranquillity, and be independent, even single-minded and original.

Politically, I have seen at least three winds in my time, from radicalism, to conservatism, to populism – from stability and progress to uncertainty. I have a European bias since I grew up in Scandinavia, but then I have also spent many years in Africa, America and Asia. I came of age at the time of the ‘1968 generation’, but at the outskirts of it. There was a strong wind from the left that time; we all wanted a new and kinder world, indeed we wanted the Vietnam War to end and less money on wars and weapons; we wanted to get race relations in USA and the rest of the world to be harmonious; we wanted freedom for all colonies and better North-South relations; we wanted a more equal world; we wanted less competition and more time for each other; we wanted more concern for the environment; and women wanted real say in life and society, and over their own bodies. We wanted the regimental systems to be shelved and more spontaneous and creative systems to develop, and much more.

Were we dreaming? Yes, we were; but why not? Besides, we were right, too, most of the time. In many fields, I have only come to realise that later. Indeed, there was much truth to popular songs by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Beetles, and many others. And that pacifists and socialists were not just dreamers and anti-establishment protesters; we were actually advocates of social justice in a struggle for a world that would be better for all. The task remains unfinished.

Alas, the 1980s came, and the world and people turned right, and our thoughts were ‘whispers blowing in the wind’. Many times, they turned out to be blown away by the chilly right-wind. But many of us didn’t realise it soon; I remember when I slowly began to notice it, well, because those who were more alert and realistic told me. A friend said: “It is no longer modern to be on the left, to dress casually, talk for the weak and needy, be opposed to competition, question the capitalist system of growth and exploitation of people and nature – be for that kinder world that we had wished for. It has become modern to be more conservative than our parents.”

People were thinking about bigger engines in their cars and more space in their apartments. Young people realized they needed more money; they began to calculate what university courses to take and what jobs to apply for; they could no longer afford mainly to do things out of idealism, interest and what they were good at. Even in the rich West, where we basically had more than we needed, we suddenly became less interested in sharing with people in the rest of the world and the poor within our own countries. We turned inward and became more selfish.

Not in all fields, though; gender issues and the efforts for greater equality between men and women stayed high on the agenda; reduced discrimination about sexual orientation was added; divorce was no longer the shame it had been earlier; and it was not only common that women worked outside the home, it was expected that they did so, and it also became necessary to make ends meet. The importance of religion declined in my youth; now it seems to be on its way back.

Environmental issues were placed high on the agenda; they have remained there, and only become more important over the years. Global warming and climate change are the terms now, and everyone has realized that these issues are political issues to be handled by laws and international regulations; nobody only thinks that they can be solved by voluntary and individual actions, as conservatives thought for a long time.

For a good while, from the time of the ‘ordinary conservative wind’, notably from the 1980s till the first decade of the new century, it was a heyday and golden age for capitalism, for private companies, multinational, banks and financial institutions. The social democratic parties, and also the more responsible, moderate conservative and centrist parties failed to analyse issues deep enough and therefore did not see that the liberal era was going too far without real checks and balances. The financial crisis from 2008 almost ended the free-wheeling capitalism. That might have been good, but it didn’t happen.

In spite of that crisis, the social democratic and socialist parties have not managed to get back into the mainstream and the seats of power, at least not the way they were when leading the building up of the Western social welfare states in Europe and (to some extent) in America – and it being the model for the rest of the world. Instead, populist, rightwing movements and groups began to receive from ten to twenty percent of votes in many general elections in Europe. In many ways, such movements are anti-political, or cannot easily be seen as organized around ideologies and other political party thinking.

Some of the populist movements began already in my youth, but then they were mostly far left-wing, whereas today they are almost entirely right-wing, even extremist; they advocate nationalism, are against international migration, and talk about issues in anti-intellectual ways. True, the politicians and bureaucrats may have lulled themselves into their own world, leaving a segment of people outside the good society. Hence, the populists also sounded the alarm and tried to wake up the ‘real politicians’. In many ways, the populists have felt excluded from mainstream politics and society and they, and others, seem to worry about ‘the decline of the West’.

Some people in ordinary political parties have similar thoughts but do not therefore join extremist parties or groups. Many lack passion for refugees, immigrants and newcomers in Europe. The care for the needy at home and internationally is less than it was when I was young in the 1960s and 1970s. But there are certainly also groups showing solidarity with needy people at home and internationally – people who have listened to their parents, and even more, their grandparents, who have told them about WWI and WWII in Europe, the enormous sacrifices and displacements of people that time. They would also have learnt about the emigration of Europeans to the new world of America, 150-200 years ago, when Europe was a poor continent.

I began my article today by saying that we all belong to the time we live in. That is important if we want to make contributions. I have only drawn attention to a few issues in the past and at present, so that we can draw lessons. I will continue my search for meaning and understanding in future articles. We live in a time of uncertainty, with unclear choices of roads and directions ahead. Hence, it becomes more important than ever to analyse issues and offer inputs. We all have a duty to do so as we are at the crossroads.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.